Jorge Fierro was one of the few business owners in 2002 brave enough to move into an old warehouse in an industrial neighborhood southwest of downtown Salt Lake City.
With its vacant buildings, run-down flour mills and abandoned rail lines, the area — now known as the Granary District — was gritty, for sure.
But the red-brick warehouse at 545 W. 700 South was affordable and offered plenty of square footage to manufacture and sell pinto beans, tortillas and other Rico Brand Mexican products.
Since then, more and more developers have taken an interest in the district — bounded by 600 South on the north, West Temple on the East and Interstate 15 to the west and south. Fueled by redevelopment loans, tax breaks and other financial incentives — they have made it one of the city’s most desirable residential and commercial building spots.
And Fierro — once a west-side pioneer — now finds himself the victim of the location’s sudden popularity.
In late 2019, the building he had leased for 18 years was bought by Woodbine Industries LLC of Sandy. After taking possession, the new owners told Fierro he needed to look for another home to make way for as-yet-unspecified plans for the property. And after six months of searching, the Rico owner has been unable to find a suitable — or affordable — facility where he can continue to operate.
With a move-out deadline of Aug. 31 looming, Fierro said this week that “it could be the end of Rico Brands” and the jobs of 30-plus employees.
Even if Fierro could sign a lease on another building soon, it would take several weeks to move refrigerators, stoves and other large kitchen equipment. He also would need to obtain new licensing and approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration.
Fierro, who recently has been operating on a month-to-month lease, said the pool of available food manufacturing space is limited in the Salt Lake Valley. And those that are available aren’t ideal. A West Valley City location looked promising, he said, but it couldn’t accommodate the electrical capacity his business needed.
He was ready to sign a lease for a spot in South Salt Lake but then was told the zoning had changed, and manufacturing wasn’t allowed.
Buying a building — rather than leasing — is not an option because it would require millions of dollars the small-business owner doesn’t have, he said. “I truly don’t find myself in a strong enough financial position to do that.”
Fierro said the property owners originally had given him until the end of 2020 to move, but he received a letter last month from their attorney that the date had been bumped up to Aug. 31.
“With a month-to-month lease, the landlord is only required to provide 30 days notice,” said Holly Bradford, with LB Hunt, the property managers.
Rico leased about 25% of the building, she said. “Other tenants are not leaving because they still have leases.”
If Rico Brand does fold, it would be the end of one of the state’s most successful immigrant stories.
Fierro came to the U.S. from Chihuahua, Mexico, initially landing in Rawlins, Wyo., where he worked as a sheepherder. He eventually made his way to Utah for a factory job.
In 1997, when the then 37-year-old, couldn’t find decent refried beans in the grocery store, his entrepreneurial spirit — something he inherited from his businessman father — kicked in.
He took his mother’s recipe for fresh-cooked “de la Olla” pinto beans and began selling them at the Downtown Farmers Market in Pioneer Park.
Production started in a small building at 800 South and 500 East. But, in 2002, Fierro needed more space so he leased the warehouse on 700 South.
Rico — which means delicious in Spanish — quickly expanded beyond beans crafting corn, flour and whole-wheat tortillas; several varieties of tamales and burritos; rice; and salsas and guacamole.
The products are sold at 90 stores across the state, including Smith’s Food & Drug, Harmons, Fresh Market and Whole Foods.
During the coronavirus, Rico Brand has seen sales increase as more people cook at home. And he recently signed a contract to sell in Utah’s Associated Food Stores.
“But the moment I stop producing, supermarkets will give that space to other vendors,” he said. “Every day and week that goes by, I have fewer chances of staying in business.”
Fierro has been working with staffers in Salt Lake City’s Economic Development Department, hoping for some guidance.
Acting Director Ben Kolendar said there’s little that government can do when it involves business owners and private developers.
“Ideally,” he said, “we would love to have the businesses who have been in these areas stay and keep the character of the neighborhood. That is the best way the situation can play out.”
It’s not the first time a small business in Salt Lake City has found itself in this bind.
Ken Sanders Rare Books, 268 S. 200 East, will have to close next year because the search for a new location hasn’t turned up anything affordable.
Café Anh Hong is another business that recently fell prey to rising rents.
“This,” Fierro said, ”is the story of small business in America.”