This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
It's been a remarkable month for Salt Lake City's Trolley Wing Co.
On Jan. 30, the popular wing joint received a coveted club license from the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. A week later, the travel and food site Thrillist gave the Sugar House eatery the title of Best Wings in Utah, and last week owner Jess Wilkerson signed the lease for a second location that will open in a few months in Midvale.
Wilkerson can hardly believe his good fortune, especially since the past seven years could be titled "A Series of Unfortunate Events: Restaurant Edition." Long story short: The tavern was forced to move from its namesake streetcar in 2010, then it operated in a makeshift spot inside Trolley Square for four years during mall construction only to be evicted.
These setbacks would have closed most other small, locally owned restaurants, but Wilkerson and his staff buoyed by devoted customers persevered.
Wilkerson moved the tavern to its current spot at 2148 S. 900 East. But shortly after signing the lease, he learned the space wasn't zoned for a bar and it would take months to get it rezoned and get the liquor license they wanted from the DABC.
After years of watching various misfortunes, longtime customers like Curt Warren are happy to see things finally go Wilkerson's way. "I keep telling him that 2017 is his year," said Warren. "It's proof when people are motivated and happy, great things happen."
Getting the club license means the servers at Trolley Wing Co. can now pour beer and mix drinks at the wood bar in front of customers. They soon will tear out the "Zion Curtain" the barrier that new restaurants must have to shield customers from seeing alcoholic drinks from being mixed and poured making way in the tiny kitchen for a second oven, much-needed storage and room to hire another cook.
The irony, said Wilkerson, is that the bar license "will actually give us the ability to sell more food."
Wing DNA • Some of Wilkerson's luck could be that hot wings are in his DNA.
As family lore has it, his maternal grandfather, James Honeck, was a regular at New York's Anchor Bar, credited with creating the first plate of deep-fried chicken wings. Wilkerson said his mother and five aunts, who grew up in Buffalo, insist that their father was there in 1964 when the Anchor Bar owner tossed chicken wings into a deep fryer and served them with blue cheese dressing, launching a national bar-food phenomenon.
Wilkerson, who grew up in Idaho, said his grandfather went on to open a chicken-wing restaurant in the early 1980s in New Mexico.
When Wilkerson moved to Utah in 1999, he discovered Trolley Wing Co., a quirky tavern inside a converted historic streetcar under the water tower at Trolley Square. The tavern served 3.2 beer, chicken wings and camaraderie for the Utah transplant. "Today, some of my best friends are people I met there," he said.
In 2009, Wilkerson bought the business and things ran smoothly for about nine months until mall officials told him they planned to move the streetcar, which had stood in that spot for nearly five decades, to make way for a multimillion-dollar renovation. It was moved to the south parking lot and wrapped in plastic, where it remains today.
With few options, Trolley Wing Co. leased a corner space inside the mall. It was hidden and lacked efficient kitchen space, but Wilkerson felt it was his only option. "It was brutal. I did everything I had to do to keep it alive, roofing houses in the morning and working the bar at night," he said. "I really believed in it."
So did customers like Manny Cantu, a regular with his own personalized beer mug that hangs on the wall.
"Some people stopped coming because they said it wasn't as cool as it used to be," said Cantu, of West Jordan. "It was a different location, but I wasn't going to stop supporting a business and a friend who was really working hard to keep things going."
Trolley Wing Co. hung on in the mall location for four more years, subsidized in part by Wilkerson's construction business. Just when the mall renovation was nearing completion, the new owners of Trolley Square called Wilkerson. He thought it was to sign the lease for a new space; instead, it was to evict him.
Wilkerson said he was angry and heartbroken. In hindsight, he said, he understood the reasoning. "Bottom line, they didn't want a biker bar at the mall," he said. "On Friday and Saturday nights, it could get a little loud."
One more try • Wilkerson decided to keep the business going but move it to a location in Sugar House. Shortly after signing a lease, he hit the bar zoning roadblock. Salt Lake City said it would take nine months to rezone.
Wilkerson couldn't even spare nine days, so he changed his business model and applied for a full-service restaurant liquor license from the DABC. The restaurant license meant minors were allowed on the premises and at least 70 percent of Trolley Wing's profits would have to come from food sales. It also meant the eatery would need to build a "Zion Curtain."
"We have always been a bar, so I knew it was going to be risky," said Wilkerson.
To meet the food requirement, he tripled the size of the menu, offering bone-in, boneless, vegetarian and vegan wings in four heat levels and with the choice of 18 sauces. The restaurant supplemented the single oven with a smoker and started offering smoked wings which took off in popularity. It even started letting customers order from Este Pizza next door.
Still, the restaurant often ran out of food because there wasn't enough storage space, Wilkerson said. And with just one oven and sometimes dozens of orders customers waited a long time to get their food.
With the club license in hand at last, Wilkerson finally is doing what he originally wanted running a neighborhood bar that sells great chicken wings and offers good conversation. "It's one of the things that drew me to the business," he said. "It sounds corny, but if you have chicken wings in common with someone, you may as well be in the same religion."