For nearly a quarter century, Jian Wu — along with his wife and siblings — owned and operated Salt Lake City’s Cafe Anh Hong.
Located in a strip mall at 1465 S. State St., the cafe initially served as a gathering place for Chinese immigrants. Over time, it attracted a diverse group of diners who deemed it one of the best restaurants in Utah to enjoy steamed pork buns, shrimp dumplings and other small plates, called dim sum.
Cafe Anh Hong was a place for the community to celebrate Chinese New Year. It became a regular stop for travelers headed to and from Yellowstone National Park. It even hosted dignitaries from Salt Lake City’s “Sister City” of Keelung, Taiwan.
And, like most mom and pop businesses, to survive Wu and his family worked seven days a week — from early morning until late at night — rarely taking a vacation or a day off.
That hard work and longevity, Wu and his family discovered recently, can’t pay the bills in today’s booming real estate market.
The skyrocketing rents in downtown Salt Lake City — Wu said through an interpreter — forced the family to close Cafe Anh Hong last October. The landlord more than doubled the rent on the 2,700-square-foot space, from $3,600 a month to $8,000.
While rents at the strip mall had steadily increased through the years, Wu said the latest hike was more than the business could afford. He hired a lawyer, hoping to negotiate, but talks with the landlord went nowhere.
“It’s an owner’s paradise,” the 55-year-old said of the current rent market. “There are no restrictions on how much owners can raise the rent. Something needs to be done to help protect small business.”
Today, the State Street space remains empty and “For Lease” signs hang in the windows and on the building facade.
Wu would like to reopen the cafe somewhere near the old location. But he has struggled to find even a smaller space that he can afford — or that doesn’t require investing thousands to construct a new kitchen.
“Everything we look into,” he said, “costs more than our budget.”
It’s a dilemma that worries Christine Grafer, a family friend and Salt Lake City resident.
“Escalating rent in Salt Lake City’s impacts our mom and pop-owned restaurants that bring interest and vitality to our community," she said. “If Salt Lake City is truly trying to represent diversity and grow downtown into this exciting, interesting place, we need to do a better job protecting it.”
Three renters’ rights bills — aimed changing Utah laws that often favor landlords over apartment tenants — have been proposed for the 2020 legislative session. But on a Capitol Hill filled with landlords and property owners, the measures face an uphill battle.
Cafe Anh Hong is just one of many homegrown businesses feeling the pinch of rising rents.
Last month, Ken Sanders, the longtime proprietor of Ken Sanders Rare Books, said his ongoing search for a new location hasn’t turned up anything affordable.
Sanders has known since 2014 that the half-acre corner at 200 East and 300 South — where his store and other vintage and specialty outlets have done business for decades — was to be redeveloped.
The 68-year-old wondered why the city and state dole out millions of dollars in tax breaks and incentives to large companies to entice them to locate offices and jobs in Utah. But there have been few funds to help smaller, local businesses survive.
Salt Lake City is not the only community seeing “legacy” shops shutter because of real estate prices, said Peter Makowski, Salt Lake City’s acting director of business development.
“It’s a problem in communities nationally," he said. “And we are all trying to look for solutions.”
Salt Lake City has some loan and grant programs that can help, he said, “but not every business is in a position to apply for those.”
The city also is examining ways it can partner with developers to "offset the rent increases that hurt small business and nonprofits.”
In the meantime, Wu waits. He may open a food truck, he said, or use a borrowed kitchen for catering.
And, after more than two decades, he’s getting used to having a day off.