‘We want to pay it forward where we can’: Local restaurant turns hardship into purpose

ST. GEORGE — Many agree that when someone is homeless or living in poverty, hungry and feeling they have nowhere to turn, there is nothing better than a hot meal to fill the stomach and improve the outlook on the day.

The Switchpoint Community Resource Center, St. George, Utah, Aug 21, 2018 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Homeless advocates say that organizations such as the Switchpoint Community Resource Center in St. George can play a pivotal role in filling in the gaps that many of Southern Utah’s homeless and poor face, but they also say it takes a village to care for the growing number of people in need.

One of the latest to join the fight, partnering with Switchpoint, is the Cliffside Restaurant.

Since reopening dine-in service May 1, the restaurant has provided weekly meals to 120 people at Switchpoint’s homeless shelter, its COVID-19 quarantine location and the Crossover Recovery Center in Hilldale.

Switchpoint Executive Director Carol Hollowell said that Cliffside stepping up has been an incredible gift.

Considering a growing number of people in need, Hollowell added, combined with the “huge” loss of volunteers, the existing staff is stretched to the limit.

To have one day of relief each week is a blessing, she said.

However, Cliffside controller Dan Rich said they are actually the ones who have been blessed.

“We recognized that we’ve been given much by this community, and we want to pay it forward where we can,” Rich said. “With the shelter and all the individuals that are there, it must be like Christmas to receive Cliffside meals. To give them a glimmer of hope is awesome to be involved with.”

What began as an effort to feed its furloughed employees during the statewide restaurant shutdown that began on March 18 morphed into an idea to partner with Swichpoint to help feed its residents.

Cliffside Restaurant’s Executive Chef Eric Gburski works hard and plays hard. He loves his job and is humbled by the honor to help feed St. George’s hungry. Photo courtesy Eric Gburski, St. George News

Through the support of the Inn on the Cliff and its adjacent Cliffside Restaurant, the owners, investors and management quickly embraced the goal of feeding the hungry at Switchpoint.

This task was placed in the hands of executive chef Eric Gburski.

“We didn’t think things were going to be as drastic as they turned out,” Gburski said. “In the beginning we had choices … so I decided to stretch the food we had by feeding family meals every day, for at least one meal, to our staff. For us, we knew we had to give a little more of ourselves to those who gave so much to us.”

Every day, it was a bit of an Iron Chef approach, Gburski said with a smile.

Opening the door on the walk-in refrigerator, the 30-year culinary industry veteran came up with menus on the fly with anything he had on hand.

Along with the daily food service, the simple act of coming together gave the disenfranchised employees, management and ownership a chance to make sure everyone was doing well and cared for, Gburski said.

Some days Cliffside would feed more than 30 of its employees.

As the food stock became depleted, ownership continued to step up to the plate to help their staff as federal assistance through the federal CARES Act became available.

Although Cliffside lost 25% of its staff, it has managed to bounce back since reopening under strict COVID-19 protocols.

Currently, the restaurant and inn have a workforce of approximately 55 full- and part-time employees.

Although the first federal payments under the Paycheck Protection Program mandated strict uses to keep employees on the payroll, the regulations soon loosened up, and the vision to help feed those struggling during COVID-19 took shape. Through the federal loan and financial commitments from Cliffside’s investors and management, the partnership with Switchpoint began.

“It took a little while to get all the ducks into a row so that we could do what we wanted to do, but because the restaurant was already up and running again I decided to take over the process of feeding Swithpoint residents,” Gburski said. “On the day that we deliver meals, my staff takes over restaurant operations. I really have a great team.”

Born and raised in Connecticut, Gburski moved to St. George about six years ago to be closer to family.

Ivan Mendoza, Cliffside Sous Chef puts the finishing touches on some lip smacking ribs. St. George, Utah, Aug. 14, 2020 | Photo by David Louis, St. George News

It was no surprise that he would find his way to the Cliffside Restaurant.

Gburski, a magna cum laude graduate in culinary arts from Johnson and Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, said he doesn’t necessarily see the restaurant as a “fine dining” establishment.

“Our job here at Cliffside is to maintain the highest quality product that we possibly can and do it in an environment that is enjoyable and welcoming,” he said. “My job is to keep our culinary vision moving forward … but I am one member of our team. Yes, I am in charge of morale and organization, but I can’t do this job alone. It’s really about the fundamentals of teamwork. The goal ultimately is always to be different than what everyone else is doing in town.”

Restaurant reviews have described Gbrurski’s approach as embracing both modern and classic cooking techniques in a straightforward, delicious, upscale casual, contemporary way.

The American style he brings to the table combines scratch-made food, bold flavors, locally sourced ingredients, fresh products, and dishes that are plated with what one review called “elegant details,” adding that it seemed like everything was made with “love, care and skill.”

“I find that food is the fastest way to the soul,” Gburski said. “If someone is having a bad day, I know we can give them something to look forward to. We want local residents, visitors and the clients at Switchpoint to know we are honored to prepare the very best food for them.”

Although the culinary directions are similar, for Switchpoint residents Gburski leans toward comfort meals such as barbecue chicken, cornbread, macaroni salad and watermelon, while elevating the flavor profile.

Along with fantastic views of St. George from its dining room, the Cliffside Restaurant’s outdoor patio frames the perfect picture for a memorable moment. St. George, Utah, Aug. 14, 2020 | Photo by David Louis, St. George News

“I want to give them an adventure,” he said. “I try to build our meals upon a culinary trip … and for the restaurant service, stretch the envelope a little bit.”

The Inn on the Cliff with its 27 rooms and the adjoining restaurant has a storied history in St. George dating back to 1976 when the Sullivan family opened it as the Rococo Inn & Steak House upon what would become Tech Ridge decades later.

Although they were thriving businesses because of the proximity next to the airport on the ridge, both eventually went out of business and sat vacant for years before the current owners, Tom and Dorothy Heers stepped in — backed by a small cadre of investors, consultants and staff — worked to reopen the properties.

“Everyone saw this place and the potential it had,” Rich said. “We put in the effort and attention necessary to bring it back to life.”

The inn opened on Feb. 14, 2014, and the restaurant two months later on April 15.

“The goal has always to become an iconic restaurant, a true St. George culinary destination,” Rich said. “And I think we are just about there.”

Rich added that the partnership with Switchpoint is planned to continue into the future.

For more information about Switchpoint Community Resource Center and services offered, visit the Switchpoint website.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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