Refugees in Utah face poor nutrition; doctors and farmers prescribe collaborative response

Story and photo by DANNY O’MALLEY

A national program that provides fresh produce to refugee patients in need of nutrition has arrived in Salt Lake City. VeggieRx, also known as the Fruits and Vegetables Prescription project (FVRx), empowers doctors to prescribe wholesome nutrition in the form of fresh farmers market produce to refugees at risk of malnutrition or other health concerns like diabetes.

At St. Mark’s Family Medicine, in the Millcreek area of Salt Lake City, patients receive prescriptions for $10 toward fresh produce. They take the prescriptions just down the street to the Sunnyvale Farmers Market, to be used up to four times. The market also accepts SNAP, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which can double the amount of vegetables carried home by refugee patients. The Sunnyvale Farmers Market, an endeavor of the International Rescue Committee through its New Roots farming initiative, is open on Saturday afternoons from July to October every year.

Refugees who are newly resettled face a myriad of challenges, but nutrition and diet are often the most pressing.

Ze Min Xiao, director of the mayor’s Office of New Americans in Salt Lake County, said even the idea of a supermarket can be a challenge to newcomers. Often when a refugee arrives, “suddenly they’re buying processed food, and it’s more expensive and not as good for you. Obesity and lack of vitamins are a problem,” she said.

The transition to the American diet and food culture can be jarring for some. Many refugees struggle to find food they recognize. Familiar ingredients may grow plentifully in other regions around the world, but varieties here in Utah may be nonexistent or prohibitively expensive.

For example, according to cost of living data collected by, fruit and vegetable prices are anywhere between two and 10 times greater in the United States than in Syria and Somalia. And that’s just for ubiquitous produce like apples, oranges and potatoes — anything remotely exotic is exponentially less likely to be carried by local grocers.

Because of programs like VeggieRx, farming initiatives like New Roots and medical outreach through St. Marks, the avenues to help alleviate issues of nutrition and unfamiliar culture are opening wider. The innovative practice of prescribing access to vegetables packed with nutrients is a direct result of addressing the needs of the refugee community, Xiao said. “We can identify some answers they bring as New Americans,” she added.

Similar programs are already coming to fruition all over the country. VeggieRx was started by Wholesome Wave, an organization centered on increasing accessibility to nutrition and health resources. First piloted in Maine and Massachusetts in 2010, the success on the East Coast has allowed Wholesome Wave to partner with organizations in 48 states as of this writing, as well as Washington, D.C., and the Navajo Nation in the Four Corners area.

Fiona McBride, senior communications associate for Wholesome Wave, has been with the organization since 2014. “We’re really proud of our growth and impact,” she said in a phone interview. “In 2015, we helped about 150,000 people. In 2016, we reached over 550,000.” She expects that growth trend to continue.

The benefit doesn’t stop at the limit of the prescription value either. Refugees and other low-income families are more likely to buy lots of veggies once they get a little, giving an economic boost to the farmers at the market. “We’ve seen that for every $5 in vouchers, they spend an additional $15 on fresh produce,” McBride said. “Our case workers have said that the families can’t believe what they’re getting.”

Patients in greatest need of nutrition are often children. “It’s really powerful to tackle and prevent problems with diet and health starting young,” McBride said.

St. Mark’s Family Medicine is a program with the Utah Healthcare Institute. Diane Chapman, a nurse practitioner involved with the program, said the link between diet and chronic disease can’t be emphasized enough. The majority of patients she sees are refugees. “It’s my primary professional focus and passion,” she said in a phone interview. Often, she said, clinicians have “little context” for a diet that refugee patients might be familiar with. “Dietary change can be difficult for anyone.”

The VeggieRx pilot provided the opportunity for refugee families to align their diet with food similar to that of their countries of origin, at little to no cost. The pilot ran from September to October 2017, through the end of the farmers market season. Chapman said the program goal was to enroll at least 50 patients, which was met, and now the data can be assessed by the Utah Department of Health.

According to a report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, healthcare costs related to diet are over $950 billion a year. This is especially dangerous for low-income families including refugees.

Fiona McBride said that’s what the VeggieRx program is all about — spending less on healthcare by treating preventable diseases through nutrition. “We’re really trying to show the power of produce to improve personal and environmental health. The money we save in avoiding extremely expensive health problems could transform the country,” she said.

Utah’s pilot of the program is in its infancy, so the exact impact is yet to be seen at the local level. But it has a huge pool of organizers invested in seeing it thrive. The International Rescue Committee, the Utah Department of Health, Salt Lake County and St. Mark’s Family Medicine have made good headway together. Thanks to everyone involved, refugees can eat healthy and avoid burdensome long-term healthcare costs.

Keep your eyes peeled for updates from the Utah Department of Health in early 2018.

Refugees planting new roots in Utah


War. Persecution. Death. Three things that many people in other countries across the world have to face on a daily basis. They go through life living in their homeland in fear. They’re left with two options: Stay in the country and risk death, or flee for survival. Many choose to stay, but many choose to become refugees.

Aden Batar, director of immigration and refugee resettlement for Catholic Community Services and a Somali refugee himself, said, “Becoming a refugee is the most difficult process a human being can go through. When you’re in your country, you either face the hard condition of leaving, or you die. Looking back, I don’t know how I did it, but when you don’t have a choice, you just want a new place to survive.”

According to a letter to Gov. Gary Herbert included in the Utah Refugee Services Office 2016 report, 1,200 refugees have been resettled in Utah annually by the CCS and International Rescue Committee.

The refugees who are resettled in Utah can choose from different programs to help them adapt to a new culture. One option is the New Roots Program, organized and managed by the IRC.

The New Roots program has the moto: “The food is local. The story is global.” Its purpose, according to the website, is to “enable refugees to celebrate their heritage and nourish themselves and their neighbors by planting strong roots – literally – in their new communities.”

The program consists of three parts: Community Gardening, Micro-Training Farm Program and the Sunnyvale Farmers Market.

Community Gardening Program

This program is designed to help the emotional well-being of the refugees as they try to adjust to a new country, culture and way of life.

Central Park 1. Photo credit New Roots SLC

In this program, plots of land (approximately 14 feet by 20 feet for 100 total square feet) are reserved for local refugees and their families throughout the Salt Lake community to grow crops from their home country and to come together as a community. Alex Haas, community garden program coordinator, said it is their opportunity to not only work, but also to provide for their family while connecting with others who may come from the same circumstance. There are 15 different gardens throughout the valley that refugees have access to.

Also within this program, Haas said, is the opportunity to meet as a group to develop skills and become accustomed to the new society they are in. Within these adjustment groups refugees can discuss their feelings, learn skills such as how to deal with anger, stress, depression and ultimately become self-sustained as they build a new home.

“The purpose of our community gardening program and adjustment groups is to help refugees become self-sustaining moving forward,” Haas said.

He also said in a phone interview that the gardens are a way to remind refugees of home and that they give them “a sense of comfort, while they enjoy cultural foods, and while they build a community of wellness.”

Micro-Training Farm Program

The next step in the New Roots program is the farming aspect. After resettled refugees have participated in the community gardens for a year, they have an opportunity to work on larger plots of lands at the Redwood Road Micro-Training Farm, located at 3060 S. Lester St. in West Valley City, to continue their farming.

Local refugee farming at the Redwood Farm. Photo credit New Roots SLC

Jordan Bryant, manager of the IRC’s New Roots program, said in a phone interview that the farm is maintained by generous grants and donations. The farmers pay different amounts for seeds and plants from their heritage, and tools to grow them to bring their home to Utah.

Currently, Bryant said, there are about 33 farmers who are there on a constant basis. These farmers, each of whom were once strangers, develop a community with one another as they work together to grow and sell their crops at local farmer’s market.

Although it is not the main source of income for their families, the refugees rely on the farming as a source of income for their families. At the same time, they continue to develop relationships and friendships with the other refugees around them.

“It’s more than just a job,” Bryant said. “It’s that they gain access to their home and people to socialize with.”

Sunnyvale Farmers Market

Local refugees buying produce at the Sunnyvale Farmers Market. Photo credit New Roots SLC

The Sunnyvale Farmers Market, located at 4013 S. 700 West in Salt Lake City, gives the refugee farmers the opportunity to provide for their family by taking the food they grow and selling it.  It is also an opportunity to bring food from cultures around the world to the refugee community.

“The farmers market is a great opportunity for income,” Bryant said. “Although it’s not their main source of income, for some it does provide a substantial amount for their family. It also is a community benefit by providing food from the countries of the refugees that are in the community.”

Escaping persecution is a long journey. But after choosing to leave their home to survive, the New Roots program has given refugees the opportuntiy to bring a piece of their culture to Utah.


Salt Lake City’s farmers markets draw loyal consumers

Story and slideshow by JOSH SOUTAS

Experience all that the Winter Market has to offer.


“We never miss a market,” said Salt Lake City local Paula Butler. Her friend, Lori Martin, added, “We come every time.” Butler and Martin are just two of the many consumers who wander around the Winter Market at 10 a.m. every other Saturday from November until April looking for locally grown produce.

The two said the combination of fresh produce, and the get-together that the Winter Market has become, is what keeps them coming back.

“It’s now as much of a social event as it is a grocery shopping event for us,” said Butler, who is also a regular at the summer Saturday Market. “Not only do you know what you are buying is healthy and good for you, but it is fun to come and meet the farmers who grow and are selling their own local products.”

In its third year, the Winter Market is held in the historical Rio Grande Depot. The train station’s tracks were first used in 1910, according to Utah Communication History Encyclopedia writer Kelsie Haymond. The old train station is transformed into a paradise for consumers who are looking for locally grown produce during the winter months. Vendors, who set up shop where passengers used to load onto trains, give the landmark building a lively atmosphere again.

The market entrance runs through the Rio Gallery, located in the Grand Lobby of the Rio Grande Depot. Shoppers on the second floor get an overhead view of the artwork in the free gallery.

Alison Einerson, market manager of the Salt Lake City Farmers Markets, said in a phone interview that the Winter Market almost exclusively features food vendors who cater to local eaters.

The Winter Market occurs when many vegetables and fruits are out of season. Einerson said that challenge was not difficult to overcome.

“It’s really eye opening to see that there are still so many locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables available, even though it is December and snowing, or February and bitter cold outside,” Einerson said. “There [are] beets, asparagus, parsley, onions, potatoes, and in my opinion our market is home to the best local baked goods.”

Einerson also agreed with market regulars Butler and Martin that many people attend the market not only for the produce, but also for the social occasion that it has become.

It is not surprising to see the Winter Market be successful even though it has not been around as long as the established Saturday Market. Farmers markets have risen in popularity with more than 8,200 nationwide, a 76 percent increase since 2008, according to the USDA.

Steven Mountford is a honey farmer with White Lake Farms. The Genola, Utah, farm has been a vendor with the Winter Market since its opening. It also takes part in the Saturday Market during the summer.

Mountford said he understands why farmers markets have been growing in popularity and size, especially in the last few years.

His explanation? He said people are starting to be curious and are caring where their food is coming from.

“It is important to expose people to the reality of where their food is coming from,” Mountford said. “People are now questioning how their food is getting to them and if it is good for them.”

Mountford isn’t wrong, according to a 2011 food dialogues survey. The survey focused on opinions, attitudes and questions that consumers and farmers had about the state of how food is raised in the U.S. The study found that “consumers think about food production constantly, yet know very little about how food is brought to the dinner table.”

Mountford believes that consumers asking questions about their food and caring where it is coming from is making a difference.

“You get customers asking restaurant owners, ‘Where did this chicken come from?’ or ‘Where did these vegetables come from?’ People didn’t used to ask these questions. And it helps motivate restaurant owners to buy locally,” he said.

Salsa Del Diablo, a Salt Lake City company, has participated in the Winters Market for two years. It also took part in the Saturday Market for the first time in 2015, one of the four Utah summer markets it participated in last year.

The company carries eight different salsa flavors in the summer, and four in the winter. Salsa Del Diablo motivates customers to buy its products by donating 1 percent of profit to adaptive sports in Utah.

Employee Jennifer Lehmbuck said the local markets are what helped the company break through into grocery stores in 2015.

“Farmers Markets open doors for local companies like Salsa Del Diablo,” Lehmbuck said.

Besides the exposure that the market has provided, Lehmbuck said she has seen other benefits of participating in markets.

“These local farmers markets build community. It helps get people connected with their food and lets them get to know where and whom their food is coming from,” Lehmbuck said. Salsa Del Diablo sources the majority of its salsa ingredients from Bangerter Farms, located in Bountiful, Utah.

Michael Pollan, author of “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation” and creator of the Netflix documentary series “Cooked,” told “Nourish” that “a farmers market is kind of like a public square, and there is a nice social energy. At the farmers market, city meets country. People learn about where their food comes from and the people who grew it.”

Market Manager Einerson said this growth in community is one of the main benefits of a farmers market. It supports the local farmers and vendors.

Winter Market Transitioning to Summer Saturday Market

 The Winter Market at Rio Grande closes for the season on April 23, 2016. But Einerson and vendors are looking ahead to the Saturday Market, which will be taking place for the 25th time this year. “It has been a staple of the community here in Salt Lake City,” Einerson said.

Many of the Winter Market vendors, including Salsa Del Diablo and White Lake Farms, will return for the weekly Saturday Farmers Market. They will be joined by dozens more who did not participate in the seasonal event.

Einerson said the time off in between the markets seems seamless to staff as they work throughout May to approve applications, finalize vendor lists and assign locations in Pioneer Park.

The summer Saturday Farmers Market, along with the Arts and Crafts Market, run June 11 through October 22, 2016, from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m.

“It doesn’t seem like a long break to us because we don’t stop working. But I am sure the public miss it,” Einerson said.

Indeed, for locals like Paula Butler and the Lori Martin who “never miss a market,” the month and a half without a farmers market is too long.

Interested in finding a local farmers market near you? Visit The Salt Lake Tribune for a list of farmers markets near you.




Open mic night at Alchemy Coffee in Salt Lake City

Story and photos by JOSH SOUTAS

It’s a Tuesday night. You make your way through the maze of empty guitar cases to sit down in one of the low, comfy armchairs, with a latte or café mocha in hand, and a scone or muffin on the way. The strong smell of coffee fills the air. The walls are lined with vibrant local art and photography for sale. In the back room you hear the tuning of guitars, while a poet quietly recites one of his newest poems to himself, bouncing his knee nervously.

Next to you, an older man swiftly hand rolls himself a cigarette and tucks it into his pocket for later. Nearby, college students are busy talking about a group project they have just been assigned. All this commotion stops, however, when Bob Bland reaches for the mic.

Welcome to open mic night at Alchemy Coffee, he says.

Alchemy Coffee, located on 390 E. 1700 South in Salt Lake City, is host to open mic night every Tuesday.

Amateurs are drawn to this opportunity to perform original songs or poetry. No “covers” of songs are allowed, which means audiences never know what to expect on any given Tuesday.

A Salt Lake City local performs at Alchemy Coffee.

A Salt Lake City local performs at Alchemy Coffee.

“Some of the performances are awful, some are terrific,” said host Bland, who also is a folk artist. “Regardless we encourage everybody the same.”

Bland, who has been playing folk music for as long as he can remember in private or for friends, said he finally started playing in public after being continuously encouraged by those who had heard him play around the campfire.

“The first few times I played in public I was a nervous wreck,” Bland said.

It is because of this experience that Bland tries to create a warm, welcoming atmosphere. Whether it’s the tradition of holding one finger in the air during the first few seconds of a newcomer’s song or poem to signify that person’s inaugural appearance at Alchemy Coffee, or excessively cheering them on during and after their performance, Bland said it is important to let them know the audience is on the their side.

“The people here at Alchemy Coffee in the audience want you to succeed,” Bland said. “In most cases, like my own, you are your own worst enemy.”


Desirae Sizemore performs poetry in front of a live audience for the first time.

This was the case for Desirae Sizemore, who took the stage for the first time on the night of March 8, 2016. Sizemore, a poet from Salt Lake City, uses poetry as an outlet for her emotions. She said her friends talked her into performing at Alchemy Coffee.

“I was anxious and afraid of judgment. But decided to take the risk,” Sizemore said after performing. “The worst that can happen is to be rejected. We have all survived worse, I know I have.”

After her performance she said she was very pleased with how warm and welcoming the atmosphere and audience were, and added that she would definitely return.

Calzone, a folk artist who goes by that one name, frequents open-mic nights in Salt Lake City. He said the audience at Alchemy Coffee is one of the best he plays for.

“The audience is laid back, the people are respectful and it is always busy,” he said. He has appeared at the coffee shop numerous times over the past year.

Open mic host Bob Bland, who also participates in many different open mic nights as a performer, said the audience at Alchemy Coffee is there to listen. And that is what sets them apart.

“At open mics at bars, or other coffee shops many times people are talking, there are televisions on, people are drinking and you are playing in the background,” Bland said at the end of the evening. “Where here people come to listen, the open mic is the center of attention. As a performer you want to go somewhere where people are listening to the music you worked hard on writing.”

Bland compares performing to rock climbing, another hobby that he is passionate about.

“You can’t improve unless you go for it,” he said. “You fall and the rope catches you. When you perform if you fall the audience will catch you. The anticipation of failing is worse than actually failing.”

Bland encourages performers to remember that even if you think you have failed, you wake up in the morning and are still surrounded by friends and family who love you, and those few minutes in front of the audience don’t matter anymore.

Bland also invites individuals who may be unsure about performing to come to Alchemy Coffee on a Tuesday night.

“Come out, take a deep breath. It isn’t a big deal,” Bland said. “Keep things in perspective and play for yourself, be happy with how you performed. And just go for it.”

Sign ups for open mic start at 6:15 p.m. every Tuesday and fill up quickly, so performers are encouraged to come early. Performances start at 7 p.m. and end at 9 p.m. The limit is 15 minutes per performance or three songs or poems.

University of Utah professor and chef collaborate and create ways to spice up their nutrition class

Story and slideshow by SYDNEY BULL

Catch Chef J Looney in action cooking up some of his favorite dishes.

“Follow your bliss,” Chef J Looney said as he lounged next to the fireplace while enjoying a green smoothie.

Looney is a private chef in the Salt Lake area. He caters events and works for the College of Health at the University of Utah as well. He is obsessed with cooking and shares foods from other cultures around the world with a diverse group of students in the Cultural Aspects of Food class, NUTR-3620.

It all started when Looney was a young kid. His father has been in the food service for a very long time and worked with institutional food, in churches, hospitals and schools on a mass scale.

When Looney was 8 years old, his father managed a cafeteria in a church office building in downtown Salt Lake serving between 3,000 and 5,000 meals a day.

Looney said he fell in love with the action in the kitchen and the look of the large stockpots full of chicken noodle soup and the fact that his dad could make so much food for all those people in need.

Once he turned 14 he lied on his application and told his hiring manager that he was 15 so he could be hired as a dishwasher. He went home every night with the stench of grease and dishwater but loved every second of it.

Looney then spent eight to nine more years there working his way up to line cook and then lead cook. He was finally promoted to managing a prime rib and seafood buffet before he decided to leave the food service industry.

Looney said he realized that he was still making minimum wage compared to all of his friends, which swayed him into working for “corporate America” at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company in central reservations. He worked there for seven years and traveled to many of its hotels.

He spent the next nine years in UPS management, but when he turned 40 years old he said he felt like something was missing. Looney needed that spark. That is when he decided to go back into the food industry again.

He said his wife was hesitant to let him quit at UPS because the pay in the food industry is low and the hours are long. But Looney insisted it was his passion.

“I just want something more,” Looney said. “I want to do something I am passionate about rather than do something just for a paycheck over and over again. I trusted my gut that it was going to work out.”

Word got out that Looney was getting back into food business. His friend Jason, who owns Point of Sale Retail System, called him up and asked Looney for a list of his top five dream jobs.

Looney said that Jason sent out letters of introduction. That is when Karen Olsen, the owner of the Metropolitan, called Looney and offered him an interview with the restaurant’s head chef. (The Metropolitan used to be the crown jewel of Utah’s fine dining but is no longer open in Salt Lake City.)

However, Looney said he met with the head chef and explained that although he had been out of the food service for 15 years, he cooked consistently throughout that time period and still had a huge love and desire toward it.

He was offered an unpaid shift to see if he was qualified enough to work in its kitchen. Looney, who never attended culinary school, said he walked in with only one knife.

The head chef placed Looney at the salad station, and it wasn’t easy. He said after a whole night of feeling completely stressed and demoralized, the head chef offered him the job as a line cook.

Looney said it was still a bad paying job and had long grueling hours but he used it as an opportunity to learn as much as he possibly could from everyone in the kitchen.

Once the Metropolitan closed, Looney became an executive chef at the Prairie Schooner in Ogden, Utah. At the same time, he also got a call from a friend at the U, who wanted his help teaching a nutrition class focused on ethnic foods.

The class, Cultural Aspects of Food, became extremely popular once word got around on campus that there was a chef cooking food for students. Looney worked with another talented cook, Tahmina Martelly, a chemist and licensed nutritionist who works as a professor at the U

After two and a half semesters, the class expanded to four classes a week and became a significant part of Looney and Martelly’s career. Their teamwork allowed her to spend time in the class teaching the cultural factors of each region while Looney spent time in the lab cooking up different recipes according to those regions.

“Food is like a language,” Martelly said. “Food is a huge part of cultural identity and has a sense of home and helps people connect to a new place and also has a healing effect.”

Martelly’s experience with food hits closer to home than most people in the United States. She is a refugee from Bangladesh and now also works as a program director for after-school tutoring and homework help at the International Refugee Center (IRC). In addition, she teaches a computer class to adult refugees to help them gain experience and find future jobs.

The Cultural Aspects of Food class is important to her because of her experience, knowledge and perspective of different cultures covered in the class. She is in the middle of rewriting the course curriculum because the way she teaches is more personable and relatable than other instructors.

Martelly has done a lot of traveling and has more background with these regions compared to the other instructors. She said she wants to help the department apply knowledge from her experiences and standardize those items compared to just teaching out of the textbook.

“When Chef J and I got together he wasn’t as familiar with the cultural stuff,” Martelly said. “Which is why I did most of the teaching and he did the cooking in the lab. He has a teachable spirit, he talks and cooks at the same time. He is very good at interacting with his students. He is a talented cook but very modest and humble. Most chefs I know have a huge ego. But the more we teach and give background information the more he learns and the more familiar he gets with the recipes and the cultures behind them.”

Chef J Looney found his bliss. So on top of teaching he began cooking for athletes, doctors, families and friends. He said he makes a pretty good living now, to the point where his wife is completely happy and satisfied.

“I started promoting that I can cook meals for individuals and families while also catering events,” he said. “I have a pretty solid client list, about 20 people that I cook for at any given time. On Mondays I go grocery shopping, Tuesday I spend cooking all day and Thursdays and Fridays I spend planning out the meals for the following week. It’s a good gig and the days in between I spend on campus teaching because I want to. That’s basically how I got into the whole personal chef thing and wedding season is coming up so I have a few weddings scheduled for the next six months.”

Looney rarely cooks at people’s houses, he mainly works out of a commissary kitchen on Redwood Road, which gives him plenty of space to prep meals for the week. Around 8 a.m. he and his staff prepare approximately 10 different meals within five hours. Then when completed he and his staff send the coolers off to be delivered to the clients’ door. Typically he makes about five lunches and five dinners per client. However, his bodybuilding clients are a little high-maintenance.

Not in a bad way though, they just require about six smaller meals a day and have a very selective menu to choose from. Because Looney is so familiar with flavoring his meals, it helps bodybuilders spice up their foods without going over their macros, the number of grams of protein, carbohydrates, and fats they consume on a particular day. That is why Looney occasionally offers a Bodybuilder’s Meal Prep Class to demonstrate cooking skills and items that can make their food taste better without sabotaging their physical gains.

Looney is an experienced cook and does his best in social media marketing. But most of his marketing is done by word of mouth because he leaves all of his clients and students feeling not only full and satisfied but also inspired.

Chef J Looney and Tahmina Martelly are a dynamic duo in the classroom and have worked very hard to be successful human beings. They are prime examples of the cliché phrase, “follow your dreams.” But how else can one be truly happy if he or she is not taking risks and living life fully?

“My whole underlying theme to my life thus far is, just do what you love,” Looney said. “I spent 15 years in ‘corporate America’ because I thought I needed a paycheck. And when I really took the leap to follow what I wanted to do made all the difference. And yes I took a lot of risks and it hasn’t been smooth sailing, there’s been some huge learning lessons, a lot of pain, blood, sweat and tears getting there. But I have never been happier in my life. So whatever the price you have to pay to follow your bliss, pay the price. Build your lifestyle around what it is you love doing, not the other way around.”

The H may be a mystery, but Hires is not

Story and photos by BRANDON RISLEY

Come see why Hires Big H has been one of the most popular restaurants in Salt Lake City for over 50 years.

Walk into any Hires Big H and you’ll almost certainly find a crowd. This is particularly true for the restaurant at the corner of 400 South and 700 East in Salt Lake City.HiresBigH_Stand

Hires Drive In was founded in 1959 by Don Hale. He originally worked for his family’s grocery store that they created to help with money during the Great Depression.

Mark Hale, a son of Don Hale and current co-owner of Hires with his brother Jon, said that during the time of the Great Depression Don worked a lot with fresh meats and produce and developed a keen sense for how burgers should be made.

Mark talked about how his father wanted out of the of the grocery business. “He hated it,” he said. “He had to work long hours and did the same things every single day. Because of the store he knew his way around a grill and with his knowledge of food he wanted to start his own restaurant.”

Mark said his father purchased property in the early 1950s by his family’s grocery store in hopes to one day open his own place. When Don finally had the money to build, he completed his first restaurant. To this day it still stands at the same street corner in Salt Lake City.

Before Don opened his restaurant’s doors he still couldn’t figure out what to name it. Mark said that Don Hale had taken a trip to California before the restaurant’s first day to get away from the store for a bit. He visited a place called Bob’s Big Boy and fell in love with burgers there. “He wanted to name it after [Bob’s Big Boy] but it had already been trademarked,” Mark said.

Shortly before the store opening day a salesperson for Hires Root Beer was making rounds asking if people wanted to sell Hires at their establishments.

“My father figured, ‘Yeah that’s not a bad idea. A tall, cold glass of root beer would go great with a burger,’” Mark said. According to Hires Big H website, when Don took the deal Hires sent him a sign to put up above his restaurant to help advertise Hires and not long after the name of Hires Drive In came to life.

Mark said the restaurant was doing very well but his father wanted to spice up the place by adding something new. “His mother used to make a kind of Thousand Island dressing-type sauce that had a pink color to it. My father loved the sauce and figured it would taste great on a hamburger,” Mark said.IMG_5459

Don experimented with a few different ingredients until he finally created the sauce he adored as a kid. He then put it on a burger and the Big H Burger was created.

Mark said the customers loved the sauce so much that they asked for cups of it to dip in their fries. The experiment took off and Hires’s signature fry sauce was then invented. According to Don Hale’s obituary, published in the Salt Lake Tribune in January 2011, the company was then producing more than 10,000 gallons of fry sauce annually for its restaurants and retail.

Mark said that he can’t reveal exactly what is in fry sauce. “It’s a family trade secret but essentially it starts with ketchup and mayonnaise,” Mark said.

According to the Tribune article, the Big H led to a whole new line of burgers such as the Western H, which is basically the Big H with bacon, and Country H, which comes with BBQ sauce. With the “H” added to the menu, Don decided to rename his restaurant from Hires Drive In to Hires Big H.

Mark said that Don never actually told his customers exactly what the H stood for. “The rumors going around were that it was either Hale, Hires or hamburger,” Mark said. According to the Tribune article, Don only had this to say to his customers: “Let’s just say it’s one of those.”

Mark said that with old age and many years of work setting in for Don he handed ownership over to his oldest son Jon in 1980. Five years later Mark joined his brother as co-owner. “We’ve tried to keep things as similar as possible to when my father first opened the place,” Mark said. “We did a remodel shortly after taking over and tried to bring it more back to what it felt like in the ’50s but for the most part we’ve tried to keep it the same with the same items and feel.”

Don Hale died on Jan. 29, 2011, at the age of 93. “We were devastated with our loss but we knew my father had led a successful and happy life,” Mark said.

Mark said his father believed in hard work, quality of food and bringing together a community. Long-time Salt Lake City resident Celeste Bennett said she’s been coming to Hires Big H since it opened. “We had just moved from Denver [and we] used to live off 600 South and 800 East,” Bennett said. “We’ve been going to Hires ever since the ’60s. When we first met DoIMG_5454n as he was walking around the restaurant we were just blown away by how nice he was. He not only asked us if everything tasted good but also talked to us about our move to Salt Lake and how we liked the city.”

Mark went on to say, “My father didn’t just want to create a place with great tasting food, which he did, but he wanted to create a place the friends and families could come to celebrate life. It’s kind of become our mission statement.”

Mark also said Hires’s fame has been helped by articles written in publications such as the Wall Street Journal and USA Today.

Cassidy Simpson, a student at the U, has loved Hires Big H ever since she moved to Utah in August 2013. “I love this place so much,” Simpson said. “There isn’t really a local burger joint close to my house in Las Vegas and so coming here and experiencing something as awesome as this is just incredible. The burgers taste like heaven.” Simpson also talked about the fry sauce. “I’d heard that fry sauce was created in Utah and after tasting it with one of the yummy fries at Hires I’m very glad that they did.”

Mark said owning Hires Big H has been one of the greatest joys in his life. “I love seeing people happy,” he said. “I love seeing them so content and satisfied and it just makes me smile. They come together and bond and become happier from the moment they walk through the doors.”

The best part about Hires Big H? “The community has all came together over a simple hamburger,” Mark said.

Zest Kitchen and Bar provides organic dining in Salt Lake City

Story and slideshow by RYAN CARRILLO

Visit Zest Kitchen and Bar and see some of the amazing organic dishes.


Nestled between some of the biggest chain restaurants in Salt Lake City, Zest Kitchen and Bar provides a dining experience that no one else can.

The restaurant, located at 275 S. 200 West, is reinventing healthy eating by providing a menu free of processed foods that tastes incredible. Everything the restaurant serves is also 100 percent organic.

“Everything’s fresh, and that’s really what I wanted is fresh and organic real food that came from whole foods and not from a box,” said Casey Staker, the restaurant owner. He opened the bar and restaurant nearly 2 and 1/2 years ago.

Staker has crafted a menu of 35 unique items between brunch, lunch, dinner and dessert. The restaurant offers an eclectic fusion of ethnic tastes and American favorites while using healthier ingredients than nearly anywhere else. It also offers a more “grown-up” environment, being for individuals 21 years old and older.

The brunch menu, available on Fridays and Saturdays (11 a.m. to 3 p.m.) features perfectly sculpted buckwheat pancakes or a fresh southwest skillet with quinoa, cheese, black beans and fresh pico de gallo, among other entrees. The brunch menu also includes the “best mimosas in town” for just $5, which come in a variety of flavors.

Zest’s lunch menu provides options that are hard to find anywhere else. Selections range from fresh fruit smoothies and small plate items like cheesey Brazilian bread bites to a fresh kale salad and larger entrée items like coconut curry forbidden rice. For people looking for less-healthy health food there is “barely buzzed beehive” grilled cheese, which puts a fresh spin on an American favorite by pairing it with the soup of the day, pesto and seasonal fruit.

The dinner menu mixes things up by offering mostly shared plates or larger entrees, while still featuring fresh salads and perfectly blended juices. This particular menu is home to beet and walnut dip served with fresh veggies, baked mushrooms with cashew cheese and a tomato and eggplant ratatouille that comes with spinach quinoa.

Perhaps the best part of the menu comes after the entrées, soups and salads have been cleared away: dessert. Staker takes the same approach from his entrees and appetizers and applies it toward dessert staples, creating sweet, succulent cakes and tortes. One of these masterpieces is a carrot cake topped with rich cream cheese, shaved carrot and orange peel.

Tim Hurty, a local resident, has visited Zest Kitchen and Bar on multiple occasions. He is fond of the black bean chia patties served on a multigrain bun. Being a dedicated vegan, he was drawn to the restaurant because of its ability to accommodate his dietary needs. At Zest he is able to enjoy a delicious meal without fear of cross-contamination, which occurs when animal byproducts come in contact with any of the ingredients used in the meal.

Being a vegetarian himself, Staker’s menu is completely free of meat. Many of the dishes are also vegan and the staff is currently working to provide vegan accommodations for all their menu items. Not only that, all the dishes are gluten-free as well.

“Naturally by design vegetarian food or [rather] healthy vegetarian food is almost always gluten-free,” Staker said. As a restaurant owner, the needs of his customers seem to be a driving force behind the menu selection.

Billy McMichael is the head chef at the restaurant. Having worked in vegetarian restaurants for 10 years he understands the importance of these dietary restrictions in the lives of his customers.

“The Zest mission is to be inclusive,” McMichael said. “So almost any allergy you have, you can come here and get a good meal anyway.”

McMichael personally likes the challenge that comes with providing healthy food without sacrificing the taste. It forces him to be creative and innovative with the dishes he and the other staff members prepare.

“It’s been nice to come here where it is less about copying meat style dishes,” he said. “[It’s] more about charting your own path, making things that people haven’t done before, working with more ethnic variety, more variety of produce. I can’t just cheat and flavor up a big piece of tofu and put it with some mashed potatoes and say ‘here’s dinner.’”

The restaurant is also nearly free of soy and doesn’t use any peanuts. For individuals with any of these dietary restrictions, whether forced or voluntary, a restaurant with Zest’s knowledge and dedication is heaven-sent.

For vegans it can be difficult to find a restaurant that fully understands the difference between their needs and vegetarians. Vegetarians limit their diet to not eat any killed animals while vegans take it a step further by not eating anything from an animal. This eliminates things like eggs, milk and cheeses. While there are several restaurants in the Salt Lake Valley that can accommodate  the needs of both groups, there are few, if any, that also match Zest’s focus to overall health.

Zest Kitchen and Bar is also the only dedicated gluten-free restaurant in the city, which may come as a surprise as the gluten-free trend continues to grow and has created a multibillion dollar industry. Chain and local restaurants alike are expanding gluten-free menu items, but none have entirely abandoned the ingredient. Salt Lake is home to several bakeries that are dedicated gluten-free but that’s where it stops.

For individuals with Celiac Disease, a severe autoimmune disease that is triggered by gluten, Zest’s commitment offers them a hidden benefit that most people don’t see. The symptoms of the disease can be unleashed with the slightest trace of gluten in someone’s food. That means that even eating a gluten-free meal, if prepared in a standard restaurant kitchen where gluten is also used, can potentially cause symptoms to flare-up since the food may come into contact with gluten in a variety of ways. Since Zest’s kitchen is dedicated gluten-free there is zero chance for cross contamination. No one else in the area can offer that.

What may be most surprising is why Staker and his staff run the restaurant this way.

“I didn’t do this restaurant because I was sick,” said the owner. “I did it because I wanted a healthy place to eat.”

Zest is also “healthy” for the economy. The restaurant tries to buy as much local product as possible, supporting local merchants throughout the year. Since the menu is dependent on fresh fruits and vegetables this can become difficult as the seasons change.

“In the summer we do as much local [shopping] as we can. We still get our greens from a local greenhouse,” Staker said. “We have a special salad that’s always local. [The selection of produce] gets better and better when it gets warmer. Spring, summer, fall we have a lot of local stuff. During winter we have to outsource. Our goal is to support local.”

That commitment to the local community doesn’t stop just in the restaurant’s shopping practices. The staff is active in the community, exposing new people to their food on a regular basis and helping them make better dietary decisions.

During the summer of 2014, Zest operated a booth at the summer farmers market at Pioneer Park, 350 S. 300 West. In 2015, the restaurant is ditching the booth for a more mobile option.

Soon Zest Kitchen and Bar will be unveiling Utah’s first health food truck. The truck will be featured at health conventions like the gluten-free and healthy living expos. Staker is excited for the opportunities the truck will give the restaurant.

He says that public response has been great whenever Zest has had a booth at these types of events, so the food truck response should be even better.

“When we go to the gluten-free expo people say ‘oh my gosh you guys actually have real food. You guys are serving heathy vegetables and dips and stuff,’” he said. “At the gluten-free expo it’s cakes and cookies and packaged stuff.”

The restaurant’s truck is scheduled to debut at the end of April 2015 once preparations are finalized; an exact date has not been set yet.