Surplus of new restaurants suggest Salt Lake is on its way to becoming next culinary capital

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Diners at The Crack Shack, photo courtesy of The Crack Shack

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – Salt Lake is booming. It’s no secret that more and more people are choosing the Wasatch Front as their new home. And while a larger population brings certain inconveniences like traffic, there are also benefits, like the influx of new restaurants the Salt Lake Valley is currently experiencing.

“It really seems like, as of late, Utah is finally getting the attention it deserves from the restaurant world,” says Chris Byers, senior vice president of leasing at Mountain View Village.

The Riverton shopping and lifestyle center will welcome a total of 34 new restaurants – including five first to the Utah market – upon its phase two opening in May 2022.

Many of the new eateries in the Salt Lake Valley are ventures from restauranteurs, chefs, and hospitality magnates based in larger and more culinary-centric cities like Los Angeles and Las Vegas. For many years, Utah struggled to be recognized as a cultural hub, and now it seems everyone is noticing at once.

But why Utah? Simply put, it’s where the people are.

“The volume of people that have relocated to Salt Lake County and the surrounding counties is remarkable,” says Matt Minichino, director of operations for Flanker Kitchen and Sporting Club, which will open its first location in downtown Salt Lake’s Gateway Center on December 8. Flanker is a concept dreamed up by Las Vegas-based Carver Road Hospitality Group, which owns and operates eateries in both New York and Las Vegas.

With the steady stream of new Utah residents coming from more populous states, most notably California, the demographic in the Beehive state is now a perfect fit for many of these restaurants.

“We do have a lot of transplants from other areas, especially ones that might be more familiar with our brand out of Southern California,” says Dan Pena, director of operations for the San Diego originated fried chicken chain, The Crack Shack. “For us, it’s a pretty natural fit.

Minichino had a similar revelation when it came to debuting Flanker in Salt Lake. He cited the customers drawn to the area by tourism in Park City and the plethora of tech jobs in the Silicon Slopes region as reasons why Carver Road decided to tap the Utah market.

“There’s a customer base that likes experiential, likes to go out and dine and eat and drink and enjoys live music and enjoys sports,” he says.

Byers is surprised the restaurant boom didn’t happen sooner, though she notes that prior to current circumstances, many chefs and hospitality companies may have been warded off by Utah’s strict liquor laws. Now, though, the tide seems to be turning. With a young population moving in from larger cities, demand for alcohol in restaurants is increasing, which opens up more opportunities for businesses to make money with liquor sales.

In her over 10 years leasing shopping centers in the Salt Lake area, Byers has also learned that Utah is a neutral market in terms of branding, which is very attractive to restauranteurs and may be part of the reason they’re being drawn to the state.

“If a really cool, hip restauranteur wants to leave the Seattle market, or come from a downtown, urban area in Portland, it isn’t going to hurt their brand,” she says. “A lot of restauranteurs think when you come to a shopping center in a suburban area, you’re selling out to that world. But what it really turns into is you’re really tapping a market that is untouched.”

And opening an eating establishment in Utah is also incredibly beneficial financially, Byers says. Utah honors tip credits in their restaurants, meaning that they are legally allowed to pay servers less than minimum wage with the assumption that the employee will make up the difference in tips. If an employee doesn’t earn up to the minimum wage in tips, the employer is required to make up the difference.

“There’s a real incentive from a financial standpoint to come to Salt Lake City,” Byers says.

And the benefits of moving to Salt Lake are causing some restaurants – like the Crack Shack – to pull out of other, more expensive markets. Their move – and the closure of both Los Angeles locations – was motivated largely by changes that came about during the pandemic.

“Unfortunately with COVID, our two locations in Los Angeles were heavily dependent on office and tourism and those just did not come back,” Pena says of The Crack Shack’s decision to close their Los Angeles locations. “A lot of the office buildings in Century City went home permanently and we just couldn’t make that work.”

Byers also thinks that the strict COVID protocols that have become quotidian in more populous cities have been hard on restaurants and driven owners – and diners – to the more relaxed precautions in states like Utah.

“Los Angeles has been hit pretty hard. They’ve been shut down and they’ve gone back and forth on requiring masks and I think markets such as Utah have been pretty steady once we reopened last spring,” she says.

So what does this mean for the future of Salt Lake?

In the coming years, we may well see world-class restaurants emerging out of Salt Lake. According to Minichino, there are already plans in the works to expand Flanker to other major markets. Restaurant investors like The Savory Fund – who partnered with The Crack Shack, Via 313 Pizzeria, and others – are also actively working to bring new flavors to the area.

Salt Lake also boasts homegrown restaurants – like hot chicken phenom Pretty Bird – that have gained national attention. Perhaps other local favorites will soon get the recognition they deserve, too.

“I think the future is very bright, given just the basic statistics of how many people and companies have relocated to this area,” Minichino says. “When you see how much volume is in a 30-mile driving radius of downtown Salt Lake, it’s a real positive feeling of growth.”

Whether it makes you squeal with delight or groan in terror, Salt Lake City is growing. Every day, the loving nickname ‘Wasangeles’ is further from a simple pun and closer to reality.

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