Ask just about any development and construction professional what keeps them up at night and permits are likely to be near the top of the list. No matter how great your concept or your menu, nothing happens without permits. Mike Robinson, president and founder of Permit Place, a Los Angeles-based permit expediting and entitlement consulting firm that services businesses nationwide, shares some tips on easing the pain.
rd+d: How far out should operators think about permitting and what are the first steps they can take?
MR: A lot depends on jurisdiction and type of concept planned. Certain locations, i.e., metro areas like Miami, New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago, are notoriously difficult. But for a typical restaurant TI (tenant improvement) in most cities, the basic building and health permits can take two to three months, depending on how many revisions you have. If you're planning to serve beer and wine, add on anywhere from 6 to 12 months depending on the state. If you're serving full liquor, you'd have to add even more time onto that.
It's best to start with a site investigation report. Before signing a lease, you need to know all of the permits and fees that will be required, which departments will need to sign off on your plans — city, county and state — and how much time each will realistically take. That type of due diligence gives a good idea of whether it's worth it to try to open in that location. You might find that upfront fees and permitting timeframes make it a losing proposition. In Los Angeles, for instance, if you want to build a new freestanding restaurant, you not only have the usual permits and fees, but because it's a highly populated urban area, you'd also be looking at sewer connection fees that can run into six figures. That could be a deal killer.
You should also set clear expectations about a desired opening date and work backwards from that to build in enough lead time.
rd+d: What are among the most common stumbling blocks that restaurant permit-seekers encounter?
MR: Those we see most often have to do with not having enough parking and/or bathroom capacity. In most jurisdictions the requirements for bathrooms are also much stricter if you serve alcohol, so you have to meet those minimums. That's true in California, for instance, but the California building code isn't specific enough on it so you sometimes have to be proactive and work with the local building official early on to make sure your plans can qualify.
rd+d: Any do's and don'ts you'd offer to help make the permitting process less stressful and more successful?
MR: On the don'ts side, don't lose your cool. Screaming and yelling never works. I've seen people get escorted out of the building department for doing so. Don't waste everyone's time by not checking requirements for simple gotchas, like special sign districts or moratoriums on chain stores, which are now in place in cities like San Francisco. Same goes for parking and restrooms: Don't just take the landlord's word that they're sufficient; verify it independently.
On the do's side, think ahead. Maybe you're planning to open without beer and wine and add it later. If so, you need to understand that your restroom requirements would change at that point. If your concept will incorporate sidewalk/patio seating or a drive-thru, those require separate and, in many locations, increasingly tough permitting procedures. You need to understand those early in the process and make sure your site can allow for them. Don't just assume.