When Blake Spalding moved to Boulder, Utah, in the year 2000 to open Hell’s Backbone Grill with her business partner Jen Castle, her mission was simple: make people happy.
But as straightforward as the concept sounds, for Blake—a practicing Buddhist for twenty years—it’s also the guiding principle of her life. “The Buddha taught that all happiness comes from wishing happiness for others,” she says. “So when the opportunity arose to open Hell’s Backbone Grill, I told Jen, ‘I think if we make a restaurant here, in this place that’s so magical and special and wild, and feed people some lovingly prepared food that’s of this place, they’ll feel happy.’ And that’s the basis of our whole business plan.”
Mission accomplished: Hell’s Backbone Grill, now in its fifteenth season, is making people happy. Over the years the eatery has garnered numerous accolades and awards, including Utah’s “Restaurant of the Year” in 2014 and “Most Hardcore Locavore.” Blake and Jen have worked hard to create a warm, familial atmosphere for all who walk through their doors, and as a result, Hell’s Backbone Grill has become widely known as an oasis in the desert that surrounds it. Every season, diners from around the world return again and again. But as simple as their original business plan was, the logistics were fairly complex.
The town of Boulder, Utah, is not only tiny (the population hovers around 200), and remote (four and a half hours to the closest airport), but it also sits on the edge of vast wilderness. Boulder is in the heart of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which encompasses 1.9 million acres of land. For many restaurateurs, these conditions might prove impossibly daunting; Blake and Jen, however, began their careers as Grand Canyon river chefs and “extreme caterers” in uninhabited jungles, islands, and mountains. So knowing that there would be running water, electricity, and a roof overhead, it sounded delightfully manageable.
Still, running the restaurant hasn’t been without obstacles. In the early years, sourcing staff and organic ingredients was tricky. Nowadays, the power goes out semi-regularly (they compensate by lighting candles, inviting local musicians to sing in the dining room, and cooking with the aid of headlamps); the phones don’t always work; the growing season is short; the weather is temperamental; and occasionally mountain lions knock over the honeybee hives or hunt the chickens.
Nevertheless, with tenacity and patience, Blake and Jen have created the business of their aspirations. They make everything from scratch. They don’t serve anything they wouldn’t eat themselves. They employ local families. All their beef and lamb comes from Boulder ranchers, their eggs from their own 150 laying hens, and their fruit from heirloom orchards around town and their own six-and-a-half-acre organic farm. “Last year we grew about 12 thousand pounds of food on the farm,” says Blake, “and all of that goes to feed our restaurant patrons and staff—so there’s actually a very real, visceral exchange with our diners, where they’re not eating food from far away; they’re taking this landscape into their bodies and experiencing it on a cellular level.”
Indeed, helping visitors have a transformational experience with the surrounding wilderness is of utmost importance to Blake, and she sees the name itself—Hell’s Backbone—as an apt metaphor for what she and Jen have sought to accomplish. The restaurant is named for a nearby chasm, and for the narrow suspension bridge that crosses it—the same bridge that first linked Boulder by road to the outside world. “I envisioned our business as a bridge, too, or a doorway through which people could enter into safely and exit safely. They come for their big dinner before they go out backpacking and then return for their celebration dinner when they’re done. I love the idea that people can feel more comfortable going out and exploring, knowing at the end of the day that they can come back and have a nice dinner and a bottle of wine. We usher them in and usher them out, and that’s a tremendous privilege for us.”
After ten years cooking in the Grand Canyon and fifteen years living in Boulder, Blake is a huge believer in the power of the wilderness to heal the human psyche. “You see people’s hearts really open,” she says, “because they’re in this incredibly remote place, having a deep, intense experience of wilderness. I love to help people access that. I want them to be able to feel the ground under their feet and notice the sky over their heads and feel themselves in their bodies, and then I want them to come eat at my restaurant and tell me about what happened to them.”
While learning to live, work, and farm at the edge of wilderness, Blake and Jen have also absorbed the endless lessons that come from being part of a small community. There’s no anonymity in their tiny town, and there’s far more accountability, so you can’t hide from the person you truly are, Blake explains. You also become more self-reliant and learn to develop parts of yourself that might not be necessary in a city. And as you get to know all your neighbors—which is unavoidable in a small community—you learn that every single person is remarkable in some way.
“I think people in our society today spend a lot of time worrying about whether they’ve found the right place,” Blake says. “It’s fortunate to get to live where you’re meant to be. I feel really clear that I’m doing what I’m supposed to do in the place I’m supposed to do it with the people I’m supposed to do it with. My connection to this land is profound. I love to walk barefoot on the rocks and feel the earth under my feet. It gives me something I need. My roots are here now; I’ll probably live in Boulder the rest of my life.”
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