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LONELY STREET VENDORS STRUGGLE TO BUCK TREND

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Jonathon Pierce belongs to a dwindling breed in Salt Lake City: He's a street-cart vendor.

Three years ago, 50 people bought permits to operate street carts in the city. Now just three vendors ply their wares on downtown streets.Pierce, who officially launched his entrepreneurial venture Monday, figures he's bound for success - if he can build a loyal following for his Jonny's Smokin' Grille. But opening day turned out to be rather slow.

"I don't have the word out yet," Pierce said Monday at noon, as he manned his cart at 201 S. Main.

Lots of luck, one of Pierce's predecessors says.

"We thought for sure it would be great," said Georgia Hendricks. She and her husband, Craig, operated two carts when the program kicked off in summer 1991.

The Hendricks' watermelon-motif carts, staffed by teenagers, offered passers-by fresh-squeezed lemonade, fruit cups and frozen fruit bars. They made $112 on their best day; they made $40 on the average day.

"People are leery of buying things from a cart," said Georgia Hendricks, who gave up the carts and opened Juice Etc., a sandwich and juice bar instead. "That's the only thing I can think of. I just think people weren't ready for it."

Pierce is counting on Salt Lakers coming of age as far as street carts go. An East Coast native, he grew up thinking street-cart vendors were as common in cities as park benches.

"It just seems like part of the bigger city to have something like this," Pierce said.

That's what city officials thought when they set up the street-cart vendor program. Street carts would add ambiance to downtown, they said. About 80 people applied for cart locations; 50 actually paid permit fees.

Six months later the number of street-cart vendors dwindled from 50 to a handful. Last year only one cart vendor braved Salt Lake City's streets - Haroon Mohammed, the sole entrepreneur who's been with the program since its inception and now operates in front of Crossroads Mall.

Peter Kaminsky, the third cart vendor, began selling ice cream products in front of ZCMI last week.

"I think a lot of people thought, `I'll buy a cart, stick somebody out there and make tons of money,' " said John Spencer, real property agent for the city.

It didn't happen, and the demand for street-side sales has proved to be far less than city planners anticipated.

"We've opened it up legally so people can do it, but we can't force the market," said Doug Dansie, principal city planner. "I think we'll always have one or two out there, but basically I guess that's what the market can handle."

City ordinance allows vendors to sell food, balloons and flowers from carts between South Temple and 900 South and 200 East and 400 West. Initially the ordinance allotted eight vendors per block; the city now allows two carts per block along Main Street and one vendor on other blocks.

Spencer said the city recognizes the need to make it easier for vendors to get necessary permits.

"We're trying to make it as easy as possible to get carts back out on the streets," Spencer said. "We have reduced the vending-cart fee a little bit to try to encourage them."

Still, as Pierce can attest, getting into the cart business takes persistence and patience. He spent the past 31/2 months crunching numbers to estimate sales, getting approvals and setting up his business.

"It's been a long process," he said. "I felt as though I was paving a road when I went through the process."

Pierce says he encountered obstacles at nearly every turn. He contacted about a dozen insurance companies before finding one that would cover his business. He was directed back and forth between the Salt Lake County Health Department and Salt Lake City offices trying to get his open-air grill approved.

Pierce also had to search diligently to find a commissary to use for his business.

"That was the biggest hurdle - trying to find a commissary to operate out of," Pierce said. Pierce managed to line up use of kitchen and storage facilities through his bagel supplier.

The Health Department requires cart operators to use a licensed commissary to store food supplies and carts and for cleanup. The commissary many cart vendors used initially, operated by Art Carlson, shut down in December from lack of business.

"I opened it initially with the idea I would have a number of carts, but when it got down to one cart, it wasn't economically feasible," said Carlson, who also owns Art's Carts, a cart-manufacturing business. "I think the expectations of many cart owners exceeded the reality, and they weren't patient enough to stay with it."

Pierce figures it cost him at least $10,000 to open his cart, including about $400 in city, county and state fees. The bulk of the expense came in buying a cart, which according to Carlson, costs $5,000 to $8,000.

Pierce expects to gross as much as $50,000 operating year-round serving breakfast and lunch fare from the cart.

"I think I can make money off it and make a go," Pierce said, his voice tinged with confidence.

If all goes well, Pierce hopes the street cart will be a springboard to owning his own bar and grill restaurant.