Geoff Thomas, the owner of the Moab Diner, enjoys a morning cup of decaf. [Travis Holtby/ Moab Sun News]

Not many business owners would give a $425 cash advance to an employee on their first day. But Geoff Thomas did just that so that a teenaged James Butterfield could buy a car to commute to wash dishes. Butterfield, now 33 and the general manager of the Moab Diner, said that it is because of this type of generosity and kindness that he has never looked for another place to work.

“(Geoff) wants his employees to be happy working here. He accommodates people so that they can do things like drop their kids off at recitals,” Butterfield said.

“Being a Christian I try to drive the business from that world view,” Thomas said. “When it comes to benevolence and meeting people’s needs we do the best we can. We treat it like a ministry.”

Thomas grew up in Washington and Idaho before coming to Utah for college. When he finished his degree he started working for a restaurant management company in Salt Lake City. After a few years the company sent Thomas and his wife out to Casper, Wyo., to run several of their restaurants.

Thomas’ wife, Teri, grew up in Moab. In 1993 the couple decided to move back to Grand County. Teri’s parents, Pete and Barbara Peterson, who ran the Pete and Company beauty salon for 47 years in Moab, loaned the couple the money to buy the restaurant.

“Teri’s father took out a loan against his house to start this up,” Thomas said.

The Moab Diner began as the Poor Boy Drive-Inn in the early 1960s, serving 29-cent hamburgers. Later, in the 1970s, the Poor Boy became the Grand Ice Cream Parlor.

When the Thomas family arrived in 1993 the Moab Diner was born.

There were several challenges over the first few years. One of the biggest, Thomas admitted, was self-inflected: He banned smoking in the restaurant.

“When we pulled that plug we pulled all the business. We were so bored, we thought, ‘what have we done?’” he said.

But the diner received recognition from the health department for imposing the ban. Eight months later a law was passed and all of the other eateries in the state where forced to ban smoking, Thomas said.

Since then the Moab Diner has grown steadily. The restaurant employs around 40 people in the high season and keeps 25 on staff all year round.

“We are famous for being fast-paced and efficient,” Butterfield said. “The busier we are the more efficient we are.”

Butterfield also cited the diner’s low prices and consistent quality as big contributors to the business’ success.

“(The) food is excellent and it’s priced right,” said Richard McElhaney, a long time customer who has also worked on several of the diner’s remodels.

The Moab Diner also fits into Thomas’ broader mission as an ordained Christian minister.

“My goal is to coordinate the ministry with the diner; our motto is ‘taking it to the streets’,” Thomas said.

Thomas holds his Sunday services at the Moab Arts and Recreation Center (MARC), renting the hall for $35 a week. He does this to save as much money as possible to use for the outreach aspect of the mission.

Part of that outreach is hosting Young Life groups once a quarter and giving out free popcorn and hot chocolate during this year’s Christmas tree lighting and parade. Thomas also wants to start up a men’s ministry at the diner early Monday mornings. He hopes this will give men a chance to meditate and focus on what God has in store for them in the coming week.

Using the diner to help people in need is something that Thomas loves to do. The Moab Diner is now selling wristbands to raise money to help cover expenses for waitress Suzy Gordon’s mother-in-law, Cheryl Gordon, who is receiving cancer treatment in Grand Junction, Colo. The diner also has a long-standing policy of providing free meals to any groups of family and friends who have recently lost a loved one.

In the near future, the Moab Diner will remodel their dining room and add a second floor office for Thomas. He hopes to use the new workspace as a business office to run both the diner and his ministry.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned is to give it to God and don’t worry. God is the owner and I’m just the operator. He is my accountability agent,” Thomas said.