Small Business Success Story: Red Iguana
Lucy Cardenas and Bill Coker are proudly carrying on the Cardenas family legacy, offering unique Mexican fare at Red Iguana, Red Iguana 2 and Taste of Red Iguana on the West Side of Salt Lake.
Even if you’ve not eaten at Salt Lake City’s iconic Red Iguana Mexican restaurant, the line of people out the door tells you everything you need to know.
“People would get to know each other waiting outside from a variety of states, different towns, they would all share their stories about the Red Iguana,” says Bill Coker, who owns and operates Red Iguana, Red Iguana 2 and Taste of Red Iguana with his wife Lucy Cardenas, who is the daughter of the restaurant’s founders. “There’s a joyfulness and excitement to be there. There’s a feeling of community that’s naturally there because of their excitement about the food.”
Indeed, the notion of community is imbued in just about every aspect of this West Side institution.
“My family was very much known in Salt Lake City and people loved them,” says Cardenas, whose parents, Ramon Sr. and Maria, started the restaurant in 1985. “They had beautiful personalities, big personalities and they all cooked extremely well. So word spread and they brought their unique way of cooking Mexican food to the valley.”
Cardenas is proud that the restaurants that serve 750,000 diners a year are thriving and attracting patrons to the Rose Park community where she grew up.
“I’m so glad that our customers get to come to this part of the city. I’m here to support it,” she says. “My employees live around us. We have schools near us that we support, our local newspapers. People love that we’re here and I love that people come to our neighborhood.”
The community of Red Iguana employees also helps set the business apart, according to Cardenas. “I have a server that my mother hired who has worked for us for 30 years. I have quite a few people that have been with us for 20-plus years,” she says. “It’s the people that work in my business that give me the reason to continue. I support them and love them and if it weren’t for them we wouldn’t be in business.”
So when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the restaurant to close in mid-March, it was the employees that Cardenas was most concerned about.
“It was very emotional having to close the restaurants, but we pivoted to curbside pickup service at Red Iguana 2,” she says. “We communicated with our core people and explained what we were doing and we tried to keep as many people employed as we could at that time. I think we managed to hold onto at least 100 people, but others had to wait on the sidelines.”
Receiving a Paycheck Protection Program loan through Zions Bank proved to be critical in helping Red Iguana maintain its payroll — and its loyal employees.
“Getting the PPP loan and the assistance from Zions Bank made all the difference in the world,” Cardenas says. “It gave us some breathing space. We were able to pay our people what they are worth. That means a lot.”
Their history with Zions Bank dates back to when they decided to expand with Red Iguana 2 and ran into major issues purchasing the building through their financial institution. A friend referred them to George Hofmann and Todd Harris at Zions Bank, who told them that they could get the deal done.
“They’re the reason we’re in business, that relationship,” Cardenas says. “They’ve been so supportive and so helpful and such great friends.”
Their current relationship manager, Michael Brussock, continues that legacy of great customer service.
“Knowing that Red Iguana is such a staple of the community I was excited to work with them. To be able to call and tell them they were approved, that was a great call to make,” Brussock says. “I appreciate Bill and Lucy that they gave me the trust and opportunity to assist them. I look forward to many more months and years of working together.”
Cardenas and Coker know that many challenges still lie ahead as the pandemic shows no signs of easing. But they are committed to maintaining the Cardenas family legacy.
“That’s our responsibility, our honor, and one of the hardest things we have to do under these circumstances,” Coker says. “But we have to do it.”
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Nicola McIntosh is Social Media manager for Zions Bank.