Building from Here: Red Iguana 2

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Leta Baker

Building from Here: Red Iguana 2

Written by
Leta Baker

Building from Here: Red Iguana 2

Written by
Leta Baker

What do you do when your already wildly successful restaurant business triples? But you’re still in the same tiny space? And it’s not just your devoted community lining up for hours outside the door each night, but people from all over the world? And you’re wholeheartedly devoted to your neighborhood?

If you’re the Red Iguana restaurant on the west side of Salt Lake City, Utah, you open another restaurant. With exactly the same food. Just a couple blocks away. Except that when you’re Red Iguana, that’s still not quite enough. Because that line outside the door has been going strong for over 30 years now—and it’s not getting any shorter.

Red Iguana became an instant phenomenon in 1985 when Maria and Ramon Cardenas, who came to Salt Lake from Mexico by way of California, opened a tiny cantina serving food unlike anything the city had experienced. The recipes had been in Maria’s family for decades, and they went a long way in a town that had few options for Mexican food at the time.

Two wildly successful decades later, Maria and Ramon’s daughter, Lucy Cardenas, and her husband, Bill Coker, took over the restaurant. They were soon serving more than 700 diners a day. Then Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives TV show featured Red Iguana on its Cinco de Mayo episode.

“We were up to an hour-and-a-half wait every night of the week. It was beyond success, and could very easily have turned into disaster,” said Bill.

That’s when Bill and Lucy heard that the Utah Transit Authority’s TRAX light-rail system would be going in on North Temple right in front of the restaurant. This would affect customers’ ability to get to the restaurant, and possibly even force them to close for a time, potentially costing Red Iguana hundreds of thousands in business if they didn’t act fast.

The most important thing to Lucy and Bill was to take care of the customers that had been coming to the Red Iguana for decades, many of whom always ordered the same dish. So they quickly searched the neighborhood and found a warehouse a block-and-a-half away — as fate would have it, right next to a highly active set of Union Pacific railroad tracks. Nonetheless, they set to work opening Red Iguana 2.

“We realized this was not a liability. It was an asset. There are no other restaurants on train tracks in the Greater Wasatch that we were aware of, so we decided we’d be it,” said Bill.

Restaurateurs all over the country warned them. Choose a different concept, they said. Open it further away, they said. Not a good business decision, they said. They just didn’t know how deep the loyalty runs on the west side of Salt Lake City. Especially to Red Iguana.

“The two restaurants are the same. I love saying that. The same menu. Same food. My employees go back and forth. My cooks go back and forth. People can even walk between the restaurants,” said Lucy.

Red Iguana 2 opened on December 19, 2009. As evidence of how devoted its owners have always been to customers, they didn’t even close the restaurant when Lucy’s father was married there a couple weeks later, between lunch and dinner on New Year’s Eve. At this point, there was just one problem—and a familiar one for Red Iguana: the line.

“Within the year, the second location was doing better than the first, and the first location didn’t suffer,” said Bill. “Red Iguana 2 didn’t have enough parking, there wasn’t enough kitchen space and our catering operation was growing rapidly. So all these things were putting pressure on our staff and our facilities. Then our neighbor came over one day and said: ‘Would you like to buy my warehouse?’”

They simply had to expand. And that called for just the right architect and builder—a team that had relationships throughout the city, an affinity for the west side, and the ability to catch the restaurant’s utterly authentic vision. Referred by a trusted friend in the community, Bill found Lloyd Architects and Evergreen Construction. Not only were the two on the same page, they were in the same building.

“Lloyd Architects is a local business, and a chance to work with the preeminent Mexican restaurant on the Wasatch Front to help them tell their story here on the west side is something that we jumped at the chance to do,” said Warren Lloyd.

Warren has his own ties to the west side. His great-great-grandfather and grandmother were immigrants from Wales who walked across the plains with the Mormon pioneers and settled not two blocks from Red Iguana 2. Warren himself grew up attending west-side schools. And the Lloyd Architects team included many Red Iguana addicts who were ecstatic to be on board for the project.

“I think what started as ‘How can we get more seats in this building?’ turned into Bill looking at the entire campus and thinking about which directions people were walking, how the train goes across the patio in front, and all sorts of other things. So it became more of a large-scale campus project,” said Won Shim, the project architect on the job.

While the original Red Iguana was a small space that slowly established its character over many decades, Red Iguana 2 was a refurbished warehouse that quickly needed to feel genuine to the brand—and the neighborhood. That meant integrating classical Mexican design, not sanitizing things visually, and reusing materials from the area to create a true west-side oasis.

“Half the walls in this room that I’m sitting in are recycled bricks, recycled wood and recycled tile that we’ve preserved and harvested from parts of this project and previous ones,” said Bill.

And then there was the patio. For years people had told Lucy and Bill they needed a patio at the original Red Iguana. But there was just no room. Red Iguana 2, on the other hand, had the perfect setup for it. So Lloyd Architects and Evergreen Construction created a patio that spanned nearly 100 feet along the front of both buildings, just 30 feet from the train tracks.

“Bill and Lucy live right here in the neighborhood. Both their restaurants are right here in the neighborhood. So to have created something here that feels like it belonged here and it grew over time and is telling this ongoing story of the west side and Utah and the Cardenas family, that was really exciting to see, and to get to help create,” said Warren.

Bill and Lucy’s devotion to the neighborhood showed in their commitment to keeping Red Iguana 2 open throughout every stage of construction involved in their expansion. That even meant bringing in bathrooms on trailers at one point. By the end of the project, they’d created a headquarters for all things Red Iguana. That included:

  • Doubling the size of the restaurant and adding a banquet room that fits over 60 people
  • Adding room for corporate offices, training and catering operations, plus maintenance and equipment, etc.
  • Doubling the parking lot, and adding electric vehicle parking, plus service-access to the building
  • Creating open space for gathering and public art including a 14-foot-tall iguana sculpture, plus a patio rooftop spot for the 1974 Cadillac Coupe de Ville that had belonged to Lucy’s brother Ramon Junior
  • Integrating reclaimed bricks, bottles, sticks, tile, and found objects from the site into constructed elements

It took three years of design, construction, and complicated approvals to finish Red Iguana 2—with efficiency, cost-effectiveness and sustainability front of mind every step of the way. The establishment of this new campus, along with the ongoing efforts of the Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency and the establishment of the TRAX airport line coursing through the neighborhood, have made it the heart of the west side’s rebirth and an iconic ambassador of success in this area.

“So often, it’s difficult to get businesses to come into this community because there’s this perception of Salt Lake City’s west side. Whether or not it’s accurate, the fact that Red Iguana is so successful and that there are always lines sends a message to other businesses,” said Maria Garciaz, chief executive officer of NeighborWorks Salt Lake.

After all, if the Red Iguana can succeed twice. In the same two blocks of town. With basically the same restaurant.  At the same time.  Then it seems like other businesses have a solid chance on the west side.  Especially considering all the people pouring in and happily lining up each day for the Killer Mexican Food.

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