Saturday, August 8, 2020

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Moab, UT

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Moab
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    Eklecticafe was cramped but quaint. Then the virus hit

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    For many Moabites who loyally packed into Eklecticafe on Sunday mornings for a fresh breakfast, chai latte and a seat in the garden, which was comparable in size to the restaurant itself, the visit was a refreshing if sometimes congested experience.

    Julie Fox stands in front of her now-closed cafe.
    Julie Fox stands in front of Eklecticafe, a business she started about 24 years ago and which she recently decided (jointly with her employees) to close amid the pandemic. Photo by Carter Pape

    The tightness was among the cafe’s unique features. It wasn’t just the customers who might have confused the building for a hole in the wall; line cooks prepping plates for whatever rush the kitchen was currently satisfying were crammed into an unenviably tight space of their own in the back of the restaurant.

    “I like a little crowding,” said Julie Fox, owner of Eklecticafe. “I’m from a big family. I’m the oldest of six kids, and we were always sort of crowding together, so I’m comfortable with crowding.”

    Nonetheless, the close quarters could sometimes prove to be a bit too much, Fox said. “Not everyone could take it.”

    Amid a months-long pandemic that Fox expected would drag on longer than most people anticipated, she and her staff decided they could no longer take it, either. Eklectica is now closed permanently, and Fox has put the property up for sale.

    As she discussed the closure, sitting in front of the business she has owned and operated for roughly 24 years, speaking to an interviewer the same age as the restaurant itself, a couple walked up, expecting to go inside to order a meal.

    “We’re closed, sorry,” she told the would-be customers. As they began to walk away, she lamented, “It’s so sad to say that, even though there’s a relief for me, but the COVID thing… I just couldn’t sustainably reopen, and I just wasn’t willing to personally bankrupt myself. That was the question.”

    European tourism in particular has evaporated, a sector Fox said was key to her business staying afloat. The restaurant is featured in some tour books of Moab, but that publicity has done next to nothing for her in recent months.

    Amid travel restrictions and social distancing guidelines, an airborne coronavirus has debilitated local economies, driven small businesses out of existence and claimed the lives of, to date, more than 500,000 people worldwide. Many more have survived the disease only to see loved ones die, suffer or become isolated.

    Moab has been an exception, but only in terms of death toll. No Grand County resident has died from COVID-19, and only 14 residents to date have tested positive for the virus. As a state, Utah has lost 164 people to the disease, including seven from San Juan County. The Navajo Nation, where many locals have family, has lost 362 of its residents to the coronavirus.

    Economically, Moab is barely recognizable from what it has been in previous years. Many local businesses, including Fox’s, have permanently closed due to the downturn, and it hasn’t just been restaurants; local arts store Imagination Station was among the first to fold in the area as the owner began pivoting to printing graphic T-shirts.

    Not wanting to be one of the victims of the health impacts of coronavirus, and her employees together voting that they also couldn’t tolerate the risk it posed, Fox joined the procession of local businesses folding this month.

    The closure has left her missing regular customers she said she is hoping to reconnect with away from the service counter, separated from the former employees who endured the crucible of food service in a red-hot tourism destination and on edge about the return she will end up getting on the sale of the property.

    But the timing of the pandemic-forced closure, in a way, was right. Fox has grown weary in recent years of what she called “too much volume” of tourism in Moab. While she said she didn’t want to “bite the hand” that feeds her, she also said the boom the area has experienced in recent years “erodes locals’ quality of life,” something that affects the people she had employed — and herself.

    “Too much property is gone to second home-owners, and there’s not enough opportunity for kids,” Fox said. “That bothers me.”

    Fox also said that she had considered closing the restaurant only the year prior, although she had been saying that “for the past five years.” The end of her infatuation with and energy for running the business had run out, she said. For context, Fox is 69.

    Yet Fox continues to exude an entrepreneurial, self-starting spirit and explained some business concepts she had been juggling in her head. “I have ideas,” Fox said, chuckling. “I’m not sure I want them to come to fruition.”

    Whether she starts up something else, and where she would start it up, remains undecided. For now, she is enjoying what she can of not maintaining a business, and she is reflecting on the experience as she writes a book based on her life at the restaurant — a cookbook.

    “I’m sending recipes to my nieces, and they’re testing because a lot of things are in huge quantities, and you have to be careful when you break that down,” Fox said.

    Writing a book, which will include some of the most popular recipes Eklectica made over the years, along with narrative elements reflecting on that two-decade history, is in line with some of the extracurricular activities the café supported.

    Fox originated Moab’s annual Art Walk, working with a handful of local businesses that, like hers, had art to display and sell that locals wanted to see and buy. The restaurant also supported free breakfast giveaways with donated items, poetry readings and even a writer’s conference in the early 2000s.

    Fox said she hopes the cookbook will be “a real thing” by this time next year. For now, she’s enjoying the time she has off and using it to reflect.

    “I’ve seen river kids grow up and bring their kids back to visit,” Fox said. “I feel like I was open for a generational cycle. Some of my employees were teenagers when I started, so I’ve known them most of their lives. That kind of continuity in a community is really cool.”

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