Hell’s Backbone Grill, warmly lit to welcome guests before the pandemic. [photo byAce Kvale]

“I’ve probably shed more tears in the last two weeks than I have in the last two years,” Blake Spalding said.

She and her co-owner, Jennifer Castle, have served unique, farm-to-table style meals at their restaurant, Hell’s Backbone Grill, in the remote, rural town of Boulder, Utah, for over 20 years. Hell’s Backbone Grill has been closed since March, and even as restrictions on businesses state-wide have eased, Spalding and Castle have canceled all reservations in 2020 and have decided to wait to offer any dine-in, outdoor dining or take-out services.

“We’re being really conservative about it because we absolutely don’t want to put ourselves or our community at risk,” said Spalding. She described Boulder, a gateway community for Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument, as “swarming” with visitors right now.

“Normally we love them,” she said, “but we’re a little scared of the tourists that are traveling right now.”

So far, Boulder has not seen any coronavirus cases, but Spalding and Castle remain cautious. Instead of opening their dining room, they’ve focused on their online retail store.

“With people in quarantine and people wanting to help support us, that store has really exploded,” said Spalding. The day the restaurant owners spoke with the Moab Sun News, they were busy putting together hundreds of orders for the chefs’ unique baking mixes for cookies, gingerbread, pancakes, and biscuits. Their online store offers a variety of other items, from jams and pickles to hats and tee shirts, as well as two cookbooks authored by Spalding and Castle. The two were quick to note that those books, “With a Measure of Grace” and “This Immeasurable Place,” are also available at Moab’s Back of Beyond Books.

“We love that store,” said Spalding, encouraging shoppers to support their local businesses.

Hell’s Backbone has been shipping its retail items all over the country, from Alaska to New York to Hawaii. They’ve been as thoughtful and creative with the packaging as with the items inside.

“Because we’re kind of broke, we’re trying to squeeze 3 nickles out of every dime,” said Spalding. One way they’re saving money, while also recycling, is by asking the Boulder community to donate any old packaging materials they have lying around.

“We’ve been packaging up the boxes as though they were care packages to our friends,” said Castle, meaning they’ve been including handwritten notes with messages of care and hope and doodles of hearts.

“There’s a sense of collective resilience,” said Castle. “We get to be making beautiful items and knowing it’s going to make somebody happy. We are trying to put all the love that we would normally put into our fine dining experience, which is very warm, we’re trying to do that with the boxes,” she said.

The spike in online retail sales has given the restaurant owners a measure of breathing room.

“It’s not the same level of income as when we had our dining room open, but it is keeping the lights on,” said Spalding of the online sales. “It’s been a really interesting and kind of extraordinary pivot for us. What we’re trying to figure out is how to be really thoughtful and intentional.”

Aside from online sales, the restaurant owners and staff have been using their extra time during the closure to focus on other projects. They’ve expanded their farm, planting 550 new trees and increasing their produce beds.

“We have significant orchards, fruit trees that we use to make our jams and things like that, and it looks like we’re going to have a good fruit year this year, which is really great news,” said Spalding.

They’re also working on expanding their outdoor seating area. When they do eventually open again, they envision starting with take-out and well-spaced outdoor dining. They’ll also give seating preference and offer room delivery to guests at the Boulder Mountain Lodge, which owns the property on which both the lodge and the restaurant are located.

These projects provide cross-training for staff who would normally be working in the restaurant. Hell’s Backbone Grill qualified for money from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, allowing them to continue paying their employees even though income from the restaurant is on hold right now.

Spalding and Castle are proud to be semifinalists for the James Beard Award for best chefs in the Mountain Region in 2020. However, this year the honor of the award is bittersweet.

“The part that I was always so excited about was this gala, this black-tie, extravagant event that’s like the Oscars of food in Chicago,” said Spalding.

The gala, scheduled for May, has been postponed until September in hopes that the coronavirus pandemic will have somewhat subsided and travel will be less dangerous at that time.

Spalding admits that this crisis has been hard.

“My greatest fear is that if one of our staff does get sick, we’ll have to close our farm and our retail,” she said. “We need those to survive; we don’t want to jeopardize it by moving too quickly to open.”

For Spalding and Castle, the restaurant has been a decades-long passion project. For members of their staff, it’s been the start of a new life. Some staff members have even married each other and are building homes in the small town.

Spalding has always been inspired by the mystical quality of the wilderness surrounding Boulder and Hell’s Backbone Grill, and she drew on that quality in describing the way forward for her restaurant and her staff.

“We’re in a dark dangerous wood,” she said. “Maybe there are orcs; we just have to go really slowly and carefully and don’t let go of each others’ hands. My goal is to get us all through this alive, literally and figuratively.”

A renowned Utah restaurant vows to survive the pandemic

“It’s been a really interesting and kind of extraordinary pivot for us. What we’re trying to figure out is how to be really thoughtful and intentional.”

– Blake Spalding