No more Rico Brand? Salt Lake City is selling its soul.


Kathy Stephenson reported it well in today’s Salt Lake Tribune: Rico Brand may be the latest loss to Salt Lake culture which is being slowly assassinated by merciless landlords and greed.

Stephenson’s a good newspaper reporter. She reports the facts, ma’am, as objectively as possible. That means although she can list the ravaging of our city, she can’t express outrage because reporters can’t show feelings.

But I’m a columnist so I can. And you should.

The story of Jorge Fierro, owner of Rico, his move to the U.S. from his native Chihuahua, his humble beginnings here as a sheepherder, then a factory worker, then selling refried beans at Salt Lake’s Downtown Farmers Market, eventually building a business from that single food stand to a business stocking handmade Mexican food in more than 90 stores, is a quintessential version of the American self-made myth. A myth developers and property owners seem determined to quash.

Rico Brand’s factory in the then-unnamed and never-visited Granary District was a risk when Fierro leased it. So many Salt Lake residents only went to the west side of town to eat at Red Iguana. Otherwise, it was all too “scary.” Fierro’s business was a pioneer and helped make the warehouse district appealing. Too appealing for his own good.

Then, as Stephenson recounts, “In late 2019, the building he had leased for 18 years was bought by Woodbine Industries LLC of Sandy. After taking possession, the new owners told Fierro he needed to look for another home to make way for as-yet-unspecified plans for the property.”

Fierro’s been looking, but hasn’t been able to find a suitable space. Woodbine has yet to “specify its plans,” yet Fierro has to vacate, along with his 30 employees by August 31. It’s becoming, as Stephenson points out, a familiar story here.

Jian Wu, with his wife and family, ran one of Salt Lake City’s best Chinese restaurants, Cafe Anh Hong on State Street. He had to close because of rising rents—the cost of his space doubled.

Ken Sanders Rare Books, a nationally recognized bookstore unique in the country, is having to move because Ivory Homes is developing that space. It’s doubtful that Sanders can find an affordable space. In the collegiate design competition held to come up with possible plans, not one student was smart enough to see Sanders’ store as an asset to incorporate into a new design rather than something to demolish.

Back to Rico Brand—after becoming a success, Jorge Fierro gave back to the city that had supported him. Besides helping other small businesses, he is also on the board of the Lowell Bennion Community Center for the University of Utah, the Utah Microenterprise Note Fund, and American Heart Association Go Red Por Tu Corazón. He feeds the homeless through his Burrito Project. The factory he’s about to lose was the site of an annual party to benefit Utah Food Bank.

Read the comments on Stephenson’s Tribune article—they devolve pretty quickly into a socialist vs. capitalism debate like we’re hearing a lot of during this highly partisan time. But supposedly, the good American life isn’t just an economic argument. It’s about creating quality of life, contributing to the place we live, joining together to help neighbors and encouraging others to contribute as well.

I moved to Utah almost 20 years ago and was so delighted to find a city with the feel of a small and neighborly town, filled with smallish, locally owned businesses. That’s the culture that has made this an attractive place to live and move to. It didn’t look generic, like Dallas or Denver. It was truly a unique place. That’s the place being destroyed by landowners and developers who can’t seem to see they’re killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

How about a little more compromise? A little more love for the place you live and the people who live here with you? How about a lot more imagination? Tax breaks for small businesses? Leadership? Understanding of how Salt Lake City can be a great city?

The Covid pandemic will see this city lose a lot more home-grown businesses unless citizens speak up.

Mary Brown Malouf
Mary Brown Malouf
Mary Brown Malouf is the late Executive Editor of Salt Lake magazine and Utah's expert on local food and dining. She still does not, however, know how to make a decent cup of coffee.

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