Sitting in a hundred-year-old restaurant booth that was once a fixture in the historic Lamb’s Grill Restaurant in Salt Lake City, Jim Leany is explaining why he, A) went to the trouble of transplanting landmark decor from Salt Lake’s Main Street to State Street in Orem, and B) decided to give his restaurant the curious name of TRUreligion Pancake and Steakhouse.
Turns out the answer is the same to both questions.
“I believe in second chances,” Jim says. “Whether it’s people or furniture or whatever it is. Nothing should just get discarded and left on the side of the road. I believe that true service is true religion. That’s what I stand for, and that’s why here I’ve put the writing on the wall.”
He continues, “Think about the parable of the Good Samaritan. What happens after the Samaritan picks the people up off life’s highway and puts them on a donkey? He drops them off at an inn. I’m an innkeeper. Give me those people.”
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It’s a second chance of sorts for Jim, too. A decade ago, he was broke (something to do with trading in silver futures), recently divorced and on his way to Utah from Colorado looking for a change of scenery and a fresh start.
He knew the area — he attended BYU back in the day — and he sure knew the restaurant business. He’d been around it all his life. When he was a kid growing up in Las Vegas, his grandparents ran two dinner clubs that catered to “the Danny Thomas and Frank Sinatra crowd.” Grandma Glenna’s steak and eggs at the Hill Top House on Tonopah Highway and The Swanky Club on Boulder Highway were legendary.
Jim’s father, Arvan, picked up the baton and, along with his wife, Donetta, ran a series of successful eateries in and around Grand Junction, Colorado, capped by one of the most successful Sambo’s franchises in that once-prosperous chain.
You’ll find fingerprints from that past all over the TRUreligion Pancake and Steakhouse menu, including steak and eggs featuring a 1-pound New York strip steak in honor of grandma and, in honor of Arvan, a pancake special identical to the Sambo’s pancake special that once launched 1,117 restaurants (and, not incidentally, the Utah Jazz — the NBA franchise that was originally purchased by Sam Battistone, heir to the Sambo’s fortune).
His Orem restaurant, Jim declares, “is the result of three generations of pondering, meditating and postulating what I wanted to create.”
A vast majority of what’s inside used to be somewhere else. There’s the red London telephone booth inside the entrance, there’s the ornate Presbyterian pulpit imported from a Denver church that sits above the front counter, there’s all the vintage furniture from Lamb’s, including doors, booths, chairs, tables and the original black glass bar where Salt Lake power brokers used to have their coffee.
The kitchen is under the supervision of Todd Leonard, the Utah Valley University professor Jim hired after Leonard was named 2019 American Culinary Federation Chef of the Year. Chef Todd doesn’t skimp on ingredients. Ghee, for example, is used for cooking instead of butter (“it’s like butter on steroids”), the flour is 14% protein, the bacon (sliced at seven slices to the pound) comes from an Italian businessman in Napa Valley who smokes it over real hickory and the syrup is from a family farm in Heber City.
“If it’s not fabulous, it doesn’t make the cut,” says Jim, who can point to lines that stretch into two-hour waits on Saturdays as evidence he’s doing something right. (TRUreligion is open from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekdays and 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekends; it doesn’t take reservations.)
Propping it all up are what Jim calls his four bottom lines: 1) Profitability, 2) Sustainability, 3) Fraction of the action — meaning he offers a percentage of the profits to those who work for him, and 4) The Second Chances Charity — TRUreligion’s in-house hiring program that gives the addicted, the penniless, the incarcerated, the down and outers an opportunity to lift themselves up.
“Second Chances is the inspiration behind it all, the reason we wake up in the morning, the reason we work so hard,” says Jim. “I have no affinity to a Rolex watch or a house on the hill or a fancy car; all I care about is what you can do with money while you’re here. I want to make a difference in this world before I’m dead. There are no U-Hauls behind hearses.”
Sometime soon, hopefully by the end of this year, Jim has his eye on opening another restaurant, this one in Salt Lake City, giving him the opportunity to work with The Other Side Academy, Joseph Grenny’s vaunted ex-convict rehabilitation community in downtown Salt Lake that is likewise a true believer in second chances.
The next restaurant, he says, “will be equally unique, with its own vibe.” Ideally, he’d like to find a struggling restaurant “on its last legs.” One that’s looking for a new innkeeper to come in — and breathe it back to life.