Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.
Plum Alley's Mo Segrave-Daly, Ryan Lowder and Tara Juhl. [Photo: David Vogel]
Less than two years after the successful opening of his first Salt Lake City restaurant, chef/restaurateur Ryan Lowder doubled down on the city last year with the debut of Plum Alley. Located right next door to its sister restaurant Copper Onion, Plum Alley had a few hiccups in its arrival when "antiquated" Utah liquor laws forced Lowder to modify his concept from a bar into an Asian restaurant. Fortunately, people in Salt Lake City took a shine to Plum Alley — even with its all-communal dining scheme. And Bon Appétit even named it one of their 50 Best New Restaurants of the year.
Here now, Lowder, chef de cuisine Tara Juhl and front of the house manager Mo Segrave-Daly discuss Plum Alley's constant evolution, Utah liquor laws, and how the restaurant won over the people of Salt Lake City and established its own identity.
How did the concept come about for Plum Alley?
Ryan Lowder: Well, I was cheffing in New York before I came [back] to Salt Lake [and] we opened Copper Onion, which is New American. My Sunday Funday ritual in New York was always going to New York Noodletown or Joe's Shanghai and having dumplings or going to Ippudo and having ramen. We just couldn't find that type of food here. Plum Alley was originally supposed to be a wine bar and halfway through we learned that because of Utah's liquor laws we couldn't actually do a bar. We had to do a restaurant. So we shifted gears very quickly: "Hey, let's do an American Asian concept" based on food we wanted to eat and that wouldn't necessarily compete with Copper Onion.
At what point in the buildout was that when you discovered it?
RL: It was really halfway through construction. We're still aiming for Plum Alley to be a bar-restaurant, but the way Utah liquor laws work, with the type of license we have you need what they call here a Zion Curtain. So you can't see somebody preparing a drink. Which is absolutely ridiculous. I think the legislature is realizing it is ridiculous, so it's looking to change them. But in order for us to operate as a bar-restaurant we have to have this next level of license called a club license.
So is that something you're applying for?
RL: Yeah, that's something that we're looking to have in the next few months. We'll shut the concept down for about a week, revisit the bar construction we originally had set up, and then keep the Plum Alley concept going. We're not changing the concept, we're just going to add a little more serious cocktail program.
Do you have to build a bar?
RL: No, we already have a bar, but it's more like a service counter. We have people sitting at the bar, but we have this hidden little knobby corner where we make cocktails right now. So we can open that up to the rest of the restaurant.
Mo Segrave-Daly: Our bar right now is just essentially counter-style seating. Although we have the full bar, we can't use that functionality with our current license. Once we get that license we can expand our drink program a little bit more and just make it more of a functional area as opposed to the extended storage its essentially become right now.
Tell me more about this law and why you can't have cocktails prepared in front of the public.
RL: I think it was in the '60s or '70s, they had this law to try to keep restaurants from turning into bars. These people up on the Hill creating these laws know nothing about drinking. They don't drink. That's the reality of it. That's why they put it into place. It doesn't make any sense. Don't try to make too much sense of it because you won't.
MSD: Yeah it seems like at this point they're realizing it's an antiquated law. Over the past 10 years or so, Utah has made some pretty good improvements in the direction of liquor laws. But it seems like they just can't completely drop it. They're easing away from it slowly.
RL: As the food scene here grows — it's grown by leaps and bounds in the last probably five years — there's a lot of pressure to change some of these crazy little laws.
That's good. So how did your menu-planning go?
RL: Well, the original menu was pork belly and curry heavy. We came into this going, "Let's cook whatever we want." We started off cooking more Southeast Asian, Malaysian style food. We've since kind of loosened it up that now we'll do things like butternut squash and brussels sprouts with local honey and fish sauce topped with a little bit of cilantro. We've gotten away from "Let's do a traditional rendang" to "Let's accent these dishes with Asian flavors."
What prompted that shift?
Tara Juhl: We opened in the winter and the heavy food, the curry, the pork belly was really nice. But we started getting local vegetables and seasonal stuff and I think that started opening us up more to lighter fare. We started getting busier with people requesting more of a vegetarian and a vegan variety. We try to cover all of our bases. We still have the curry, we still do a traditional rendang, but we also are trying to use local stuff, trying to use what's available to us here in Salt Lake.
RL: And the way I open restaurants, it's kind of like things change almost daily. We're trying to see what works and what doesn't work. The Copper Onion when it originally opened, we brought on a bread program, we brought on an ice cream program, we started doing pastrami. The thing with Plum is we had an idea, but then we just started playing with things and it evolved from that.
And how about your opening day? How did that go?
MSD: Opening day was pretty smooth for us. We did two nights of friends and family, kind of a soft opening ahead of time. After Copper Onion and their successful first year, we already had a lot of people who were aware of our existence and we used Copper Onion as a catalyst.
Do you see a lot of crossover between the two in your customer base?
MSD: Initially it took us some time to establish our own identity. We're the same owners and the same concept of using fresh local and seasonal ingredients, [but] the cuisines and the atmospheres are completely different. That's not to say that we don't have crossover customers, but we certainly established our own identity. There are some nights were Copper Onion is slamming and there are other nights when vice versa is happening.
We'll get to some of your other accolades in a minute, but when you first opened how was the local reception?
RL: It's a pretty progressive concept for this town. It's all communal seating. Basically everything was ordered fired as far as the food. Loud music like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. I think it freaked people out a little bit. Some people didn't know what to think of it, I think. But the best sign we had is that we were full every night.
I did read about the communal tables and how that was a new trend for Salt Lake at the time. How has that gone over?
MSD: It was pretty new. There are a handful of restaurants that have a communal table. But I think to have nothing but communal tables was kind of a shock for everyone. We have bar-style seating and communal tables, so you're essentially always next to someone. When it was mellower at the beginning of the night, everyone would prefer to sit on the end of a table. But once it would fill up, people would become OK with it. And then by the end of the meal they would all end up chatting with each other and getting recommendations. I saw very few people leave continuing to be opposed to the communal seating, even the people who didn't seem too stoked about it when they initially sat down.
Did you get a lot of complaints at first?
MSD: I wouldn't say so much complaints as they didn't realize until you were sitting them down that they were sitting in the middle of a table that already had people at it. And they just kind of go with it. Very few legitimately upset people over the communal dining. And if they were that upset then we had counter seating to offer them.
RL: We had other people that could sit there, too.
Good point. And how was it when the reviews started coming in?
RL: Our reviews were really good actually. We have a local, like the Village Voice, it's called the City Weekly here and then the Salt Lake Tribune. They were both actually rave reviews. Bon Appétit [50 Best New Restaurants] was great.
Did you get a bump with the Bon Appétit write-up?
RL: We were already pretty busy. It's just like coming into Sundance. We have the good fortune of being busy a lot so we don't see this 50 percent increase in business due to events or write-ups. But yeah, certainly people were coming in mentioning it.
Are there any other changes you've made through the year or lessons learned?
RL: We have a full-on butcher room. It's a room with stainless steel and we're utilizing it more with local animals we're bringing in. That's happening more. We're putting together a test kitchen that will service both restaurants. We're looking to do possibly a couple cheeses, some meats, more pickle production and fermenting. There's only so many pickles you can fit in the walk-in. We're trying to figure out how to make more things. We do all of our steam buns, we do our ramen noodles in-house. Shanghai noodles in-house. We're looking to increase the production of what we can do with this new production test kitchen, so I think in the next year it'll change a lot just because we'll be able to do more.
Finally, does it feel like it's been a year?
RL: It feels like it's been 20 years and Copper felt like it was 30 years, so I should probably be dead. It's a lot of work. I always think it feels like ages ago since we opened up the restaurant.
TJ: Yeah it feels like a very long time ago with the changes.
RL: You know the restaurant business. Especially the first year in a new restaurant, it's kind of a bunch of masochists. I think most people would sit at home at cut themselves.