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Can merchants & taco stands coexist?

September 5th, 2007
A battle brewing between local brick and mortar businesss and taco carts on Main Street Salt Lake City.

Looking out the showroom window of Steve Harris Imports is a study in contrast. Inside Steve Haris Imports customers are dazzled by the new Ferraris and Mazaratis ranging from $200 thousand to one million dollars. Outside the window across the street rests a taco cart surrounded by igloo coolers and propane tanks. Beef is grilled in a small pool of cooking oil as customers chat while waiting for tacos. The cart and the large line of customers stand on the sidewalk directly in front of a thirty-year-old Main Street business. According to General Manager, Mike Holt of Western Wholesale Flooring, the rise in popularity of these taco carts has brought demise to this once fully occupied, flourishing city block.

Both Steve Harris Imports & Western Wholesale Flooring blame the taco carts for much of the vacancy on their block

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"I just spent thousands remodeling my [flooring] showroom and it smells like a barbecue," says Holt.

Long-time Salt Lake merchants, Steve Harris Imports and Western Wholesale Flooring say they are ignored in voicing outrage over taco carts placed in front of their businesses. According to Holt, the impact of the taco carts is long-time businesses going under or moving elsewhere resulting in blight to the South Main Street area. Holt points to garbage and litter strewn over the sidewalk and corner, areas that he has recently painted and repainted many times due to graffiti and gang tags. Secondly, Holt points out, taco cart customers nearly always occupy the scarce parking places owned by area merchants.

building damage done to Western Wholesale Flooring. White paint is covering recent graffiti and gang tags.

Holt has has hired an attorney to help him in his fight to no avail. Besides attorney fees, Holt says he has paid thousands in not only graffiti removal but also regular garbage removal and damage done to his building. Taco cart owners recently placed barriers with yellow caution tape to prevent customers from leaning against Holt's building, but he says this has had little or no affect. Just across the street from Holt is a beautiful commercial building Steve Harris has owned and occupied for the past 30 years. While Harris' problems haven't been nearly as severe in directly impacting his business, all of the tenants occupying Harris' property have either moved or gone out of business. And according to Harris the direct impact the taco carts have on his 40 year car dealership is all about to change.

According to taco cart patrons these four taco stands around Sears are an asset to the city offering a great lunch at a low price.

Steve Harris Imports Salesperson Mike Call was astonished to come in on a Friday morning to find a taco cart parked directly in front of Harris' exotic car showroom. "They wouldn't move, they just stood their and said 'we have a permit.'" Call said he was very upset because they were occupying the area where he usually moved inventory and parked cars for display on the sidewalk. Eventually Call convinced the cart to move 80 feet further South so they could effectively operate their business. However, the entire exotic car dealership is still outraged that the city would grant a permit for a taco stand to do business on property they maintain, especially after the recent vacancy of Cafe Trang.

Cafe Trang was a 30 year loyal tenant of Harris'. The restaurant and its location was an icon for great Chinese and Vietnamese food in downtown Salt Lake City. According to Call and Harris, the primary reason Trang decided to move to another location was due to the lack of parking as a result of the popular taco cart across the street. With the loss of merchants these carts have suposedly caused, how is it they are in existence?

The taco carts found on Main Street are a result of former Salt Lake City Mayor Palmer DePaulis' vision to create a vibrant pedestrian downtown. Located on Main Street and 2nd South, a popular hot dog stand receives a great deal of pedestrian traffic and (find out his name) cart offering four varieties of wieners with all the fix-ins is reminiscent of a New York City hot dog stand.


Hotdog stand on 200 South and Main Street


However, the hot dog stand on 2nd South is the exception to the rule. Nearly all other stands are located South of 6th South are parked in and around city parking lots of other businesses. These stands are not primarily patronized by pedestrian traffic but are used more like parking lot restaurants. While observing the carts surrounding Sears department store for more than an hour, we found that only three out of twenty customers came by foot. All others came by vehicle and used Sears parking lot while both purchasing and eating their tacos. However, according to Holt of Western Wholesale Flooring, none of this matters to the city,

Holt says he has all but given up his fight. He says the city refuses to listen or make any changes. Hold said he had his chance to talk to city leaders but he said, "its like they are watching T.V, while I'm talking, they have completely ignored me." His building, and sidewalk show the damage the popular taco cart has caused. Grease stains, graffiti and litter have made his building and surrounding area blighted. "We don't have to stay here, we can always move. Most likely we will move." Holt says that unless something is done very soon, like many of the other merchants in the area, he will move his business somewhere else.

"The city doesn't want to listen to us. Fine. What is going to happen is they are going to lose their tax base," says Holt. "I'm looked at as the bad guy. I have the big business and these food vendors are often poor. But they are ruining this area. Just take a walk up the street and you will see all the blight they have caused."

East of Holt are three more vacancies. MTK works, and two more small units all sit vacant. According to Holt this is a direct result of the four taco carts that surround the block. According to Jullio, owner of the taco stand on Main Street and 800 East he says that Holt, "doesn't like my business, I don't know why, but he keeps filing complaints to the city." Questioning Jullio about the problems his cart has caused, including grease on the sidewalk and graffiti on Holt's building. Jullio says they clean the area nightly, usually for up to an hour. Jullio also points out that he has made signs to prevent his customers from parking in Holt's lot.

Interview with Jullio.

introduction to his stand why he has already moved four times and what he believes is the best city policy.

What will you do if the new city policy forces you to move again? What about the building damage your business is causing?

What do you say to the claim that your taco cart has caused the street to become blighted and vacant?

Despite merchant opposition, patrons to the taco stands religiously support their favorite stands. "These tacos are worth their weight in gold," says Vincent Lopez. Sear's taco cart patron Jeff Jones is part of a 650 member MySpace community devoted to Street tacos (see it here). "They are so authentic and good everything is fresh.I just like the authentic Mexican tacos." When questioned about whether or not it is fair that their patrons uses Sears parking lot, they don't see a problem. Heather and Clinton have been coming to Jullio's taco stand on Main Street for years. They don't believe the city is being too leineint. Clinton comes from Los Angeles and he said, "it could be much worse, there could be a 24 hour burrito truck sitting on the corner."


In talking to city leaders we found they are are working on a motion to change the law requiring food vendors to do more cleaning and maintenance of the area around their carts. They are also want to add an additional restrictions on enclosures, which would prevent taco carts from operating during the winter. There are still many unansered questions regarding this story such as: Why is the City Council focusing on restricting enclosures? Why not pay more attention to mediating problems between merchants and taco stand owners? We will again speak to Nancy Saxon.

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If you like Mexican food and street tacos, make sure to check out SLC Tacos Recently mentioned in City Weekly...