SALT LAKE CITY — For restaurantgoers who eat out not only for the food but to experience a unique atmosphere, one of Salt Lake City’s newest eateries may be worth a visit.
The Dispensary, located at 45 W. 1700 South, boasts a design “inspired by Utah,” with interactive art, communal seating and unique staff interaction, according to the restaurant’s owner David Heiblim.
“I want people to come in here and be like, ‘Oh, I’m hanging out at my friend’s place,'” he said Wednesday as he sat down on one of The Dispensary’s communal benches to discuss what makes the restaurant distinct.
The restaurant, which was partly funded by an Economic Development Loan Fund of $40,000 from Salt Lake City, opened Monday.
“This restaurant is a perfect example of a business going outside the box in every way — creative, entrepreneurial, engaging and something you’ll find only in Salt Lake City,” according to Lara Fritts, Salt Lake City’s economic development director.
Dispensaries have traditionally been a name for pharmacies, and that idea made its way into the restaurant’s design. Customers order their food and pay at one window, pick up their food at a second window and return their dishes at a third.
“I think that food is medicine, so what you put into your body helps you create who you become,” said Heiblim, who has been in the restaurant business since age 14.
The restaurant’s offerings? It serves traditional American food with a twist in the form of pot pies and sides that will change with the seasons, using what Heiblim describes as “highly local, organic” ingredients. “But not healthy where you’re gonna feel like you’re eating at a health food restaurant,” he explained.
The Dispensary is also unique in terms of its hours. It opens at 11:30 a.m. and closes whenever the food runs out. With only 160 pot pies made daily, it’s “first come, first serve.” Prices start at about $4 for sides and range from $10-15 for entrees, he said.
One entree option on the menu — recipes lent from other local restaurants — will rotate every couple of weeks.
“We’re trying to be a restaurant for people who want to have a unique, new experience and who understand that by buying our food, they’re investing in a new way of looking at how we function, how we value our food, what we care about,” he explained.
Heiblim wants The Dispensary to be a “zero landfill” restaurant. All of the waste it produces is recycled at pig farms.
He says another reason for what might be higher-than-average lunch prices is he’s paying employees a “living wage,” and staff members do not accept tips.
The restaurateur also owns Este Pizza. The Dispensary, he says, is the culmination of traumas he’s experienced, the ways he’s evolved over the years and how he’s learned to take care of himself.
When he went through difficulties, such as his dad being diagnosed with cancer and a couple of tough breakups, he “didn’t have a way of dealing with it emotionally,” Heiblim said.
“Traumatic experiences led me to certain healing practices, which included going to Burning Man (festival) and Zen meditation. …Through that, I learned that the way I build my self-confidence and understand my value is to take little steps outside of my comfort zone, and as I take those steps, my comfort zone is expanded,” he said.
The Dispensary staff members will ask patrons to go outside their comfort zones through activities such as telling everyone in the restaurant a joke or singing their favorite children’s song. Such comfort-zone stretching activities will be totally voluntary, Heiblim said.
“We’re going to start very slowly and subtly with that kind of stuff. We’re not going to ask you to get naked and sing opera tomorrow,” he explained. “But the idea is to do things that challenge us a little bit so that we can feel a little bit of fear … but then also feel comfort in knowing that we’ve accomplished something.”
Heiblim hired one employee, a professional clown, for the purpose of training the rest of his staff on fun customer interaction.
Patrons who visit are also encouraged to play with the restaurant’s art displays by adding magazine clippings to a “perpetual collage,” words or sayings to a word-art mosaic and notes to a hidden message board.
He says he was inspired by companies such as Toms shoes and Even Stevens sandwich shop and their “social entrepeneurism.” Both companies donate parts of their revenue to charities.
“They’re helping the world, they’re helping the environment, they’re helping the community,” he explained.
“Conscious entrepeneurism is meant as a parallel to those great ideas, that focuses on the happiness of our customer,” he said, adding that he hopes customers at The Dispensary leave happier than when they arrived.
Once the restaurant becomes successful, Heiblim plans to give back to the community by donating parts of its revenue to nonprofits benefitting animals and other charities.
The Dispensary may truly be the first restaurant in the city with interactive art and unique interaction with staff members, but Salt Lake does have its share of out-of-the-box dining options.
“Salt Lake City is ready for this,” Heiblim said.