Twelve months ago, as the omicron variant of COVID-10 surged, people insisted on dining outdoors on heated patios. By April, masks had (mostly) come off, and people crowded back into bars and restaurants. But things haven’t gone back to normal. In fact, 2022 has been the most tumultuous year for the restaurant industry since the pandemic began.
Restaurant consultants Baum + Whiteman threw down some predictions for 2023 that track in Utah: Upscale white-tablecloth restaurants are booked solid; fast-casual chains are doing great; small-to-medium independent businesses are struggling.
The research firm also noted that “If you look at the number of luxurious private clubs being launched, ... you’d think we were back in the Roaring Twenties.” That tracks locally, too, with the Dec. 5 opening of 30,000-square-foot private social club Edison House.
Oh, and butter boards are so 2022.
Here are our top food stories from the last year, and some thoughts about what that might mean for the next 12 months.
Not so long ago, Utah had only a handful of cideries: The Hive and Mountain West in Salt Lake City, and Etta Place in Torrey. Just this last year, Scion Cider Bar opened in the Granary district, and at least three more cideries will be up and running soon: Six Sailor Cider, Thieves Guild Cider and Second Summit Hard Cider Company, all in Salt Lake City.
Cider, long a go-to for people with gluten allergies, is now being discovered by people who realize it sits in a nifty space between wine and beer, with a range of different flavors. As Scion Cider Bar told us (look for a story in the new year), Utah apple growers and cideries are a tight-knit community dedicated to bringing in interesting new brews and producing high-quality small-batch ciders.
9. Chicken, chicken and more chicken
This summer, we did a roundup of the best chicken tenders in Utah. One of the most popular spots for anything chicken, tenders or otherwise, is Pretty Bird, which expanded its Utah locations, with plans to go national eventually. Chicken restaurants have been arriving in droves, including new locations for national chains Crack Shack (the newest one is in Riverton), Raising Caines, El Pollo Loco and Slim Chickens. Of course, one other huge development this year was avian flu … which may put a damper on things.
8. Restaurants in mixed-use developments
It’s hard not to walk under the shadows cast by cranes these days, with development booming all over Salt Lake, including in the Post District, the Granary District and both Maven Districts. Most are anchored by food businesses, including Woodbine Food Hall in the Granary and Urban Hill in the Post District.
7. Healthy fast-casual restaurants
Two Utah restaurants — Aubergine Kitchen and Vessel — quickly expanded this year. Both emphasize “elevated casual” super-healthy eating, with Aubergine refusing to serve anything containing refined sugar (including the beverages), and Vessel emphasizing local produce. In a semi-related development, West Valley-based Trü Frü, which coats fresh fruit with chocolate, was just acquired by Mars, the conglomerate that makes Snickers and M&M’s, which is trying to expand its (relatively) healthy offerings.
6. Approachable fine dining
The first restaurant in Salt Lake City to really succeed in making high-end dining approachable and more casual was Pago — but there’s a slew of new restaurants opening in town that follow that model, including Aqua Terra in City Creek Center (which describes itself as offering “affordable luxury”); Italian Graffiti in The Gateway; Mar | Muntanya in the Hyatt; and Urban Hill in the Post District.
5. An ongoing liquor commission deathmatch
DABS handed out its last bar license during its December meeting, to Proper Brewing in Moab. It now has three licenses remaining until next July. That is, unless the Utah Legislature figures out a way to increase the number of licenses. Considering the fact that they decided at the 11th hour to revoke the commission’s power to vote on returning minibottles to liquor stores, that doesn’t seem likely — and the queue for licenses just continues to grow.
4. Food businesses run like tech startups
Increasingly, local food businesses are started with the ambition to become a national brand from the word go; established companies are heading that direction, too. That includes WannaCinn, Swig, Beans & Brews, Banbury Cross Donuts, Laziz Kitchen, and CupBop. (The last of these, CupBop, even went on “Shark Tank,” a true startup move.)
The one outlier this year was Squatters and Wasatch Breweries, though the beers now are managed by a corporation, Monster Beverage, the restaurants and tap rooms are now owned and managed by the original founders.
3. Big losses in the food scene
In 2022, Utah lost its share of food icons, including Kitty Pappas, who ran her namesake steakhouse in Woods Cross; Greg Skedros, who ran The Mandarin in Bountiful for decades; and Richard Wood of Fernwood Candy.
The most profound impact may be the death in September of Valter Nassi, whose restaurants introduced Utahns to authentic Italian food, raised the bar for local eateries, and quantum-leapt the city into a far more sophisticated mode of food and drink. He also profoundly affected everyone he came into contact with, as his many friends and admirers would attest.
2. The ongoing loss of small businesses
You can equate it to the loss of a niche species in an ecosystem: Every time Utah loses a place like Lee’s Market or Hector’s, it means we’re that much closer to a food monoculture. It looks like Utah’s first James Beard Award semifinalist, Hell’s Backbone Grill & Farm in Boulder, will pull through with a little help from its friends — but because of supply chain slowdowns, skyrocketing food prices and customers who are still not willing to eat out in restaurants, it’s going to get worse before it gets better.
1. Survival of the innovative
As depressing as the last item was, Utah is also a hotbed of food and drink innovators who are surviving the current rough conditions in the industry through flexibility and creativity.
Eve Cohen of Marcellus Foods is set to open her low-waste grocery store in 2023, and Salt Lake City is also due to get its first grocery co-op after years of waiting. Even that old Utah favorite Training Table, which announced its return this year, is changing up its approach with food trucks and an online store.
Though small brick-and-mortar restaurants are struggling, tiny, nimble food businesses — including ghost kitchens, food trucks and independent chefs who reach customers through the web and Instagram — are holding steady. The other thing helping these businesses survive is collaboration within our vibrant food and drink community, whether on a case-by-case basis, or through more formal support and advocacy.