Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Think Local First DC seminar on Ingredients for Success - Opening a Restaurant in DC Part 1

Ever think about opening your own restaurant?  I have worked with many restaurants as they were trying to open but have never had the opportunity to see what it takes to get through the parts I wasn't involved in.  Think Local DC put together a seminar with a panel of local entrepreneurs to discuss their experiences and offer advice about how to make it happen from concept to opening your doors and beyond.  This post will be presented in several parts as there is a lot of information to impart.

Part one will focus on Nuts and Bolts of Getting Started
The list of participants for the entire seminar included the following folks:
  • Geoff Dawson of Bedrock Companies
  • Nizam Ali of Ben's Chili Bowl
  • McKee Floyd of Sweetgreen 
  • Joe Englert of H Street
  • Aman Ayoubi of Local 16
  • Chef Tate of Inspire BBQ
  • Andy Shallal of Busboys and Poets
The list of supporting actors is long, so I won't go into them until they come up in the information.  Not that they weren't all contributors, but there were a lot of them.
Think Local First is a group of like-minded business individuals who have a goal of educating consumers, businesses,and policymakers about the benefits of supporting DC's local independent businesses. 
 In addition to advocating public policies that support growth of DC's local businesses, they are a community that believes in being responsible for a triple bottom line, meaning they focus on more than bottom line profit to the owners. 
"The triple bottom line captures the essence of sustainability by measuring the impact of an organization's activities on the world ... including both its profitability and shareholder values and its social, human and environmental capital." 
Andrew Savitz, The Triple Bottom Line (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006).
On to the information......
The Nuts and Bolts of Getting Started:
How do you proceed with licensing?  Get the lease first, then apply for the business license as other licenses will be required before you can get your business license such as a zoning certificate.  There is a service available to help you navigate the bureaucracy of all the permitting/licensing/registration here: http://dcra.dc.gov/DC/DCRA/For+Business/SBRC  You can schedule a one-on-one with someone who can help. There is no charge for the service.  Seems like DC is trying to make improvements in what was formerly known as the Business Prevention Bureau.  Good to hear.

The steps for getting your restaurant licensed are as follows:
  1. You'll need your certificate of occupancy.  This ensures your compliance with zoning ordinances.
  2. Corporate registration.
  3. You'll need Form FR500 for tax registration.
  4. Clean Hands Certification
  5. Basic Business License Application
  6. Department of Health Inspection/Approval and Certified Food Service Operator licenses.
Before you sign a lease make sure to complete your due diligence regarding the following items:
  • Get to know the ANC (Advisory Neighborhood Commissions).  Meet them yourself. They would much rather meet you than your lawyer.  Make a good presentation to them.  Show them what you want to do and be truthful.  If you're not, they'll pick you apart and make your life hell. Make sure you concept is clear and your business plan is tight and right.
  • One of the great things about DC is the history of it all.  It's so DC!  That's fine until you move into a historic district and can't put up the sign or awning you want.  Check here for information on the many historic districts and how to work with the administrators of those: http://planning.dc.gov/DC/Planning/Historic+Preservation
  • Look at the business application record for businesses near where you're thinking of opening.  I heard they are public record, but I'm not sure exactly where you find them. Ask your rep at the small business resource center. Cheap homework to let you know if what you're going to try to do has been tried before and what the results were.  This will also give you the general temperature of the residents in the area.  You don't want to open where the residents are going to make it unfriendly.  You'll need the support of the community you open in.
  • Negotiate a release clause that allows you to back out of the lease if you can't get the permits and/or licenses you need.
  • Negotiate for "Heavy Up" MEP improvements if necessary.  Mechanical/electrical/plumbing takes time and is very expensive.  I've seen two restaurants that I worked with recently that had to re plumb their buildings, which entailed ripping up their floors down to the dirt and replacing the main piping to the street.  Expensive, but generally only necessary in places that weren't previously restaurants.
  • If you need these types of improvements allow approximately 4 months.  Pepco and WASA can be slow.
When you go back to show plans and get approval, you'll need 5 copies.  4 for DCRA and 1 for the Department of Health.
Allow for back and forth time with the Dept. of Health and DCRA if your plans aren't perfect, which they won't be.
As far as licensing, once you've got all your permits, Ms. Outlaw of the licensing division says walking in is the fastest way to get done what you need done.  Once again, the DCRA Small Business Resource Center will get you a list of everything that needs to happen and all the paperwork that needs to be completed and filed.  Don't sleep on this step.
Preliminary plan reviews are available as well according to Tay Garnett of DCRA's Permit Operations Division.  There is also an "Ambassador Program" to help steward you through the process from cradle to grave.  Take advantage of this free resource.  It can save you a lot of frustration.
Regarding using an expediter, there is not a need for one according to the consensus of the restaurant operators on the panel.  If you follow the steps, you'll do fine.
Special licensing is needed for outdoor seating.  If it's on the sidewalk or other public area it's known as a sidewalk cafe, but if it's in your courtyard or rooftop it's called a summer garden.  It will be in the lease if it's available to you.
Part II will focus on Finances, Leases and Build-Out.  Stay tuned!
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