By Brian Solem, Communications Director
This story is part three of our Slow and Sustainable series, which profiles food businesses that are leaning into the “clean” of Slow Food’s ethos of good, clean, and fair food for all. They are all winners of the Snail of Approval, a national award given to businesses embracing the environment, community, employees, and people-centered values.
This is not a story about the immense challenges facing restaurant owners and workers in 2022. Thankfully, that topic has been covered extensively in local and national press. Instead, this is a story about the resilience of one geographically isolated restaurant and farm that creates a community unlike any other in rural Utah.
This is a story about Hell’s Backbone Grill and Farm, a Snail of Approval winner located in Boulder, Utah, a remote 226-person town that’s a popular resting spot for hikers in the area and travelers from around the world. Back in 2000, chef-owners Jen Castle and Blake Spalding fell in love with this spot, an inholding in the newly established Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the first monument of its kind and the largest in the country. With 3,000 borrowed dollars and a great deal of experience working in restaurants and cooking for river companies at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, they moved to Utah and opened Hell’s Backbone Grill (which was not quite a farm yet; they opened with vegetable gardens and in 2005 graduated to a six-acre regenerative agriculture farm, from which they harvest literal tons of produce each season).
“We started the farm because growing food makes more sense than purchasing ingredients from far away,” noted Blake. “We wanted to do organic food; people thought it was impossible.” Now, much of what they serve on plates emerges from their land just down the road from the dining room.
“Sustainable means having deep roots and an understanding of interdependence,” said Blake. “It requires running every choice through a filter: ‘Is this a good decision for the planet, for the guests, the employees, and the local community?’”
Furthermore, says Blake, “Complicated times require a deeper rootedness.” This year, the farm upon which they rely so heavily experienced the area’s worst drought since 1880, forcing them to innovate the way they work the land, using weed-free straw mulch, drip lines, and a very different type of crop rotation. Staffing has been a challenge, as well, even though Jen and Blake have always offered starting wages well beyond double Utah’s minimum wage. Tourists are returning to the nearby national parks, but the restaurant is seating guests only on the covered patio for now, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which makes for a shorter season.
All of these shifts are set against the backdrop of the impressive work Jen and Blake have done to protect and sustain the surrounding Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which in 2018 was reduced by executive order to half its size by the Trump administration, opening it up to extractive industry. (It has since been restored by the Biden Administration.)
Jen and Blake are lifelong feminists and environmental activists, so their work to preserve the monument was a natural choice. But even as they celebrate the return of protections to the monument, they work steadfastly for other causes. This past July 4th, for instance, on the scenic highway in front of the restaurant, they hosted a protest rally with employees and locals for reproductive rights. They also continue their efforts to call attention to food justice issues and the climate crisis.
“The restaurant has always been a vehicle for our activism,” added Jen. “We like to joke that we’re trying to change the world one biscuit at a time. This kind of approach to work is definitely a community endeavor.”
Jen and Blake’s commitment to environmental sustainability and community connection made them an ideal recipient of a Snail of Approval award from Slow Food Utah. Hell’s Backbone Grill has supported this local convivium through collaboration and donating their cookbooks for the chapter’s use.
“The world has changed, and we have had to change as well,” said Blake. “We have lots of strong systems in place for resilience; nonetheless, we are working harder than ever, just to survive. We’re definitely making conscious decisions these days to stay curious, and see where our vision brings us. Resilience means staying current with what is possible and sustainable.”
Twenty-three years ago, two women chefs landed in one of the most remote towns in the country and launched an impossible dream. Today, that dream has become one of the most acclaimed restaurants in the US. Recently, Hell’s Backbone Grill was named a 2022 Semifinalist for Outstanding Restaurant in the US in the James Beard Awards. Hell’s Backbone Grill exemplifies rootedness: rootedness to land, people and food.