Road Trips

Getting Ready to Hit The Road, Utah Stories Explores the Signs of Our Times

Boring signage, stale billboards, and government regulations make fewer opportunities for creative local standouts to compete against chain stores.


Iconic Dee’s Drive-in sign.

Roll into downtown Bountiful. It’s a gorgeous little main street. Like the main streets in many mid-sized towns, Bountiful’s Main Street is showing more signs of life than it has in many years. On this Saturday afternoon, all the retailers are on the curbs with their products, trying to lure the steady stream of motorists out of their cars. One business owner is throwing around a hand-written sign for his frozen yogurt shop.

I’ve seen this same “sidewalk sale” in Logan and Ogden. It’s kind of cool, but a bit sad. Bountiful’s chain store shopping area looks like it’s generating far more revenue for the city. It’s sad to see local businesses relegated to second-class status, doing what they can to attract business. It doesn’t need to be so difficult.

Great signs are the best mechanism for making an impact on motorists. However, thirty-years ago, most cities made cool signs illegal by enacting zoning restrictions.

Sign ordinances started in Salt Lake City in the early 1970s in an attempt to curtail the “white flight” trend from the cities to the suburbs. Most cities believed (wrongly, of course), that the disarray of non-homogeneous signage was a part of the blight problem they could easily solve.

Sputnik sign in Sugar House. Photo by Steven Vargo.

They could mandate struggling business owners to remove their eclectic signs and make them boring. This was around the same time Ladybird Johnson was on a crusade to rid America’s interstates of insidious billboards and “beautify our highways”.

About the same time, suburban centers and chain stores all had the same ubiquitous signage anyway, so they loved the idea of placing mandates and restrictions on locally-owned businesses. As a result, most of the interesting signs in retail shopping areas were removed.

Just try to erect an interesting sign for a locally-owned business, and the city will send out the “sign police”—government bureaucrats who get paid to shoot down the good ideas of local businesses trying to build a brand for themselves. Business owners are referred to “the code” regarding curb appeal and signage. Many cities have gone a step further, telling local business owners they need to install curbs, sidewalks and lighting if they want to spend money for signage.

The owners of Carpet Barn told me about their “sign police woes” back when their signage was famous in West Valley. I have heard from Millie’s Burgers in Sugar House that their iconic sign would be completely illegal today.

These mandates need to be revisited by our city leaders. Small towns with vibrant main street retail areas have unique signs and brands that create places people want to visit. I’ll never forget the giant rotating Root Beer float at Frostop in Millcreek, the enormous scoops of ice cream atop Snelgrove, or the running boy holding a pizza for Der Ratskeller. These are the things dreams are made of, creating places that become the fixtures we want to visit.

Dee’s restaurant, a Utah fixture since the 1930s, once competed in the fast-food market alongside McDonalds and Burger King. Their signs featured a clown with various food items listed on back-lit plastic balloons. Dee’s decided they couldn’t compete against the larger fast-food chains, so they sold all of their restaurants to Hardee’s, keeping some as sit-down diners. A wise move in retrospect. They maintain just three locations today. The Dee Family’s primary business is real-estate property management. They own large portions of the Sugar House retail area.

The signs of our times are now a thing of the past. The mode of developing restaurants and retail around parking lots gives developers the right to implement restrictions and forces business owners to comply.

Der Ratskeller pizza boy.

When was the last time you saw a cool sign in Utah? Write us at, or leave a comment below, or instagram #coolsign. We will post some next month.


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