Ryan Lowder: Cooking Up Something New

By Melanie Johnson

May 8, 2014

Ryan Lowder left a successful corporate career to explore his passion for cooking. It started a journey that has transformed him into an award-winning chef and owner of The Copper Onion. Lowder worked in some of the finest culinary outlets in the world before opening The Copper Onion and Plum Alley, one of Bon Appétit’s 50 Best New Restaurants of the year.

What makes The Copper Onion unique?

We source what we can here. We can grow garlic and parsley—we do a salsa verde mixed with olive oil, which is a very Spanish sauce. Our main meat purveyor is a three-man operation in Utah. Instead of spending a lot on marketing dollars, we’ll do things like production kitchen and gardens. It’s kind of uncharted territory. I mean, if you go into a restaurant and they grow the food or they’re doing all of their own butchering with local animals, that’s the kind of push we make.

What are the top menu items?

Top menu items include beef stroganoff. Certainly the burger. Fish is always popular—sablefish with a dashi broth. We also have a griddle trout that’s super popular. Patatas bravas—a fried potato with a spicy aioli and paprika. It’s really popular.

What are your long-term plans?

We’ve signed a lease in Holladay for an American pizza and pasta concept, which will happen this summer. We are also under construction with a production kitchen at 900 South and 700 West. We have gardens laid out there that will launch this spring with a 15-by-50-foot greenhouse. We plan to expand our garden program and start growing a lot of our own produce. … We do a lot of things in-house. We make all of our own pasta, bread, ice cream. These things take a lot of space and it’s expensive real estate downtown. We just don’t have the room for it. We’ll start producing that over there. We have a pretty serious butchering program here, but we’ll be able to cure meat down there, we’ll be able to make simple cheeses. … It’s setting us up to more easily manage the restaurant and the production. Even though each restaurant will still have a pretty heavy production, we’ll have a mother ship that we’ll treat as a purveyor for each restaurant.

Who are your patrons?

We see up to 50 percent from outside of Utah. They come for conventions or for skiing; we get a ton of that business. They love it. One of our best gauges is people from San Francisco, New York City, Los Angeles. We honestly probably get the best feedback from those coming from food cities. It’s really nice. We get repeat business. We’ll get people who come for five days to ski and we’ll see them four times.

What’s the best part of what you do every day?

I work with the chefs on food development for new concepts and menus. … [We] will go to different cities and we’ll eat all around the country multiple times per year. That’s fun.

It’s also fun to grow a business to give people more opportunity. The whole reason we really grow is if I have somebody really talented and there’s no room for him to move up to management. That’s why we’ll expand the business, to give people more opportunity.

What’s your biggest contribution to business in Utah?

We like to try to create exposure for Salt Lake City. That’s been something that’s happened. It hasn’t necessarily been our goal, but that’s certainly been a contribution.

We’ve employed 80 people over the last four years, and that number will be going up with these new concepts we have coming on. We offer health insurance and pay above minimum wage. We really don’t have anyone who makes minimum wage, which is nice that we can do that. We require a lot out of our people at the same time.

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