How This Salt Lake City Market Is Bolstering Utah’s Artisan Food Culture
Randy Ramsley looks out over his goat pasture in Caineville, Utah, just outside the entrance to Capitol Reef National Park. Towering above the green grass and red earth, a jade and burnt sienna mesa rises into the blue sky. It’s 9 a.m., his first break since getting out of bed at 4:30 a.m.; “a whole crew” of Alpine, Lamancha and Nubian goats are standing atop a pile of hay on the wrong side of a fence.
Ramsley, 66, and his sustainable Mesa Farm are an anomaly in this part of Southern Utah, where conventional calf-cow operations drive the local economy. He’s like an eccentric hippy amidst cowboys. But his way is working—and thriving.
While conventional dairy farmers throughout the U.S. are struggling with plummeting milk prices (prompting concerns of increased farmer suicides), Ramsley’s business is solid thanks, in a large part, to Caputo’s Market & Deli.
The Salt Lake City specialty shop and restaurant distributor has helped to shine a spotlight on local Utah producers that are doing things the right way, crafting high-quality artisanal products including chocolate, honey, cheese and charcuterie, that could rival or top those found anywhere in the country.
Caputo’s focus on high-caliber products has woven its way throughout Utah’s food scene, giving producers access to the market, educating locals and helping to forge a nascent culinary and restaurant culture that is now well on its way to taking off.
“It’s hard to even put a word to the value Caputo’s has played here,” says Tyler Stokes, chef-owner Provisions. “It’s definitely been instrumental in advancing the scene.”
Matt Caputo took over the business from his pioneering father, Tony, about three years ago, but he has spent much of his adult life working with and learning from his dad. The young Caputo was put in charge of the specialty department more than a decade ago. The father-son duo have long used the market as an ode to their Southern Italian roots and as a sort of local food incubator, helping choice Utah producers to hit the ground running.
Ramsley is just one of Caputo’s success stories.
When Ramsley sent him samples, Caputo says the first taste told him everything he needed to know: “I didn't just like Randy's cheese; its flavors and aromas were not only far from the beaten path, but otherworldly.”
A self-proclaimed cheese geek, Caputo thought that improvements to the aging process (i.e. the humidity not found in the Utah desert) could make the already excellent product world class. Together, Matt and Ramsley began discussing the plans for the Caputo Cheese Cave program, eventually drawing up a contract ensuring Ramsley that Caputo’s would buy all of his production for a fair price and take care of the aging, marketing and branding.
“Nobody was doing this out here,” says Ryan Lowder, chef-owner the Copper Onion, who spent years in lauded kitchens like Jean-Georges, Casa Mono and Mercat. “Matt was leading the charge in this neck of woods.”
Caputo’s transforms Ramsley’s rounds into two hard cheeses, a traditional French-style tomme dubbed Mesa Tome and Barely Legal, a 60-day aged natural rind raw milk tomme released on the day it becomes legal according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
When available, both hard cheeses and Mesa Farms Feta are found in restaurant dishes throughout northern Utah at places like High West Distillery & Saloon, Provisions, Pago and Waldorf Astoria Park City.
The collaboration gives Ramsley the ability to focus on his herd, who spend two to three hours a day grazing on the ancient riverbed pasture before wandering down to the river to snack on wild (and invasive) Russian Olive Trees, Russian Thistle and Tamarisk. “That’s where the milk gets its dimension,” says Ramsley.
Caputo is so passionate about Mesa Farm’s cheese and methods that he organized the first annual goat camp last spring, bringing chefs, cheesemongers and local culinary insiders down to Southern Utah. The experience was moving for many of the attendees. “Randy was talking about cheese, talking about the spiritual aspect,” says Caputo. “I’m getting choked up and feeling self conscious. Then I look around at the chefs, some are big tatted up dudes with sleeves—probably half the two dozen people were also crying. People really connected to what he does.”
Between retail and restaurants, Caputo’s couldn’t keep up with demand for its Mesa Farm cheese last season. Caputo encouraged Ramsley to increase his prices again.
Caputo’s respect for artisans has helped several Utah brands gain traction. The shop has long been a supporter of the makers behind Beehive Cheese Company, Creminelli Fine Meats (which actually launched out of Caputo’s basement with Tony’s blessing) and Amano Artisan Chocolates, signing up to purchase large quantities early on.
That preliminary support has helped companies generate the capital to grow; however, the Caputo family’s biggest contribution to the SLC culinary community has been in the role of educators.
Around 2005, long before the U.S. bean-to-bar craze swept across the country, Caputo started building out the shop’s craft boutique chocolate selection. Like many Americans at the time, customers didn’t understand why they were so much pricier than, say, a Lindt or Godiva bar. To get those 50 high-quality bars moving, Caputo started offering free chocolate tasting seminars. The ploy worked: he expanded the selection up to 100, then, quickly, 200.
Utah, famous for its love of sugar and large Mormon population (who eschew booze or caffeine), is now home to one of the most robust chocolate scenes in the United States. And Caputo’s has now sells out its three to four $25 to $55 a seat classes per week that span from chocolate and cheese to intro to bitters and cocktails at home.
Those increasingly educated diners have spurred several hometown chefs to return to Salt Lake City, where they’ve opened progressive restaurants informed by their national and international experiences. Both Stokes and Lowder moved home to make their mark in the city’s emerging culinary landscape. Both are separately planning to expand with additional concepts this year.
“I came back heavy in food after Culinary Institute of America and cooking around for years,” says Lowder, who has opened three successful restaurants since coming back in 2009. “It was like...no one knows anything. It was terrifying. Having Caputo's was like having a big warm blanket.”