Mike Nikols, who tried turning family’s iconic Coachman’s diner into condos, is dead at 58

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Mike Nikols, heir of the iconic State Street diner that he shuttered in an unsuccessful effort to turn it into mixed-use housing, died at his home on Saturday, according to an obituary.

Nikols spent his last years working to transform the Coachman’s diner into affordable condos above retail space. He was 58 when he died of unspecified causes.

The diner has long been a landmark and something of local legend for Salt Lakers, with its large vintage sign welcoming passers by to stop in.

“Come in,” the sign read until it was removed in 2021, “you will be pleasantly surprised.”

Nikols, who played a large role in creating that lore, continued writing chapters in its history until he died.

“He was a father figure and mentor to thousands of employees of Coachman’s over the many years of service he gave,” his obituary reads. “Mike was a friend to all and loved his customers like family. Any person of need that came into the restaurant hungry without the means to pay, Mike would never send them away without making them a complete burger, fries and a drink.”

Nikols shocked fans of the greasy-spoon restaurant when he announced he was closing the restaurant in early 2021. He later unveiled he was attempting to rezone the property to make way for something totally new.

At the time, obtaining financing for multifamily housing was remarkably easy. But delays in zoning approvals slowed the project down enough to see the financial landscape rapidly shift. Obtaining a loan for the project quickly became much more difficult by the time the project was approved and ready to go.

Nikols listed his sprawling home in Olympus Cove for sale over a year ago. The 10,001-square-foot gated palace is still listed today. The listing went live at a time when Nikols was struggling to raise money for the redevelopment of Coachman’s, which his father John, who died in August, built in 1975.

Last month, his dream of turning the restaurant and adjacent office building into something new appeared to fall apart when he listed the site for sale.

He told Building Salt Lake at the time that he’d raised half the money for the project, but that “I still need 14 million.”

Listing the entitled property could have been an attempt to attract a co-investor to bridge the gap and complete the project without selling. And there were hints that Nikols may not have been done with the Coachman’s brand.

Mike Nikols may have been planning to re-open Coachman’s in a newly built building at 1301. S. State.

Final renderings for the project showed Nikols may have been hoping to re-open Coachman’s on the ground floor of the building, a renewed version of the restaurant his father opened farther south on State Street in 1964.

The project was ambitious both because of Nikols’ inexperience as a multifamily property developer and because virtually no builders are constructing for-sale condos, as Nikols was hoping to accomplish.

Nikols’ connection to the site ran deep. He worked as a co-owner and operator for most of his life. In the early 2000s, it almost came to an end.

In 2002, Nikols was accused of dealing cocaine out of the restaurant after police served a search warrant on the property and discovered 500 grams of cocaine, according to the Deseret News.

He was sentenced in 2005 to 70 months in prison and spent over two years in prison before he obtained the right to a new trial. He was sentenced in 2009 to probation, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. As part of the guilty plea, Nikols was allowed to pay a $120,000 fine in lieu of losing the restaurant.

Nikols then continued operating the restaurant until closing it in 2021.

“He was a most unselfish person in every sense of the word. He had a great sense of humor and loved to laugh and talk about all aspects of what life had to offer,” his obituary reads. “He loved the Lord with all his heart, all his soul and all his strength and loved his neighbor as himself. Coachman’s was a labor of love for him and the patrons were rewarded with his passion.”

Not to be overlooked, Nikols also created a food identifier system known as Tray-Tag, which is used by big and small corporations across the globe.

Nikols leaves behind a wife and large family.

Email Taylor Anderson

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Posted by Taylor Anderson

Taylor Anderson grew up near Chicago and made his way West to study journalism at the University of Montana. He's been a staff writer for the Chicago Tribune, Bend Bulletin and Salt Lake Tribune. A move from Portland, Oregon, to Salt Lake City opened his eyes to the importance of good urban design for building strong neighborhoods. He lives on the border of the Liberty Wells and Ballpark neighborhoods.