A small Utah town attracts big talent in the food and drink world

A burger truck, a coffee roaster, an upscale restaurant and a distillery find their place in Torrey.

If the food and beverage industry is tough in big cities, with millions of potential customers at hand, imagine the challenges for a business in a town with a permanent population of 259.

That’s how many people, according to World Population Review, live full-time in Torrey in Wayne County. The numbers swell from spring to fall, as tourists come through to visit the redrock country of Capitol Reef National Park, just east of the town.

Getting there isn’t easy. Both Interstate 15 and I-70 circle around the town, but one must take State Highway 24 to get there.

When they do get there, visitors at this rural oasis may be surprised to find a thriving and diverse community of business owners. Here are four Utah entrepreneurs who were drawn to the scenic high desert — and have found ways to blend their livelihood with the captivating natural beauty around them.

(Heather L. King) The pulled pork burger from Capitol Burger, a food truck based in Torrey.

Capitol Burger

“There was nothing I wanted more than to be the best chef in Utah,” said Luke Fowles, owner and chef of Capitol Burger.

When he was a sous chef at Forage, chef Viet Pham’s now-legendary Salt Lake City restaurant that closed in 2016, Fowles said, “we were an untouchable team. There was nobody doing what we were doing and I felt really good about that.”

These days, accolades don’t mean much to Fowles and his wife, co-owner/pastry chef Sunny Clark. They would rather focus on feeding great burgers to anyone who stops at their food truck, usually parked along Highway 24 in Torrey.

“Everybody deserves to have access to a great burger,” Fowles said.

Fowles earned a degree from Le Cordon Bleu. He worked in some of the finest dining establishments in the West, including Spago in Las Vegas, Communal in Provo, and Forage. He and fellow sous chef Bowman Brown assisted Pham on an episode of “Iron Chef America,” helping their boss prepare ground-meat dishes and win against celebrity chef Bobby Flay.

After all that, Fowles said he wanted to say goodbye to fine dining forever.

“I wanted to go back to the country,” Fowles said. “I felt like I’d proven what I had to prove to myself.”

Clark agreed. “Let’s just follow our hearts, live a simple life, move to the middle of nowhere and not cook fine dining,” she said. “So we found a house that was 650 square feet on a half-acre.”

The couple couldn’t stay out of the kitchen for long, though.

“We felt like we weren’t doing what we were supposed to be doing, and that’s when the food truck came up,” Fowles said. “We were broke, and the first food truck was a taco truck on a $20,000 car loan and a prayer. I didn’t think it would work. We’re in the middle of nowhere.”

For the first year, Fowles’ mom was the cashier, while his dad coal-roasted the chilies for the Mac ‘n’ Cheese burger and double-smoked the bacon. “We paid them in beer,” he said, as they wouldn’t accept any money.

Capitol Burger was a hit with locals and visitors, and they upgraded to a new truck within a year.

“Now, three years later, it’s so busy we don’t know what to do!” Fowles said from last month’s Fort Desolation Fest music festival, as they prepared to serve around 4,000 gourmet burgers over a three-day period. An average holiday weekend will see them flat-top grilling around 800 burgers.

Their success comes from doing everything they believe makes the best food. They work directly with the rancher who raises the Hereford cows whose beef they serve, they ultrasound the cattle to see when the fat content is ideal, dry age the beef for 21 days and grind it fresh daily. They also make the American cheese, pickles, mayo and aioli fresh in-house for the six burgers on their menu.

Fowles ran through the ingredients they use: Bacon from Daily’s Premium Meats in Salt Lake City, pickled jalapeños and pork that he smokes on a Traeger smoker (for the pulled pork burger), thick-cut pastrami and house-made slaw (for the pastrami burger), and fig mash from Etta Place Cider, cooked into a jam and served with blue cheese and a balsamic reduction (for the Figgy Piggy special).

“Why aren’t chefs focusing on serving normal people better food?” Fowles said.

Their efforts have been recognized nationally. Yelp has named them the #4 best restaurant in a five-state region (Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Nevada) and the 22nd best burger in America.

“Most people are just so shocked that out of a food truck in the middle of nowhere, we’re serving this burger,” Fowles said. “I think that’s part of the charm. They’ve heard it’s great, but their expectations are blown when they have the best burger in their life.”

Check Capitol Burger’s Facebook page for the week’s hours and location.

(Heather L. King) Brooke Salt and Shawn Passey, married co-owners of Shooke Coffee Roasters in Torrey.

Shooke Coffee Roasters

Love brought coffee roaster Shawn Passey to Torrey.

He had been roasting coffee for Café Ibis in Logan for 15 years, but after a long-distance relationship with Brooke Salt — who’s now his wife and business partner — he decided to sell his house and set down roots in her hometown.

After working some odd jobs in the area, Passey said, “one day I was really tired and Beth, the owner of Wild Rabbit Cafe, said, ‘You know, if you purchase a coffee roaster, I’ll buy your coffee.’”

That’s how Passey’s former career as a coffee roaster began again in a new locale.

“I love roasting coffee, and now I have the freedom to just do what I want,” he said.

Although the equipment and skills Passey brought to Torrey transferred directly, he still had to learn the exact roasting temperatures that would work at such high elevation. (Torrey is at 6,837 feet above sea level. Logan’s elevation is at 4,534 feet.) He said he went through about 50 or 60 pounds of coffee to find the right roasting technique.

(Heather L. King) The selection of coffees at Shooke Coffee Roasters in Torrey.

For the first year, Shooke Coffee Roasters set up shop in the bakery of Wild Rabbit Café, with one table and a roaster from which Passey roasted, bagged and shipped online orders full time. Salt handles the administrative and marketing matters.

Then, two storefront spots opened up in the 135 business complex that houses Wild Rabbit and Color Ridge Creamery. The husband-and-wife team decided to set up a retail shop in 2022, in addition to their roastery and hub for the online store. They sell coffee, Utah-made artisan chocolate and toffee from Ritual and Cache Toffee, logo gear and local art and pottery.

As an artisan roastery, Shooke Coffee Roasters (named by combining Shawn and Brooke’s names together) regularly has at least 10 types of coffee available at any time sourced from small, Fair Trade USA farmers around the world — including Indonesia, Bali, highland Sumatra, Ethiopia, Tanzania, at least one African selection, and something from Mexico, Costa Rica or El Salvador.

Shooke Coffee is served at Wild Rabbit Cafe and Hunt & Gather in Torrey. Passey also creates custom blends for other local businesses, such as Gifford House Campfire Coffee as well as collaborates with Color Ridge Creamery on their coffee-flavored ice cream, and has aged green coffee beans in a used whiskey/hard cider barrel from Etta Place Cider.

Shooke Coffee Roasters, 135 E. Main St., suite 107, Torrey; 435-799-5793; www.shookecoffee.com

(Heather L. King) The Broken Arrow Ranch elk filet at Hunt & Gather, a fine-dining restaurant in Torrey.

Hunt & Gather

The name Hunt & Gather reflects the mantra of owner and chef Chet Saign’s cooking philosophy, and also the people who first hunted and gathered on the land.

The menu represents a global, sustainable and healthy cuisine style, featuring proteins and wild game — such as antelope appetizer and a seared elk filet that also highlights chevre from nearby purveyor Mesa Farm. Lettuces, herbs and fruit are grown both on the restaurant property and locally, while mushrooms are foraged from the nearby hills to be used in sauces, specials and powders. Apricots, used for the sauce on the orchard wood-smoked duck entree, come from the trees at the Saign family home. Saign learned the art of house-smoking and cured meats at his dad’s smoke shop in western Pennsylvania, and the results now grace the charcuterie board appetizer.

“We tried out a few different Southwestern things on our early day menu, but we’ve gravitated back more to the wild game,” Saign said. “When people are down here on vacation, they want to go home and tell people they tried something they won’t be able to get elsewhere. … We have beef on the menu just because it’s a local favorite.”

Chet worked for years at some of Utah’s most beloved restaurants and resorts, including La Caille, the Park Cafe, the Santa Fe and Snowbird. For 29 years, he would cook in Utah during the winter and in New Jersey in the summertime. It was there he met his wife Nancy.

In time, Chet’s brother had settled in Torrey, and the Saigns began to feel the pull to red-rock country as well. They, along with their children, have called Torrey home, at least part-time, since 1999.

When the much-loved and lauded Cafe Diablo restaurant space became available on Highway 24, the Saigns jumped at the chance to call something their own. This was near the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, a difficult time to start any face-to-face business, let alone a restaurant.

They opened Hunt & Gather in July 2020 to an influx of restless tourists anxious to get to the national parks.

“We had all this outdoor seating, which really helped us,” Saign said, gesturing to the two heated and open-air patios. “So our first year was pretty good, and our second year was really good.”

(Heather L. King) A lemon curd and raspberry pavlova, a dessert from Hunt & Gather in Torrey.

Saign’s decades of long-term relationships with food purveyors and suppliers across the country helped Hunt & Gather secure hard-to-get ingredients, but the remoteness adds a layer of complexity — as Nancy works her connections to get a delivery of wagyu for a holiday weekend that is lingering in Salt Lake City after a delivery snag.

Now in their fourth year, the Saigns know to expect the unexpected.

“We just have to adapt and evolve, because so many different things are coming at us every season,” Nancy Saign said. This year, they’ve partnered with Skyview Hotel to provide breakfast boxes to their guests each day. They also will host several pairing dinners in July and August, featuring their neighbors across the road, Etta Place Cider and Robbers Roost Distillery, as well as I/G Winery from Cedar City.

The couple doesn’t really know what normal looks like for Hunt & Gather yet, but their endless energy to roll with the punches and experiment with different ideas seems boundless — and their excitement is contagious.

Hunt & Gather, 599 W. Main St., Torrey; 435-425-3070; www.huntandgatherrestaurant.com.

(Heather L. King) Whiskey from Robbers Roost Distillery, at the company's store in Torrey.

Robbers Roost/Waterpocket Distillery

For Alan and Julia Scott, Torrey has always been at the heart of their Salt Lake City-based distillery, Waterpocket Distillery. It’s named after the Waterpocket Fold, just down the highway from their new Robbers Roost Distillery outpost in Torrey, so their connection to the area runs deep.

The Torrey distillery, on the west side of Highway 24, takes its name from the hideout favored by famous local outlaw Butch Cassidy and his gang. The business evolved from one of the original lines of spirits Waterpocket Distillery, sold when they launched.

Sharing space with Etta Place Cider — with whom they have collaborated on several award-winning hard cider creations — Robbers Roost Distillery aims to capture the wild and adventurous spirit of the West, as they reintroduce pre-Prohibition herbal spirits, bitters and long forgotten liqueurs to southern Utah adventurers seeking unexpected flavors.

The evolution of Robbers Roost Distillery is as vast and winding as the road to Torrey.

Over the past few years, Alan Scott said, changes in the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Services (DABS) distribution system began to purge local, small brands from the shelves of Utah liquor stores. “We were finding that the products we were releasing under Robbers Roost were getting stifled at the DABS and the delisting process was disproportionately affecting those products,” he said.

The Scotts decided to take the delisted spirits featured in the Robbers Roost line, expand the line and make them exclusive to the Torrey distillery that opened last fall — thereby driving demand and being the only outlet that can sell them.

(Heather L. King) Alan Scott, co-owner of Robbers Roost Distillery in Torrey, bags up a customer's order.

“This is more of a destination, so people who regularly come down to this area, there’s something new to come and taste, or a different version of something,” Scott said.

As the success of Robbers Roost offerings continues to grow, Scott said he and Julia plan to work with local foragers to collect wild juniper and lemon balm for gin, to create more destination-focused spirits.

“It would be nice to figure out how to do some small-batch fruit eau de mélisse that are very specific to this area,” he said. “The orchard culture here is well established so I’ll see about fruit and elderberry.”

Much like their Long Lost line of herbal spirits, bitters and liqueurs — which bring imbibers back to a time reminiscent of the Sundance Kid — the Scotts look to Torrey to help pave the way for their future while paying homage to the past.

Robbers Roost Distillery, 700 W. Main St., Torrey; 435-200-4735; www.robbersroost.co.