IIt was a hot Sunday morning in June, a typical summer day in St. George, Utah. The sun shone through the east-facing cathedral windows of DeDe’s, the beloved restaurant that has served Washington County residents for the past decade. Link Feesago leaned back in his seat with a satisfied sigh, having finished a plate of chicken fried steak, eggs, potatoes, and Kirk Orton’s toast. “It’s a tradition I wanted to pass on to my sons,” he said. “Twice a month we played nine holes of golf and had breakfast at DeDe’s cafe.”
This tradition started years ago, when Feesago’s mother invited him to have lunch there. But she suffered a stroke a year ago and was unable to visit him. “When DeDe found out, she made my mom’s favorite meal – a ham, mushroom and spinach omelet with Swiss cheese and a slice of cantaloupe – and delivered it to the care facility” , said Feesago. “It’s more than food. DeDe made us feel like family.”
While Feesago was waiting for his receipt, DeDe Orton came over and asked him, “How are you?” She asked everyone that, but that would be the last time she would ask Feesago.
DeDe was closing, and this morning was Orton’s last day. When I asked Feesago where he would be taking his sons next week, he echoed what other regulars I’d spoken to over the past few weeks said, “I don’t know if it’s possible to replace DeDe’s.”
Sue Holland, a 78-year-old waitress with red hair and a stern face, said her own future was also uncertain. That morning, as the last orders were prepared, the restaurant’s souvenirs were put away. “Walls drive me crazy,” Holland said, pointing to the empty spaces. “I’ve worked here for 10 years and I’ve never seen them so naked.” Tomorrow she would start looking for another job.
Despite growing in popularity, DeDe’s was poised to join the more than 90,000 restaurants that have closed in the United States over the past two years. Nationally, restaurant sales are down $65 billion from pre-pandemic levels. The industry, which employs more executives from underrepresented communities than other industries, has lost a million workers during the pandemic. Supply chain issues and high gas prices created a double whammy, adding to delays and prohibitive costs.
Even before the pandemic, Orton struggled to find workers, especially cooks. St George, with a population of just over 99,000, is one of the fastest growing towns in the country. But largely because of this rapid growth, demand for services has outstripped availability. Kirk Orton, DeDe’s husband, has worked almost every day for the past five years just to keep up. He already felt overwhelmed. “But we couldn’t stop,” he said. “Bills don’t take breaks.”
In April, another pair of restaurateurs offered to buy the restaurant, and the Ortons decided to sell. The decision was bittersweet. Although they could finally retire, they felt they were losing something: giving up their idea of the American dream.
Orton’s career as a restaurateur began 15 years ago in Cedar City, Utah. Marcia Waggoner, Orton’s mother and family historian, told me that DeDe was a fantastic cook who never used a recipe, as well as a natural hostess – “a nester who cares about people.” . No one was surprised when she opened her own place, Wagoner said. “Of course she was going to run her own restaurant.”
DeDe’s was a family business from the start, Orton said. “From my mother to my 12-year-old grandson, every member of my family has helped in one way or another. It has always been my dream: to work with my family.
Although the Ortons’ first restaurant was a success, they were forced to move five years after it opened when the owner of the building died and their rent was increased. DeDe’s eventually reopened on Valley View Drive in St George, an hour south, in a former wedding chapel and photography studio. To meet city code, work was needed, including a $50,000 ventilation hood.
“It nearly broke us,” Kirk Orton told me an hour before he and his wife closed the restaurant doors for good. But he had been saving for more than 20 years and could pay for the hood in cash, even if it meant giving up the condo he dreamed of buying near the restaurant. “It was worth every penny.”
Jhe last day of the restaurant was slow, a tender mercy on such a difficult occasion. A procession of regulars came to pay homage to him – and order his favorite dish one last time. There was a sharp sense of loss in the air. I felt it myself; I had eaten DeDe’s legendary cornflake breaded chicken steak once a week since I first moved to St George in 2020. As a freelance journalist, I have lived all over the United States. Whenever I enter a new city, I look for family restaurants for quick and affordable home cooking. They also serve as an introduction to the community. When I heard the other diners say sadly, “We hope you don’t close. We don’t know where to take our friends and families,” I knew exactly what they meant. We were losing our gathering place.
Ulrich Scholz, a longtime volunteer with the St George Police Department, had a bacon cheeseburger. “DeDe is my favorite woman,” Scholz said. “I had everything on the menu three times.” After paying for his meal, he kissed Orton. “If I don’t see you again,” Scholz said, “I’ll see you upstairs.” He pointed his right index finger at the sky and turned away.
Link Feesago’s wife, Charmaine, had also stopped by. She connected Orton with Feesago’s mother, who lives in a care facility in Las Vegas, via FaceTime to say goodbye. “We are Polynesians,” Feesago told me. “We have a big family, and they’re all coming to say goodbye to us today.”
Later, DeDe Orton walked over to a corner table, tears streaming down her cheeks. “It’s hard,” she said. “I am excited about the future, but I will miss the family and friends we have made. It was more than a business for me; it was my life.
At 3 p.m., only a few people remained. A man had just finished mopping the floor when Holland, the red-haired waiter, smiled mischievously. “Oh!” she says. “Can I do my happy dance one last time?”
She walked to the nearest section of the still damp floor and began to dance. The man smiled, resigned to her ruining his work. The Ortons and their crew burst out laughing. Then Samantha Turrentine, another longtime waitress, reached out and pulled a plug. The “open” sign in the window stopped buzzing and DeDe’s restaurant went dark.
David Dudley is a freelance writer living in St George, Utah
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