December 6, 2013

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The Road Less Traveled

How Red Iguana Survived North Temple Reconstruction

By Tom Haraldsen

December 6, 2013

Since its inception in 1985, Salt Lake City’s acclaimed Red Iguana has delighted tens of thousands of customers with its authentic Mexican food. Founders Ramon and Maria Cardenas prided themselves in bringing great tastes, superior customer service and a neighborly atmosphere to their restaurant on 736 W. North Temple. When their daughter, Lucy, and her husband, Bill Coker, bought the business from Ramon in 2005 (Maria passed away in 2002), they were equally dedicated to maintaining the restaurant’s reputation, and nothing could stand in their way.

Except orange barrels.

In 2009, the Utah Transit Authority, along with the Utah Department of Transportation, announced plans to begin a long reconstruction project on North Temple—including installation of a light rail line to the airport and eventual demolition of the decades-old viaduct over the railroad tracks west of the Triad Center. And just like that, a main traffic artery from downtown Salt Lake City to businesses and homes on the west side of the city was gone.

Plan Ahead

Even before construction started, the Cokers began plotting ways to minimize its impact on Red Iguana.

“We had a great location—near the airport, near downtown and the temple. With the construction on North Temple, we realized it was going to get hairy and more difficult for our patrons to reach us,” recalls Lucy Coker.

Instead of throwing their arms into the air and giving up, or even closing and moving to a different location, the Cokers had a better idea—opening a second restaurant just two blocks away. And so Red Iguana 2, as they call it, opened at 866 W. South Temple.

In fact, Coker was adamant the second location open in the same neighborhood, despite the construction hassles.

“I grew up in this neighborhood—I work here and live here, and I wanted our second location to be a destination restaurant for our patrons,” she says. “I was inspired by some of the restaurants in Portland, where many open their same concepts next to each other. We found our location, immediately fell in love with the street, and knew people could get to one of our restaurants from both the north and the south. We also did it for our employees—to make sure everyone could keep their jobs during the construction period.”

So the couple found a warehouse for sale just a couple of blocks away, one with a concrete pad that could be used for outside dining. It was more spacious than the original Red Iguana and more than doubled their seating capacity. Red Iguana 2 opened in December 2009.

Stay Informed

The initial impact of the road construction was significant—an estimated revenue loss of about $300,000. Coker says the worst time “was when the [viaduct] came down. That hurt our lunch business more than anything. Many couldn’t figure out how to get to us, even with all of the cross streets. Luckily for our dinner crowds, we were able to give directions to many patrons over the phone.”

As the construction ebbed and flowed around them, the Cokers made an effort to stay informed.

“My husband is incredibly talented with logistics,” Coker says. “He contacted the construction crews and the city officials, attended meetings to find out building schedules, and established good relationships with everyone involved. We asked questions and we got answers. It helped us formulate a plan of action.”

Because of this proactive approach, the Cokers were able to plan a remodel of the original location to coincide with construction that tore up the sidewalk in front of the restaurant.

Revel in Victory

“We counted on the loyalty of our long-time patrons who told us they knew they’d get to our restaurants, no matter what it took. And they have,” says Coker.

Indeed, the results have been a win-win for all involved. Before the road construction, Red Iguana customers often had to wait in a long line to get seated. With a second location just blocks away, the lunch and dinner crowds are much more manageable. Red Iguana 2 also allows for larger reservation parties.

Coker says each location has developed its own loyal customer base. “We’ve broadened the customer base in that some come to the new location that had never tried our original location.”

The company’s revenue grew from $4 million in 2009—before the construction began—to more than $6 million two years later. Today, both the revenue and the customer base for the two Red Iguana locations, along with the Taste of Red Iguana at City Creek, continue to grow.

“When you face a challenge like this, you just need to get involved and stay a step ahead,” Coker says. “You just have to stay positive, trust in what you’re doing and then keep on doing it. It was stressful to be sure, but the end result has been very pleasing indeed. And we’re grateful for our customers’ loyalty through the years.”

The Red Iguana story caught the attention of The New York Times, which published a two-part case study in August 2011 on the dilemma facing Red Iguana because of the project (“a huge potential loss for a one-location restaurant serving up to 700 people a day 363 days a year,” the article said), and how the Cokers addressed it. It was more national exposure for Red Iguana,as it  was featured on Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives in 2008.  

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