Meet the Utah restaurateurs whose quiet power is making restaurant jobs better
Ever wonder what it takes to create one of the greatest restaurants to work for? Utah’s own Hell’s Backbone Grill has been given that title.
And with dynamic Duo, Blake Spalding and Jen Castle, it’s not hard to see why—their determined vision has created one of Utah’s best, and the country’s most remote, restaurants around.
As a food writer and restaurant critic, I am often—and I mean often—asked, “What is your favorite restaurant?” I understand the question and why people ask it. But I always find it a difficult one to answer.
When it comes to Michelin 3-Star dining, I love Le Bernardin in New York City and Paris’ coveted Taillevent. But I don’t always—or even usually—eat like that. I also delight in a corned beef sandwich at Feldman’s Deli and confess to enjoying an East Coast-style hoagie from chain eatery Jersey Mike’s.
The pizzas at Ti Amo Wood Fired Pizza in Bountiful and MidiCi at the Gateway are excellent. So when I’m in the mood for pizza, those are my favorite restaurants. For other Italian fare, Veneto is the place to find me.
The point is, my favorite restaurant is a moving target, depending on what type of food I’m hungry for and what style of dining—e.g. fine or fast—I’m in the mood for.
Having said that, the restaurant I always come back to as a perennial favorite is Hell’s Backbone Grill in Boulder. That’s Boulder, Utah, not Colorado. Colorado has great restaurants, but nothing like Hell’s Backbone Grill. That’s because they don’t have Blake Spalding and Jen Castle.
The dynamic duo are co-founders, co-chefs, and co-owners of the remote (unless you happen to be one of the 200 or so souls who live in Boulder) eatery. And they are forces to be reckoned with. These are powerful women whose power isn’t always evident: it’s subtle, understated, quiet, and contained—an inner type of power that’s absolutely Zen-like. Not surprising, perhaps, since Buddhist teachings and ways of infusing Hell’s Backbone Grill like Chimayo chiles infuse the restaurant’s delicious Red Chile Beef Posole.
In Jen’s and Blake’s wonderful new book called This Immeasurable Place, Blake writes that she is a practicing Buddhist, while she describes Jen as “not officially Buddhist, but she likes to say she’s a ‘Buddhist enabler.’”
She continues, speaking of Jen, “She’s striving to expand her capacity to be of benefit in this world, and she puts a lot into that.”
The very same can be said of Blake.
Both women radiate positive energy and that energy permeates their restaurant, their co-workers, and envelopes the Grill’s lucky guests.
Here’s an example of how that energy and compassion for others manifests itself:
Last month Food & Wine gave Jen and Blake one of the most rewarding honors they could have ever wished for—and they’ve garnered plenty of honors and awards. Hell’s Backbone was named by Food & Wine as one of the 19 greatest restaurants to work for.
Specifically, the magazine gave them a shout-out for their zero-tolerance for harassment policy. That policy, along with paying living wages, treating coworkers with respect (no pan-throwing in this kitchen), and offering off-site staff housing, among other things, means that Blake and Jen don’t often have to deal with the challenge of employee turnover—even in a “seasonal” restaurant—that most restaurateurs do.
It’s easy to see why Hell’s Backbone Grill would be picked as one of the best restaurants to work for.
Another reason why this is one of the greatest restaurants to work for is, once you land a coveted job at Hell’s Backbone Grill, you keep it.
But don’t let their kind and compassionate ways fool you. These are tough, strong-voiced women whose battle to help stop the Trump Administration from eviscerating Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Bear’s Ears was chronicled at length in none other than The New Yorker.
We live in a country where pop stars and athletes serve as role models for our young. If I were a parent of a young, or even not-so-young, boy or girl, man or woman, I’d want Jen Castle and Blake Spalding to serve as their role models.
The world would be a better place with more Jens and Blakes in it.
Hell’s Backbone Grill
20 North Highway 12
Boulder, Utah 84716