ST. GEORGE — After Nevada’s strict COVID-19 restrictions had all but forced Jamie and Brandon Ashby to close their restaurant in Boulder City, they packed their belongings into a moving truck and headed for St. George in November. As they crossed the Nevada-Utah border, Jamie Ashby’s phone buzzed.
“It was a message from the governor of Utah,” she told St. George News. “He’d passed a mask mandate. I looked at Brandon and said: ‘We almost made it. We almost escaped.'”
They didn’t know it then, but the mandate would be the least of their troubles. The Ashbys were fleeing Nevada after Brandon Ashby bankrolled his wife’s dream of opening a restaurant last June in Boulder City. They closed its doors shortly after because they weren’t making enough money.
“The governor never allowed us to operate at more than 50% capacity,” Brandon Ashby said. “But I still have to pay 100% of my bills. I still have to pay 100% of my taxes.”
They left Nevada for what they thought would be a more business-friendly environment in St. George. But the Ashbys said they found something else when they went to apply for their business license.
“They wouldn’t even let us apply until we’d met all these qualifications,” said Brandond Ashby, a retired policeman who served in the Marine Corps. “First, it was installing an in-ground grease trap. We didn’t have a problem with that. We’re not against rules and regulations. We want to be regulated because it gives us opportunities to improve our reputation, which usually increases business.”
They had to tick off boxes on an extensive checklist, which included: Having a lease in place, submitting to a series of inspections from the health department and the Fire Marshall and bringing everything up to code before they could turn in the application.
“At least that’s what we were told in November when we first applied,” Jamie Ashby said. “Our original goal was to open Thanksgiving weekend. Then it got pushed to December. Then January. Then, February. All that time I wondered: Why?”
After the health department and fire marshal had completed their inspections quickly and cheerfully, Jamie Ashby said that the business license hit a snag.
“Genna Goodwin, a planner who works for the city of St. George, said she found an issue with parking and zoning,” Jamie Ashby said. “Apparently there weren’t enough parking spots for our restaurant’s ‘usable square feet per patron.’ I asked her: ‘What can we do?’ I got zero guidance.”
The Ashbys wondered what the problem was, as the space they had leased, located at 929 W. Sunset Blvd. in Phoenix Plaza, was previously occupied by a restaurant.
“Was this a problem for them, too?” Jamie Ashby wondered.
Meanwhile, Sugar’s grand opening kept getting delayed, the Ashbys said, and they were losing money.
“We were prepared to do whatever we could,” Brandon Ashby said. “We offered to close dining rooms, build walls to reduce the square footage. And we got no response.”
City of St. George Communications Director David Cordero said that this was not true.
“Every email was responded to in a timely manner,” he said. “We are not sure where they are getting 10 days from.”
In the meantime, property manager Shellee Haines had hired an engineer to re-do the parking lot behind the restaurant to add more spaces. Phoenix Plaza went into a partnership with the property owner to the west to add 18 shared stalls.
Once that was completed, Haines reached out again to Goodwin on Feb. 5, 2021.
“Goodwin finally responded,” Jamie Ashby said. “She said she needed to check with her legal team, which meets on Mondays, to see if we were now in compliance. I wondered: Why does she need to speak with her legal team? How can this be real?”
Cordero said the city of St. George legal team needed to review the 18 shared stalls to see if they met city regulations. Though the parking regulations had been met, Jamie Ashby said she didn’t know that for some time.
“After one and a half weeks passed, I started to wonder if Goodwin was avoiding me,” she said. “So, we went to City Hall to drop off our application in person.
“We were told that their legal department still hadn’t discussed the matter. I asked to speak to Goodwin’s boss, or anybody, to get this thing resolved, and I was told there was nobody else to speak to.”
“The process takes time and may extend the timeline for obtaining the business license that the applicant had in mind when beginning the process,” Cordero said.
Cordero also said that applicants are expected to take care of the parking analysis.
“But our staff completed the lion’s share of the analysis in this case to help with the process,” Cordero said.
“I have to be honest,” Brandon Ashby said. “I didn’t expect this kind of welcome when we came to St. George. We’d sunk over $100,000, everything we had, into this business. We were losing about $8,000 a day. And we didn’t even know if we were going to have a business to operate.”
“I thought: Is it over?” Jamie Ashby said. “Did we do all this for nothing?”
In an effort to raise awareness, and to get people into the restaurant to taste her grandmother’s spudnut recipe – a spudnut is a donut with mashed potatoes mixed into the dough – they announced an open house for Feb. 11.
“We wanted to get people in here to taste our food – and also to tell them our story about why we weren’t allowed to sell food yet,” Brandon Ashby said.
The day before the open house, Jamie Ashby said that she received the email that she’d been waiting for.
“As if by magic, we got approved,” she said. “Sure I was happy to get the license, but the damage had been done. I wrote back to ask when Goodwin sent the paperwork to her legal department, so we could determine culpability.”
“I still wonder who was dragging their feet, and why,” Brandon Ashby said. “We’ve been more than cooperative. We put our bar, which would account for 30% of our business, on hold just to get our doors open sooner. We did everything asked of us. But we’ve been treated like we’re causing problems. I just don’t get it.”
Cordero said that despite the Ashbys claims, the city of St. George is a business-friendly city.
“We processed 1,109 new business licenses in 2020,” Cordero said. “And we processed 1,108 in 2019. We consider ourselves very business friendly.”
“When you take into account the rapid rate of growth our city has experienced over the past several years and the accompanying demands it puts on staff, I can say without hesitation that we are doing a commendable job at keeping up with the demand,” he added.
The day before Sugar’s opened, Jamie Ashby said they had $1,500 in the bank. After scrambling to get food and supplies, they were left with $12.
“If we could have opened two, three weeks ago, we would have been fine,” Jamie Ashby said. “Now, because we were delayed all this time, we’re hurting. Because of this process, we’re beginning in a pinch.”
“It feels like we’re in a nosedive,” Brandon Ashby said. “And I keep wondering: Are we going to have time to pull up?”
Sugar’s menu, address and phone number may be found here.
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