It was a hot Sunday morning in June, a typical summer’s day for St George, Utah. The sun beamed 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 just finished a plate of Kirk Orton’s chicken-fried steak, eggs, potatoes and toast. “This is a tradition I wanted to pass down to my sons,” he said. “Twice a month, we’d play nine holes of golf and have breakfast at DeDe’s cafe.”
That tradition began years ago, when Feesago’s mom treated him to lunch there. But she suffered a stroke a year ago and hadn’t been able to visit. “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,” Feesago said. “It’s more than food. DeDe made us feel like family.”
While Feesago waited for his receipt, DeDe Orton came over and asked him, “How’d we do?” She asked everybody that, but this would be the last time she asked Feesago.
DeDe’s was closing, and that morning was Orton’s last day. When I asked Feesago where he’d take his sons next week, he echoed what the other regulars I’d spoken to over the last few weeks said: “I don’t know if it’s possible to replace DeDe’s.”
Sue Holland, a 78-year-old server with red hair and a stern-looking face, said her own future was uncertain as well. That morning, as the last orders were being prepared, the restaurant’s mementoes were being packed away. “The walls are driving me crazy,” Holland said, gesturing at the blank spaces. “I’ve worked here for 10 years and never seen them this bare.” Tomorrow she would begin looking for another job.
Despite becoming increasingly popular, DeDe’s was about to join the more than 90,000 restaurants that have shuttered across the US in the past two years. Nationwide, restaurant sales are down $65bn from pre-pandemic levels. The industry, which employs more managers from underrepresented communities than other industries, lost a million workers during the pandemic. Supply-chain problems and high gas prices created a double whammy, adding to the delays and prohibitive costs.
Even before the pandemic, Orton struggled to find workers, especially cooks. St George, population just over 99,000, is among the fastest-growing cities in the nation. But largely because of that rapid growth, the demand for services has exceeded the availability. Kirk Orton, DeDe’s husband, has worked almost every day for the past five years just to keep up. He was already feeling overstretched. “But we couldn’t stop”, he said. “Bills don’t take breaks.”
In April, another pair of restaurateurs offered to buy the diner, and the Ortons decided to sell. The decision was bittersweet. Although now they could finally retire, they felt they were losing something – letting go of 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 the 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 for people”. No one was surprised when she opened her own place, Waggoner said. “Of course, she was going to run her own restaurant.”
DeDe’s was a family business from the start, Orton said. “From my mom to my 12-year-old grandson, every member of my family has helped some way. That was always my dream: to work with my family.”
Though the Ortons’ first restaurant was successful, they were forced to relocate five years after it opened, when the building’s owner died and their rent was raised. DeDe’s eventually reopened on Valley View Drive in St George, an hour to the south, in a former wedding chapel and photography studio. To meet city code, it needed work, including a $50,000 ventilation hood.
“That almost broke us,” Kirk Orton told me an hour before he and his wife shut the restaurant’s doors for good. But he’d been saving for more than 20 years and was able to pay for the hood in cash, even though it meant forgoing the condo he’d dreamed of buying near the restaurant. “It was worth every last penny.”
The restaurant’s last day was slow, a tender mercy on such a difficult occasion. A procession of regulars came in to pay their respects – and to order their favorite dish one last time. There was an acute sense of loss in the air. I felt it myself; I had eaten DeDe’s legendary cornflake-battered chicken-fried steak once a week since I first moved to St George in 2020. As a freelance journalist, I’ve lived all over the US. As soon as I enter a new city, I seek out mom-and-pop restaurants for fast, affordable homestyle cooking. They also serve as my introduction to the community. When I heard the other diners saying sadly, “We wish you weren’t closing. We have no idea where to take our friends and our families,” I knew exactly what they meant. We were losing our gathering place.
Ulrich Scholz, a longtime volunteer for the St George police department, had a bacon cheeseburger. “DeDe’s my favorite lady,” Scholz said. “I’ve had everything on the menu three times over.” After paying for his meal, he embraced 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 stopped in too. She connected Orton with Feesago’s mother, who lives in a care facility in Las Vegas, via FaceTime to say goodbye. “We’re Polynesian,” Feesago told me. “We’ve got a big family, and they’re all coming to say goodbye today.”
Later, DeDe Orton walked over to a corner table, tears streaming down her cheeks. “It’s hard,” she said. “I’m excited about the future, but I’m going to miss the family and friends we’ve made. This was more than a business for me; it was my life.”
By 3pm, only a few people remained. A man had just finished mopping the floor when Holland, the red-haired server, smiled mischievously. “Oh!” she said. “Can I do my happy dance one last time?”
She shuffled to the nearest section of the still-wet floor and began dancing. The man smiled, resigned to her messing up his work. The Ortons and their crew laughed. Then Samantha Turrentine, another longtime server, reached over and pulled a plug. The “open” sign in the window ceased its buzzing, and DeDe’s diner went dark.
David Dudley is a freelance writer living in St George, Utah