Provo restaurant scene requires secret recipe for success

Andy Gartz originally ran a Vietnamese sandwich shop out of the small space that now holds Slab, a popular pizza restaurant. Slab is just one of many restaurants to find success in Provo. (Rachel Halversen)

Andy and Simy Gartz started their first restaurant, Dew, in a small space under an apartment complex with just a toaster oven, a crockpot and a couple of rice cookers.

“It was just food that we just loved and craved when we lived in Washington and nobody was doing here,” Gartz said. “We just figured that people would like that too.”

Dew’s Vietnamese sandwiches and bubble teas proved to be popular, and the Gartzes were hungry for a larger kitchen where they could cook more of their favorites. However, just a few years after opening their second restaurant, Rooster, Andy realized they were being spread too thin and reevaluated their plans.

That’s when Andy decided to transform Dew into a pizza place and call it Slab.

Slab was their jackpot. The restaurant has now expanded to Lehi and Pleasant Grove and continues to draw in new customers.

In 2018, Slab and 5,263 other restaurants throughout Utah competed for $5.5 billion of estimated sales throughout the state, according to the National Restaurant Association. 

The restaurant scene in Utah is thriving, and new restaurants must find a way to carve out their portion of the market. Finding the best location to build a restaurant is crucial to a new venture’s success. While Provo’s student- and family-based market was the perfect recipe for Slab, it’s not the best fit for every type of restaurant.

Successful and Closed Shops in Provo

“Provo is a really cool place to eat,” Gartz said. “People actually are open to try new things here. There’s a high curiosity factor.”

Gartz also attributed part of Provo’s uniqueness to the area’s level playing field in both price and quality.

“Most places in Provo are in a certain range,” Gartz said. “Most places are pretty good, but nobody’s winning Michelin awards.”

Slab’s giant pieces of pizza slid right into Provo’s unique market, but some restaurants struggle to adapt when they open a second or third location in Provo.

Restaurants are an integral part of Mosi Oteo and his family’s lives, so it felt natural to open a restaurant when they moved to Utah.

Mosi Oteo said when the Oteo family moved from Mexico to California, his dad started working at a restaurant to provide for his eight kids. His dad worked hard to learn everything the restaurant’s chef knew and eventually became the executive chef at that same restaurant.

The family opened multiple restaurants all over Utah before Mosi Oteo opened Oteo in Lindon. Oteo’s tacos and queso fundido made from local, organic ingredients were a hit, and Mosi Oteo decided to open a second location in Provo.

“The demographic is totally different in Lindon than it was in Provo,” Mosi Oteo said. “In Provo, it was more the college students, so we knew that our price point wasn’t going to work down there.”

The family tried to find ways to appeal to the student population, but Mosi Oteo said financially it didn’t work. He eventually decided to close the shop in Provo to focus on other ventures in other areas.

“We were kind of torn,” Oteo said. “It had that romantic feel for us because we started out in Provo when we got here way back in 1997. We didn’t want to leave.”

The future of food in Utah County

Both Gartz and Oteo agreed that Provo residents are willing to try new foods, even though the two restaurants had different levels of success with maintaining a steady flow of customers. However, Utah County, as a whole, provides plenty of opportunities for all types of new restaurants due to the variety of people who live here.

Brooke Eliason, founder of Female Foodie, said the restaurant industry in Utah County will continue to grow because of the state’s entrepreneurial spirit and people’s willingness to try new types of cuisine.

“Utah is such an exciting place for food,” Eliason said. “People are becoming more progressive with the way they’re looking at food.”

For Eliason and other food aficionados, eating is more than just a way to get full, and Eliason said Utah residents are starting to appreciate eating out as an experience.

“(Eating out) can actually be the focal point of your evening,” Eliason said. “To go out and try new restaurants is just really exciting, and it’s fun to see what talented people are putting together.”

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