SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – A well-known Mexican food brand and restaurant headquartered in the Granary District of Salt Lake City is in danger of closing its doors for good after 18 years. Rising interest from developers have forced several local businesses in the area, including Rico Brand Foods, out of their locations.
Jorge Fierro first came to the United States 35 years ago with nothing, but a dream – the American Dream. What began as a small business selling pinto beans at the Farmer’s Market evolved into a restaurant, catering business, and warehouse producing Mexican food products found in grocery stores all across Utah.
“I’ve always kept my food clean. I don’t use any preservatives or additives in my food. It’s all natural and it’s fresh,” said Fierro, who is the owner, president, and CEO of Rico Brand Foods, Frida Bistro, and Rico Catering.
Not only has Fierro grown his business into a well-known brand over the past 18 years, but he’s also a respected leader in both Utah’s Latino and business communities. Others may know him for creating the Burrito Project ten years ago, where volunteers deliver hundreds of hand-rolled burritos to the area’s homeless population.
“I love this community and the best part of it is that I belong,” he said. “I’m hoping to carry the project on for the rest of my life, if I can.”
After making the decision to close his restaurant last year to focus on the warehouse, Fierro said business has been doing well during the COVID-19 pandemic. He explained sales for his packaged foods have increased 25 to 30 percent, most likely because more people want to eat at home.
However, Rico Brand Foods has hit a road block, one that could shutter his doors for good. Fierro said a new property company, Woodbine Industries purchased the building where his business has been headquartered for nearly two decades and wants him out now that his lease is up.
Fierro explained he has tried to purchase the building before, but was unsuccessful with the previous property owner.
“They initially told me they wanted to save the building where my restaurant and warehouse is. But they would have to retrofit the buildings to meet requirements. They’ll be making some offices in the corner and living quarters. I have no doubt it’s going to be a fantastic development and they’re going to make this area incredible and beautiful,” he said.
At first, he said Woodbine Industries gave him until the end of the year to relocate. But then he received a letter from the property company’s attorney, abruptly moving the deadline up to the end of August and gave him only two months to vacate and find another space. Fierro said the tight window of time makes it nearly impossible for him to maintain the viability of his business.
“It’s not enough time for me to move everything that I have. COVID has impacted the way we work and what we do. I have not been able to find a place that is suitable to move my business or an affordable location that meets our operation’s requirements,” said Fierro.
He added, “If I don’t find a place, I will have to close my doors and start all over again. I would have to ask my employees to find a new job, which is hard because a lot of companies are not hiring during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Unfortunately, Fierro’s dilemma is not unique in Salt Lake City. Cafe Anh Hong closed down last October after nearly 25 years due to the rising costs of rent. Sampan Asian Cuisine shut their doors this month after 29 years in the business because of a lease dispute. Ken Sanders Rare Books is slated to close up shop next year since the search for a new, affordable location has been unsuccessful.
“On one side, we’re seeing a lot of energy and interest from developers locally and across the nation to invest in Salt Lake City and revitalize certain areas. But with that comes a challenge. It can push up property prices and displace businesses that have helped built up the character of these areas,” said Ben Kolendar, Acting Director of Economic Development for Salt Lake City.
Fierro’s family has created an online petition, hoping that the property company will give him until October to move out. Since the petition was created two days ago, it has collected more than 2,300 signatures.
“I came here a long time ago. I developed this building. It was actually in pretty bad shape. I think I’ve spent more than $1 million in this building and for them to kick me out like I’m a little criminal, I don’t think it’s right,” said Fierro.
He said the call to action is about more than just his livelihood. It’s about protecting the same thing from happening to other business owners.
“It’s not about me. It’s about every time that a developer buys property, are they going to behave the same way they’re behaving with me? I think we, as a community, should do something about it,” said Fierro. “I’ve always been extremely grateful for the support the community have given me throughout the years. Utah, Salt Lake City made Rico Brand Foods who it is.”
Kolendar said Salt Lake City Economic Development has been working with Fierro over the past few months to help find a solution to their situation.
“The thing we hate to see is when a business, such as Rico Brand Foods, helped build the character of an area and because of that, they have to leave the area cause there’s so much interest now and there’s a vibe they helped contribute to,” he said.
He encourages other local business owners to reach out to his department as early as possible when their lease is expiring or when they are aware that a new development could push them out.
“We can’t always be the solution, but can provide options. We may not be the perfect fit for what that business may need. But we have a team that can help them identify potential other spaces or programs within the city and we have had successful cases,” said Kolendar.
Requests for comment from Woodbine Industries were not returned as of Monday evening.