As Trolley Wing Co. closes in Salt Lake City, co-owner points to problems with Utah’s liquor licenses

Jesse Wilkerson said the state’s licensing system plagues new bars, as he and Jeff Krie close their namesake trolley car location.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Trolley Wing Co. co-owners Jeff Krie, left, and Jesse Wilkerson are photographed in 2019 in the bar's namesake trolley car location, which they had to close this week so they could transfer its liquor license to another location.

Having 340 seats available for customers in Taylorsville, instead of only 14 in Salt Lake City, gives Trolley Wing Co.’s new location the potential to drum up a lot more business.

But co-owner Jesse Wilkerson is still frustrated about sacrificing the tiny but iconic trolley car location in Salt Lake City — where patrons would pack in to order beer and chicken wings — for what he describes as “the greater good of the company as a whole.”

After being denied a liquor license by the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control this week for the new Taylorsville location, Wilkerson said Thursday that he and his business partner, Jeff Krie, are fortunate that they have the option to “borrow” the bar license from their namesake location and move it to the new spot.

But he said the “painful” decision to close the historic rail car for the time being is still a sign that the process by which Utah doles out such licenses needs to be fixed.

The Trolley Wing Co. in Taylorsville opened in September, in a large building that previously housed a Texas Roadhouse. “It‘s a much bigger deal to us than just another location,” Wilkerson said, adding that Trolley Wing Co. plans to make it somewhat of a home base, with all takeout being made and all prep being done for the other stores in its kitchen.

It’s so big, in fact, that the Taylorsville spot will basically be a restaurant and a bar under one roof, separated by a wall.

The all-ages “family side” will operate as a restaurant, where customers can order beer, wine and liquor if they wish, but must also order food and aren’t allowed to walk around with a drink in their hand. At the 21-and-over “bar side,” patrons aren’t required to order food, and they can walk around, mingle and play pool while carrying their drink. The bar side will also serve alcohol earlier in the day and later at night.

Without the bar license from the trolley car spot, the entire Taylorsville location would have to operate as a restaurant — which just wouldn’t do for Trolley Wing Co. regulars who aren’t used to all the rules that come with that type of an establishment, Wilkerson said.

And with increased costs for chicken wings and sauce ingredients, as well as shipping delays and labor shortages, Wilkerson said Trolley Wing Co. can make more money from beer than wings right now.

“We feel the license is just worth a lot more at Taylorsville, given the size and location,” he said.

He hopes that the Trolley Square location’s closure is temporary, since the business had to pay $30,000 to buy a liquor license from a private seller when it reopened in 2019 after being evicted.

“We’ve been through this before. We know how to play this game, unfortunately,” Wilkerson said. “So we’ll be OK.”

But bars that are just starting out and can’t get a liquor license aren’t so lucky. “It is a very intimidating, very scary process,” Wilkerson said. “All your chips are on the table, right? If you don’t get this license, you’ve still got to pay all your overhead and you just can’t open the door.”

Wilkerson is calling for “common sense” fixes to the state’s system, addressing two key problems.

The first has to do with how new liquor licenses are created in Utah. As the population grows, so do the number of liquor licenses available. Under state law, the state can have one bar for every 10,200 residents, but Wilkerson believes that number should be lower, so more liquor licenses can be issued more often.

The second issue Wilkerson sees is the way liquor licenses are distributed. The liquor commission might be more inclined to give a license to a bar that wants to open in an underserved area, instead of somewhere like downtown Salt Lake City, he said, but he asserts that commission members don’t also look at the percentage of people who consume alcohol there.

“There’s a reason why so many bars fail in these smaller communities like Alpine and Point of the Mountain,” he said. “The drinkers aren’t there, but now the population is. So I just think it’s a simple math problem that for whatever reason isn’t being addressed.”

A spokesperson for the DABC did not return a request for comment Thursday afternoon.

Wilkerson hopes Trolley Wing Co.’s current and past struggles with Utah liquor laws can shed light on these issues during the upcoming legislative session.

“Every person in this room is fighting for one little piece of paper, and our lives and our futures depend on it,” Wilkerson said. “And there’s something wrong about that.”