Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting important local journalism.
Virg’s has been one of Tooele County’s best-known eating and gathering spots for more than 20 years.
The cafe — located at the intersection of Erda Way and Highway 36 in Erda — is a place where the servers are on a first-name basis with the regulars and know what they will order as soon as they set foot in the door.
Derrick Castagno, one of those regulars from Tooele, calls Virg’s “one of the last true diners in America.”
On Dec. 31, the lease is up at Virg’s and the owners, David and Angeline Law, must vacate the building to make way for a new three-story, 70,000-square-foot temple for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Sunday is the last day to get Virg’s giant breakfast burritos smothered with chile verde or the signature fish and chips — at least for several months, until the Laws move into a new space they have purchased in downtown Tooele. But that spot has its own controversy.
Leaving the well-worn space on Erda’s main thoroughfare — recognizable by its fading outdoor sign with a Santa-like elf in a red suit — will be a sad day for server Krystal Peterson. After working at Virg’s for more than 12 years, she says she is “blessed” to have served so many nice customers, many of whom have become friends.
“We bust our butts and work hard, but we also love having fun,” she said. “I am going to truly miss our location. It is truly bittersweet.”
Erda wasn’t Virg’s first home. Originally, it was a fish and chips shop with a dozen seats on State Street in Salt Lake City. David Law started working at the shop in 1981 and bought it in 1990 after the original owner died.
He moved the restaurant into a small section of the grocery store in Erda in 1997, expanding over the next decade into the adjacent space. Law has since opened Virg’s in West Valley City, Taylorsville and Ogden.
In September 2019, the LDS Church announced that its new Tooele Valley Temple would be located on the northwest corner of Erda Way and Highway 36, wiping out Virg’s. The popular Thompson’s Smokehouse and Motor Vu Drive In on the opposite side of the street remain.
At the time the church purchased the property, Virg’s did not have a formal lease in place, but David Law said he was told by his new church landlords that he and his wife would have plenty of time to look for a new location.
Finding a commercial building in Tooele County that suits a restaurant, especially amid the coronavirus pandemic, has proved difficult.
“We made an offer on a building in Tooele, got preapproved for a loan and put down a deposit,” Law explained. “Then COVID hit.”
The bank, he said, no longer would finance the project.
The Laws thought they had a reprieve in August 2020, when the church withdrew an approved, but controversial, rezoning request that would have allowed it to build a high-density housing development around its planned Tooele Valley Temple.
The Laws said they were told at that time that a new, longer-term lease could be negotiated. That never happened, though, and last month they received a 30-day eviction notice.
“I don’t want to bash the church,” David Law said, “but what is the urgency of getting me out?”
According to the artist renderings, the property where Virg’s sits is not part of the new temple grounds or the now-defunct housing project.
“They want to control that corner,” he said, “but they have no plans for it.”
Further complicating the move is a problem that arose last month with the sewer drain. When crews tore down old houses behind the restaurant, one of the septic drain lines was damaged.
According to an order from the Tooele County Health Department, “there is raw sewage surfacing and ponding on the property.” The Nov. 4 notice, sent to Steven Terry, the church’s facilities manager, said the problem needed to be repaired within 30 days.
The line has not yet been fixed, said Law, who can’t help but wonder if it’s another way to ensure Virg’s exit.
The church said that despite not having a long-term lease agreement with the restaurant owners, it has “allowed Virg’s to remain on the property on a month-to-month lease while encouraging them to find a new location.”
“Last month, the church issued a notice to terminate that month-to-month lease effective December 31,” the church said in an emailed statement. “We wish the owners of Virg’s the best as they transition to a new location.”
On top of that, there’s a problem with the Tooele space Law has bought: It is currently occupied by The Brothers Mexican Restaurant.
Law said he is not evicting the business. “I’ve told them we can split the building in half and work together.”
But the owner Jose Giron and his girlfriend, Adriana Cruz, have decided to close the restaurant Jan. 2 — with plans to look for another space in the future.
“They did tell us they would like to partner, but we went home and thought about it and decided it wouldn’t work. So we are closing for now,” said Cruz, adding that it was “a sticky situation” that ends with no hard feelings.
“We wish the best for Virg’s with no negativity,” she said. “That’s not us.”
The situation had become a hot-button topic on social media and within the community. Residents — the majority of whom are Latter-day Saints and are excited about the planned temple — have scolded Law for complaining about the eviction notice and then pursuing a different property that is displacing another business.
Law said if the church had given him another four to six months, he probably could have made a seamless move and continued operating in a new location. He also would have settled for a few extra weeks just so he didn’t have to lay off his employees during the holidays.
Financially, the move is devastating. The loss of their flagship Virg’s restaurant will cut the Laws’ bottom line in half, because the Erda restaurant makes as much money each month as the other three combined.
The Erda location actually kept the business afloat in COVID-19′s early days, when most indoor seating at restaurants was prohibited to prevent the spread of the virus.
“We were able to stay open in Erda by selling takeout and groceries like bacon, eggs and potatoes and hard-to-get items,” David Law said, that were unavailable at grocery stores but could be procured through restaurant supply chains.
“I kept my my employees on,” he said, “and kept the business open.”
The Laws believe their support during that time “is a testament” to how much the community appreciates their business and wants it to survive.
Tony Garcia of Stansbury speaks for many who hope the owners can open in a new location soon and the business survives.
“I hate to see them leave,” Garcia said. “While there are other restaurants in Tooele County, they don’t have the same atmosphere as Virg’s.”