It may not have ghosts, but during the winter, when no one else is around, the Jailhouse Café can be an eerie place, said Kristina Stillwell, a manager at the café.
“We close October 31st, then the building sits until the end of January. When no one is around it has a spooky feeling to it,” Stillwell said. “There’s a story that an inmate actually pled guilty to a murder just to get out of the jail cell.”
But times have changed. Though the steel hinges for the cell door remain, what was once a windowless cell with no ventilation is now a prep room for the Jailhouse Café’s kitchen. And in summer when it’s bustling with life, it’s hard to feel anything ominous.
The history of the small building that houses Moab’s oldest all-breakfast restaurant – 20 years old this year – goes back even further then the jailhouse.
Originally built as a private residence in 1885, the building was purchased by the county seven years later and functioned as the County Courthouse until 1902.
Since then the building has gone through quite a few residents. It has been a U.S. Post Office, a store, offices, and the Jailhouse Gallery.
After the Jailhouse Gallery closed the building sat empty during the uranium bust years of the 1980s, until it was purchased in 1992 by William Petty. Petty began his tenure in the Jailhouse by running it as a fine dining restaurant.
“William always had a passion for food,” Stillwell said.
The fine dining idea didn’t work out, so Petty decided to switch the restaurant to a breakfast-only café.
And that was how Stillwell found it in 1996 when she moved to Moab from small-town Ohio with her new husband.
Stillwell’s aunt, Loretta Adkison, was the part owner of the Moab Brewery and got the couple jobs there when they first arrived in town. But after a few months Stillwell wanted to switch to working mornings. Fortuitously, in addition to working at the brewery, her aunt was also Petty’s accountant.
“When I came in 1997 I was so intrigued by the little pink building the Jailhouse Café. I was fascinated that they could produce such a great breakfast from such a small kitchen,” Stillwell said. “It kind of reminded me of my grandma’s house.”
Stillwell began working mornings at the Jailhouse. She has been working there on and off for the last 16 years.
With the advent of large-scale tourism in Grand County the Jailhouse became too popular for its size.
In 2000 Petty started to increase the outdoor seating, adding the deck that sits next to Main Street. He later enclosed the deck to keep out noise and added a heater and an air conditioner.
In 2004 an additional outdoor seating section was built in back to keep up with the increasing demand.
“It’s amazing how much business has grown and that the café itself has not,” Stillwell said.
All the recipes were created by Petty and are made from scratch. The challenge has been to keep up with the increasing number of people and still making every dish to order while only being able to fit three cooks in the kitchen. But Petty refused to compromise on the quality of the food, insisting that the kitchen stay small and intimate.
Keeping the dishes and quality consistent is what has kept customers like Ethan Hudson coming back to the Jailhouse Café.
“When we visited a few years ago we had some of the best eggs Benedict I have ever had,” said Hudson, a photography enthusiast who visited Moab last week from Georgia. “So when we came (to Moab) this time we made sure to come in and get it again.”
Though Petty now lives in London, he still stays active in managing the Jailhouse Cafe.
Stillwell and Adkison now run the day-to-day operations of the business. But they talk to Petty on the phone every week.
Petty returns from London four or five times a year to visit and check in on the Jailhouse.
“He lives abroad but his heart stays here,” Stillwell said.