Behind the Brown Paper

tse wei limTse Wei Lim (right) and manager Bradford Yates, photos by Jess Benjamin

Screen Shot 2016-01-20 at 9.51.10 AMSipping from a mug of lukewarm coffee as he peers out from behind his shiny, silver Macbook, Tse Wei Lim seems at peace. The air is warm inside Journeyman, and soft music spills from the speakers as the staff bustles about, preparing for the evening’s service. Today, everyone is at ease, everything is in the right place. But five years ago, the atmosphere wasn’t quite as relaxed as it is on this November afternoon.

“We were expecting it to be pretty difficult,” says Lim, who operates Journeyman and Backbar as well as Ames Street Deli and Study in Kendall Square with partner Diana Kudayarova. The couple knew there would be challenges when they opened Journeyman, their first restaurant, in 2010. The nature and extent of those challenges, though, were something of a surprise. “Somehow you always wind up doing hilarious things that you didn’t expect to be doing, like bailing water out from the roof in the middle of a giant thunderstorm.”

Opening a restaurant isn’t for the faint of heart, but then, Somerville’s chefs aren’t faint-hearted. We asked area restaurateurs to tell us what’s really going on when they’re readying to open a new eatery—and to share their hard-earned wisdom on making the process (relatively) painless.

It’s going to take longer than you think. And it’ll probably be more expensive, too.

When Union Square Donuts owner Heather Schmidt started renovating the space at 20 Bow St., a local chef told her to take the amount of time she believed the project would require and the budget she thought she’d need and double both. “I, of course, thought everything would go to plan,” Schmidt says. “I was a little naive.”

As it turns out, that prediction was absolutely right. The USD team faced unexpected problems, and they paid—with time and with money. As Schmidt points out, opening a restaurant that’s all your own means making choices every day that will affect the life of your business. She advises would-be restaurateurs to work in the industry first so they learn to intuit the right course of action and trust their gut.

“If you make the wrong decision, which you will do, look ahead, move forward and learn from that wrong or bad decision,” she says.

Little mix-ups can turn into big setbacks.

Jeremy Spindler started operating Spindler Confections out of his Somerville kitchen in 2012, but as the business began to overtake his home, he realized that he needed a brick-and-mortar storefront. So he signed a lease in Cambridge in April, in a space he thought was properly zoned to host a confectionary. It wasn’t.

“It was a little bit of a shock at the beginning,” Spindler recalls. “We had just signed the lease, and I was so panicked that, you know, I’m not going to get the permit, I’m not going to be able to operate and we’re going to be locked into a lease that we can’t get out of.” He applied for—and was eventually granted—a special permit to resume construction in the space. But that initial stumbling block, a simple misinterpretation of the city’s zoning codes, set his plans back about three-and-a-half months.

In any buildout, seemingly small issues—scheduling conflicts, bad weather, unexpected illness—can quickly snowball into time-consuming problems. “Maybe the plumber can’t do what he needs to do until the electrician is done what he needs to do,” Spindler explains. “They can’t run wiring through the walls until the contractor builds the wall … A lot of the individual tasks don’t take that long, it’s just they have to be done in a very specific order.”

tse wei lim

Diana Kudayarova (left) and Tse Wei Lim, the team behind Journeyman, Backbar, Ames Street Deli and Study.

You need to have a good team behind you.

It was March 15, 2010, and Bergamot co-owner Servio Garcia had just picked up the keys to his restaurant. He was behind due to a legal dispute with his landlord, and he couldn’t afford to suffer another setback as he made the last-minute preparations for an April Fool’s Day opening.

Luckily, his staff had his back. In the time between grabbing the keys and opening the doors, the Bergamot team made a final, desperate push to get the building ready on time. “They were the kind of days where we’d arrive at six in the morning and work until one, two in the morning,” Garcia recalls. Chefs and line cooks cleaned the kitchen and readied appliances, while the front of house team helped organize the dining room, picking up rollers and brushes and moving furniture.

“We were really, really happy and proud that we were able to overhaul the restaurant in two weeks,” Garcia says. “That was all thanks to the staff who helped to do that.”

There’s always something else.

With four restaurants under his belt, Tse Wei Lim has been through practically every kind of snafu a restaurant owner could experience. There’s the aforementioned rainwater incident. A last-minute miscommunication with NSTAR set Journeyman’s opening back an extra two months after their buildout was already finished. His pastry chef walked out three days before Ames Street Deli was scheduled to open in Kendall Square. And running a restaurant doesn’t necessarily get any easier once you’ve opened—this is a demanding, all-consuming kind of job.

So, what advice would Lim give to aspiring entrepreneurs who want to break into the biz?

“Other than, ‘don’t?’” he asks, a wry smile playing about his lips in a way that implies he’s only half kidding. “Go take a plumbing course, go take a course in refrigeration repair, go learn how to be an electrician. On a Saturday night, when your ice machine breaks, you’ll wish you knew how to fix it.”

Oh, and also: “Be nice to people.”

The city wants you to succeed. No, really!

“I feel like the stigma of opening a business is that’s it’s sluggish and slow—red tape everywhere,” says Nick Robertson, who will open the doors to Somerville Bread Company at 415 Medford St. on January 23. “I have to say, though, what has not really slowed the process down is the city.”

Yes, permitting can be a nightmare, but we learned that the city is actually doing a lot to make Somerville more welcoming to entrepreneurs—so much, in fact, that we decided that was a story in and of itself. In part two of this series, we sat down with Inspectional Services Operations Manager Ellen Collins, Urban Revitalization Specialist Max MacCarthy and Ben Lipham from the Somerville Health Department to hear what they had to say about city programs aimed at giving local business owners a hand.

This story originally appeared in the January/February edition of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 100 locations around the city.

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