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The City Journals

Loyal customers keep Midvale's longest-running restaurants afloat amid pandemic

Jun 08, 2020 10:49AM ● By Sarah Morton Taggart

By Sarah Morton Taggart | [email protected]

Chris Hase opened the Midvale Mining Cafe & Catering on May 30, 1985. The restaurant, located at 390 W. 7200 South was open seven days a week for nearly 35 years until the coronavirus pandemic brought operations to a halt.

On March 16, Gov. Gary Herbert ordered restaurants to suspend dine-in service to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Midvale Mining Cafe tried take-out only starting the next day, but lasted only four weeks. Sales were down 83% and it didn’t make business sense to stay open.

“When I closed it down I had tears in my eyes,” Hase said. “I didn’t know what to do. It was emotional.”

Hase grew up in Midvale and has served on the board of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Salt Lake for decades. He has received many local tokens of recognition, including the Midvale Arts Council Hall of Honors. 

Down the street at 115 W. 7200 South is El Farol Mexican Restaurant. It was opened in 1967 by Rafael Torres, and it’s currently owned and operated by his granddaughter, Dolores “Lolita” Medina.

After the order to close restaurants, to-go orders at El Farol went way up but overall sales were cut in half. Then a mentor reached out and asked if Medina would be willing to go on TV.

“It really forced me out of my bubble,” Medina said. “I’ll do anything for my business. I’m not ready for it to go down the tubes.”

Being featured on the local news boosted business at El Farol. Offering an “emergency food pack” take-out special also helped.

“I said let’s do tamales,” Medina said. “Whenever there’s a baptism, or for Day of the Dead or the morning after a wedding, there’s tamales. It’s like a Mexican comfort food. I think that really helped us sustain business.”

But sales were still 30% lower than usual.

“One day we had paid half of our rent, half of our utilities, and we had payroll coming up,” Medina said. “We were in the red and needed to buy product to stay open. A wonderful family member came by and left $200 with a note. It gave us just enough to get by. There’s no other way we would have survived while waiting for the government programs to kick in.”

El Farol also received generous donations, including two months worth of Coca-Cola products from the Kingdom Church of God in Christ — just as they were about to run out.

One customer told Medina, “this was my parent’s favorite place. They’re gone, so we come now.” Another said, “I used to work for your grandpa, and he was so nice to me.”

“Honestly, what helped us survive was our customers who cared,” Medina said. “Their tips sustained us.”

The chalkboard inside El Farol that normally lists specials now displays a thank you note to customers: “Your purchase today saved 15 families, 5 college educations, 2 cats, 2 geckos and 2 birds and fish.”

“All these families depend on us,” Medina said. “My employees are the best. They’ve stuck with us, even when we’ve had to cut their hours or put in extra hours when we’ve needed them.”

El Farol resumed dining room service on May 1. Medina posted a video on Facebook outlining some of the changes they’ve made to keep staff and customers safe, including bare tables that are easier to clean and disposable menus and chip baskets.

Joe Morley’s Smoked Beef & BBQ, located at 100 W. Center St., has also been around for 30 years. They stayed open for take-out and delivery and had plans to open the dining room in May.

Meanwhile, Hase finished some needed renovations at Midvale Mining Cafe during the temporary shutdown. The restaurant opened again for take-out and sit-down on May 7.

“We clean everything with every customer,” Hase said. “Only one person is allowed in the bathroom at a time, we put shields in place (at the counter), booths are over 6 feet apart, and all employees wear masks and gloves. If (an employee) is sick, they go home. Our customers’ safety is first and foremost.”

Business was steady but slow the first weekend back in business.

“It’s tough on a guy that’s worked all his life,” Hase said. “We’re running at 60% and just trying to keep afloat. We need our customers back. We need them to trust us and come in and eat. We’re open for business, running our full menu and daily specials. We specialize in fresh seafood, which a lot of people don’t know.”

Hase remembers the late 1990s when a road construction project put many nearby family-owned restaurants out of business. 

“We survived that and we’ll survive this, too. I need this job. My employees need this job. And Midvale needs this little cafe.”

El Farol also continues to struggle.

“Our food is very simple, very traditional,” Medina said. “I’m such a foodie, and I believe in using good ingredients. Some days there’s a beef shortage. I had to run around today trying to find chicken. It’s crazy.”

But the mood at El Farol, which means “lantern” in Spanish, is light. “When customers aren’t looking, we’re dancing and singing,” Medina said.

Medina shared a saying in Spanish that translates roughly as “sometimes you have to go through bad things for good things to happen.”

“Before this, I always thought about the past being most important (for El Farol),” Medina said. “Having COVID happen incorporated my part in this story. With me, the third generation is able to continue my family’s legacy. It’s been a blending of miracles. The generations from beyond are helping us. I have hope. That’s the biggest thing here is hope.”