“Don’t Assume That You Know Anything,” and Other Advice for Somerville’s Aspiring Entrepreneurs

journeymanYesterday, we shared Journeyman co-owner Tse Wei Lim's (left) perspective on opening a restaurant. Today, we're taking a look at the other side.

In “Behind the Brown Paper” (January/February ’16), we spoke with Somerville chefs about the challenges of opening your own restaurant. There’s an awful lot that can go wrong, from flooding (Journeyman) to landlord disputes (Bergamot) to zoning code misunderstandings (Spindler Confections).

But while the restaurateurs we sat down with ran into trouble with contractors, pastry chefs and NSTAR, we were surprised to hear nearly all of them singing the praises of the city. “There’s no question that they expect a lot, especially when you’re dealing with food,” Somerville Bread Company founder Nick Robertson explained. “But you can tell they’re really trying to help.” Below, Inspectional Services Operations Manager Ellen Collins, Urban Revitalization Specialist Max MacCarthy and Ben Lipham from the Somerville Health Department share some insight on what the restaurant-opening process looks like from their side of things.

Look, nobody wants you to fail.

As a health inspector, it’s Ben Lipham’s responsibility to make sure restaurants are operating safely. Licenses need to be up to date, equipment needs to be up to code, food safety processes need to be followed to the letter. He’s a regulator, and technically speaking, it isn’t his job to care if your eatery opens on time or not.

But he’s also, you know, a person—and he doesn’t get any joy out of shutting restaurants down. “That’s the stuff that keeps you up at night!” he says. “A nice person that just wants to start their business has a problem getting open … if you’re an empathetic human being, that hits you.” Lipham says that he makes it a priority to respond to all phone calls within 24 hours, and he’ll also take his role one step further by providing aspiring business owners with information about regulations and potential challenges they might face. He’ll even go so far as to propose creative solutions and help locate city resources that could be of assistance.

“It makes my job easier, because I don’t have to go through a whole bunch of steps I don’t need to [in the future],” Lipham explains. “I will be regulating them, you know?

“There are reasons why we do these things.”

These city staffers know how they look from the outside. They’re the people asking you to fill out more paperwork and schedule walk-throughs with numerous departments before you open—and they’re the ones shutting you down if you’re not up to code. “It’s hard for me to imagine that you would ever get to a point where tons and tons of businesses would ever praise government, right?” laughs Max MacCarthy, who works to promote business development in Somerville. “The best thing is probably when we’re out of the way and they’re operating legally.”

“We have to enforce code, but ultimately we’re doing it for everybody’s best interests, whether you own an establishment, buy something from that establishment or inspect that establishment,” adds Inspectional Services Operations Manager Ellen Collins. She recommends that business owners learn as much as much as possible about the process before setting out, whether that means speaking with restaurateurs who have been there already or researching requirements on the city’s website. “We’ve had people who have through the process very quickly, because they’ve really educated themselves,” Collins says. “And we have other people who really, they just don’t know what to expect … that can stretch the process out a long time.”

And time, as Lipham points out, time is money. “If you can open quicker, that means you’re getting money in your coffers quicker.”

journeyman

This industry is tough. Like, really tough.

Here’s a worst-case scenario for you: You’ve signed a lease on a property and have started paying rent on the space when you learn that the building isn’t even zoned for the type of business you’re planning to open. (That’s what happened to Jeremy Spindler when he moved his confectionary out of his Somerville home and into a Cambridge storefront.) This sort of thing happens all the time to varying degrees—entrepreneurs will buy or lease a restaurant space under the assumption that they’ll be able to continue operating a similar business there, only to learn that they need new construction permits or that all the equipment they purchased is out of code because it’s decades old.

MacCarthy says that your best bet for avoiding this nightmarish situation is to develop a well-thought-out business plan, and to connect with people from the city early and often. “The more communication, the better—don’t assume that you know anything,” he notes. MacCarthy previously worked in Dorchester, and says he knew many business owners who blew all of their resources—and quickly—because they didn’t know what they were doing and got in over their heads. “You’re probably not going to make money your first year, that’s standard,” he explains of the notoriously fickle restaurant business. “Your income projections for the first few months are probably going to be lower than you think. This is the process.”

Sure, he sounds like a killjoy. But MacCarthy is adamant that communicating how difficult and expensive it really is to open a restaurant is a key component of encouraging business development—even if that results in an owner tabling their plans for the time being. “It sounds horrible, but … if that means stopping someone before they get in too deep, that’s probably a good outcome,” he says.

That being said, there are lots of city services aimed at helping you.

There’s Somerville SiteFinder—a sort of Match.com for real estate that connects commercial property owners with tenants looking to open a business. Collins says that the Inspectional Services Department has added inspectors and clerical staff in recent years, and she points to Citizenserve, the online permitting system that ISD launched in 2014, as one of many ways the department is working to cut down on the trips you have to make to City Hall. “We are really trying to make sure that we have enough resources to be able to respond to the city’s needs,” Collins says. “Food is big in Somerville, we all know and respect that.” Once your business is open, The Commercial Property Involvement Program reimburses business owners who upgrade their storefronts, while the Small Business Assistance Program can help retailers with everything from implementing new social media strategies to improving a store’s layout.

And because getting to opening day is still a huge hurdle, the Office of Economic Development recently hosted the first in a series of “office hours” events in East Somerville, where they brought together administrators from several city departments and translators from SomerVIVA to, as MacCarthy explains it, “give a face to the process.”

“The hope,” he says, “is if [business owners] can get some initial information at the beginning, it saves them time in the end.”

SCATV was at the open office hours event—check out their report on the proceedings below. And for more on Somerville’s Business Development Initiatives, check out somervillema.gov/smallbusiness.

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