Although we were heartbroken that our annual Blue Plate Awards were canceled due to COVID-19, we thought now (more than ever) was the perfect time to share our winners and pay respect and gratitude to them. We are celebrating local restaurants, food shops, bakeries and growers who take giving seriously. Be sure to watch the message from our executive editor, Mary Brown Malouf.
The 2020 Blue Plate Award Winners
“Food is so much more than just what’s on the plate.”
— Mary Brown Malouf
Son of founder Tony Caputo, Matt has made the shop into the premier chocolate store in the United States. But his mission is not just to satisfy his customers’ sweet tooth. Caputo is a passionate educator; As he’s introduced Utahns to the joys of truly fine artisanal chocolate, he’s also increased awareness of the ecology and culture where cacao is raised. Caputo’s annual Chocolate Festival raises funds for The Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund. 314 W. 300 South, SLC, 801-531-8669. caputos.com
We’ve been here before with coffee, another tropical crop. The (particularly American) push-pull of quantity vs. quality has affected not only food’s flavor but the quality of life of the people who grow it. Since 2012, The Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund has worked to preserve indigenous heirloom species of cacao under threat from deforestation, invasive foreign cacao species and preference for higher-yield types. At the same time, HCPF recognizes and helps “heirloom farmers” whose continued cultivation of heirloom cacao protects biodiversity while it improves their livelihood.
Founder/owner Steve Rosenberg is a pioneer in Utah’s food scene, for 25 years raising consciousness as he provided fresh, sustainable food, Rosenberg is still pushing the edges of food sourcing: Every year, he drives 660 miles in a day to pick Black Sphinx palm dates from rare old trees in a Phoenix suburb. (These hybrid dates appeared spontaneously in Arizona in the 1920s and are smaller, thinner-skinned and sweeter than the usual Medjool, and part of the Ark of Taste.) Then he drives back. This is just an example of the literal lengths Rosenberg will go to in order to procure not just delicious, but truly rare, food. Deeply committed to sustainable, ecological food business practices, Rosenberg’s ambition is to leave the planet “better than he found it.” 1290 S. 1100 East, SLC, 801-583-7374. libertyheightsfresh.com
The world-wide organization Slow Food established the Ark of Taste, a living library of foods facing extinction. As monoculture has subsumed varied agriculture, certain species have been culled down to only a few varieties. Genetic diversity is lost. The Ark of Taste seeks to preserve heritage varieties of foodstuffs by encouraging people to eat them more—in Utah, Steve Rosenberg is an active supporter.
Boulder Mountain Lodge is an eco-lodge and its tenant Hells Backbone Grill has set a nationwide standard for supporting the wilderness and environment that surrounds it. Sustainable purchasing and farm practices have always been the policy for this restaurant; now owners Spalding and Castle are on the frontlines of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument protection. 20 UT-12, Boulder, 435-335-7464. hellsbackbonegrill.com
Wilderness and our natural world are disappearing around us; species are vanishing at an alarming rate as climate changes and the human need for resources expands. Once the wildlands and creatures are gone, we can never replace them. Food production and consumption are inextricably linked to our environment.
The greenest craft brewer in the state, Squatters Pub Brewery (now officially owned by Canarchy) has been going green for years. Squatters has diverted nearly 1.15 million pounds of recyclables from the landfill since the start of service with Momentum Recycling— in 2019, Squatters restaurant recycled 28,665.25 lbs of mixed recycling. And Squatters recently joined the SLC Digester program to reduce food waste.
Squatters and Wasatch Breweries have been going “green” for years by following the “3P” philosophy: People, Planet, Profit. Practices include recycling and reuse— Squatters was crucial in launching glass recycling at the airport, which became the model for the city’s curbside program—reducing water consumption and hiring a director of environmental and social responsibility to implement new policies.
Over the years Vertical Diner and other restaurants and businesses promoting and supporting a meat-free diet under the inspiration of Ian Brandt have opened the gastronomic gates to vegetable love in Salt Lake City. Ever-morphing, Brandt has opened and closed and combined restaurants and markets over the years—now he’s expanded to Portland, Ore., as well, with a second Vertical Diner. Brandt was years ahead of his time when he opened Sage’s Cafe in 1998; now most mainstream restaurants find it in their best interest to include vegan and vegetarian options on their menus. 234 W. 900 South, SLC, 801-484-8378. verticaldiner.com
Choosing to forego eating meat, dairy and eggs is a massive personal move in favor of planet Earth. Most of us don’t do it, but there’s no doubt about the positive impact such food choices make on the environment, especially when the economy is committed to agribusiness. Raising livestock on a large scale is unhealthy and most inhumane.
Co-founder and co-owner Matthew Pfohl is a perfect bartender: passionate about his craft with the friendly, people-first personality that has made bartenders over the years the symbol of informal psychologists. When he was 29, Pfohl suffered a stroke; like most in the service industry, he had no insurance to cover the massive medical bills and relied on a network of friends and families to avoid personal ruin. Realizing the situation would not be unique to him, he founded Be One Small Miracle to provide a safety net for un-and under-insured service people facing a crisis like this. Helped by others in the industry, Be One Small Miracle sponsors ongoing fundraisers to provide a financial cushion for others in dire straits. beonesmallmiracle.org
The people who actually serve us our food and drink have often slipped through the cracks of society. They live on the precarious combination of minimum wage plus tips, are frequently not covered by employer insurance or can only afford minimal insurance—a dangerous way to live in a time of rising medical costs. When Matthew Pfohl recovered from a personal disaster, he was impelled to address the problem.
The “incubation” refers to growing a baby business into a viable, sustainable enterprise by offering affordable kitchen space, training, access to financing, and advice about business practices and marketing. The program lasts about six months and after that, the kitchen space is available. Spice Kitchen was founded by Natalie El-Deiry and the International Rescue Committee in partnership with Salt Lake County and many Salt Lake food trucks, Farmers Market stands and restaurants have emerged from the program (the latest is Wann Jale, serving Burmese and Thai food), livening up the city’s food scene considerably. In addition, Spice to Go offers boxed freshly cooked dinners on Thursday nights. See menus on the website. 751 W. 800 South, SLC, 385-229-4484. spicekitchenincubator.org
Utah has kept the door open to refugees, fostering policies that are good for our souls and for our palates. When coming to this country, refugees often have nothing but a few clothes and their cooking skills; Spice Incubator helps these displaced people find their financial feet again by sharing their culture and food.
One of the largest catering companies in the state is equally large in its social consciousness. According to Meagan Crafts Price, “We recycle cardboard, glass, paper etc., only use bio-degradable disposables, changed our commissary to be more eco-friendly and powered by renewable energy, reduce our pollution caused by travel for our business. We compost our scrap food and donate our leftover food.” Culinary Crafts supports numerous charities and causes from national efforts like United Way and the American Red Cross to local ones like Alpine School District and Peace House, including the Utah Food Bank, Provo Food and Care Coalition, Clear the Air, Habitat for Humanity. Perhaps most important is the company’s commitment to buying local: Culinary Crafts uses more than 100 local food vendors. 357 W. 200 South #100, SLC, 801-906-8294. culinarycrafts.com
Buying local and supporting neighbor businesses, especially sustainable ones, is one of the most effective ways to help our communities and the environment. Sometimes it costs a little more to purchase environmentally sound products and is a little more trouble to practice ecological principles, but looking at the big picture is a necessity.
Scott Evans has grown his Pago Group from a single groundbreaking award-winning restaurant into a cluster of individually conceived restaurants under the umbrella of Pago Group. But as he’s grown his business, he’s grown his giving: He supports the Slow Food annual meeting, all kinds of political fundraisers, UMOCA, KRCL, KUER, Eat Drink SLC, National Ability Center, Utah Symphony, Local First, Utah Law school, as well as thousands of dollars in gift cards for fundraisers like the McGillis School, the Utah AIDS Foundation, the Utah Natural History Museum, The Children’s Center, California wildfire relief, the Multiple Sclerosis Society and others. “The Pago Group also tries to contribute to any non-profit that my staff or management support,” says Evans. 878 S. 900 East, SLC, 801-532-0777 pagoslc.com
Eating together is one of the defining acts of community—sharing food is a fundamental act of goodwill. The best restaurants strive to relate to their customers not just as the source of their livelihood but as neighbors. They support local charities, contribute to their neighborhoods and give to causes they believe in. Pago Group is comprised of five restaurants; each is an integral part of its neighborhood, together, their giving power is multiplied.
Rocky Mountain Power’s Blue Sky Legacy program honored Mazza Café for its commitment to its Blue Sky Program, which allows companies and individuals to “trade” energy costs for wind power. Mazza owner Ali Sabbeh signed up for this program when he first opened in 2000. “The program was just beginning,” he says. “My wife June and I had been up to Wyoming to see the wind turbines. We buy blocks of wind energy to offset our energy consumption. I thought, ‘I have a lot of money—I’m only a couple hundred thousand in debt so let’s buy enough for most of our energy needs.” Mazza still covers most of its energy use with the exchange program. Plus, the newest location in Sandy has electric vehicle chargers. 912 E. 900 South, SLC, 801-521-4572. 1515 S. 1500 East, SLC, 801-484-9259. 10550 State St., Sandy, 801-613-9562. mazzacafe.com
Restaurants use a lot of energy—three to five percent of a restaurant’s operating costs are spent on energy. When you think that profit margins in restaurants range from 0 (unfortunately) to 15 percent, energy is a real consideration financially. And of course, energy consumption world-wide is growing at an unsustainable rate. It’s good business—and responsible stewardship—to keep energy use low.
Episcopal priest Aimee Altizer has worked in some of the most prestigious kitchens in Utah: Zermatt Resort, Talisker Club and most recently John Murcko’s Firewood on Main. She left to join others in founding Flourish Bakery, which married her considerable culinary talent with her lifework of ministry. Flourish is the social outreach aspect of the nonprofit enterprise, Unshackled. Her novel baking business plan trains recovering substance abusers, many who were incarcerated, to make bread and pastry of the highest quality, selling the goods to restaurants and online. flourishslc.org
Recovering from substance abuse and freedom from incarceration are just the first steps for many trying to build a new life. Often the hardest part is rejoining society—acquiring valuable skills, getting a job, forming meaningful relationships. The difficulty of these steps leads to relapse recidivism and the goal of reducing that is what inspired Aimee Altizer to found Flourish Bakery.
Harmons—even after 100 years—remains a true local grocer. Maybe more local than ever. A commitment to buying from local growers and vendors, a cooking school to encourage people to skip the frozen meals and cook at home and a history of giving back to the community with donations and participation in local events, keep Harmons in the category of the good neighbor. Recently, Harmons took its commitment a big step further by choosing to support a referendum against the Utah food tax and opening their stores to collecting signatures.
In a time of ever-aggregating businesses, the big fish swallowing the little ones with the community often losing out in the end, it takes vision and a lot of work to remain a local business. But the closer the ties between an enterprise and its location, the better a business can serve the specific needs of the people who buy its products. It’s hard to keep a small business afloat—the key is the relationship between store and town.