Why it takes so long to open a restaurant in Philly

It’s complicated.

A dish at Cheu Fishtown

A dish at Cheu Fishtown

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

When news broke that the Marigold Kitchen team was planning a second restaurant in Rittenhouse called TALK, owner Andrew Kochan told Billy Penn he was targeting July 2017 for a launch.

It’s about to be October, and TALK has not yet opened its doors.

“We get excited. End of story,” Kochan said last week. “It’s a massive pain in the ass that I gave a date as early as I did — that won’t happen again. ”

This is Kochan’s first time playing the launch date game. Marigold was already open when the 30-year-old chef and his business partner, chef Tim Lanza, took it over from its previous owner.

But his inaccuracy can’t necessarily be chalked up to youth or inexperience.

Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby — the couple behind Vedge and V Street — announced they were opening Wiz Kid in Rittenhouse and told Philly.com they were hoping to have it up and running by “holiday season” 2016. Well, the vegan fast-casual officially opened to the public in August, eight months later.

Wiz Kid

Wiz Kid

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Tria Wine Garden is another case where seasoned restaurateurs were off on timing. Spring 2017 was the initially reported launch target for the new spot from Jon Myerow and Michael McCaulley, who operate the well-established Tria Cafes and Tria Taproom. Now? The indoor-outdoor wine garden is slated to land at the corner of 18th and Ludlow sometime during summer 2018.

This doesn’t happen to everyone. “All the restaurants I opened before [we became part of URBN], they opened within one week of the target date,” Marc Vetri said.

But in general, there’s a pattern here. None of the above delays, which represent just a handful of dozens every year, are surprising. At least not to people in the food and drink biz, where it happens so often that it’s basically a cliché.

So why is missing the target for so common for restaurants?

A complicated puzzle

The high-level answer is that a restaurant comprises a ton of different and varied components.

“There are a lot of moving pieces when it comes to opening a new restaurant,” said Nicholas Elmi of Laurel, ITV and the forthcoming Royal Boucherie (original target: mid-September).

“Some of them, no matter how hard you try, cannot be controlled.”

Nicholas Elmi and then-sous chef Edmund Konrad

Nicholas Elmi (left) on Laurel's opening night with then-sous chef Edmund Konrad

Danya Henninger

Depending on the space and situation, here’s what you need to solve the launch puzzle: financing, zoning approvals, permits (from both the Department of Licenses and Inspections and the Department of Health), plumbing, electrical work, carpentry, liquor license, interior design, insurance, branding, installation (equipment and furniture/decor), menu development, supplies, POS system, staffing and training.

All that, in turn, requires interacting with many different entities — from local, state and federal government agencies to banks, individuals and businesses both large and small.

Plus, the different moving parts are often intertwined.

For example, you might need a signed lease to secure financing, but also need proof of financial backing in order to negotiate a good lease, said longtime restaurant consultant Harris Eckstut, who teaches a class called “The Dollars & Sense of Owning a Restaurant” at several colleges and universities around the region.

Zoning hurdles

Financing is one of two crucial first steps. The other is zoning.

“You need those two wrapped up before you can start construction,” Eckstut said.

Even when a new restaurant is going into a spot that already had one operating there, he explained, the zoning issue can trip things up. “Sometimes [the address] wasn’t actually zoned for a restaurant and they just did it illegally,” Eckstut said.

If a property was not previously zoned for a restaurant, it will take at least three months to get a hearing — that’s if there’s no opposition from the local community, which can delay things further. And by Philadelphia law, once your zoning request is approved, there’s another month’s wait to allow for public appeal.

After zoning and financing are in place, it’s still not smooth sailing.

Rooster Soup Co.

Rooster Soup Co. took extra long to launch because of its philanthropic mission

Danya Henninger

Construction issues

Tria’s Jon Myerow cited “construction” as the major timing hangup.

“Could be delays by contractor, city issues, labor issues or a combination.” he said. “If there are no construction-related issues, the target date should be achievable.”

Those “construction-related issues” can take many forms, starting with just finding the right people to do the job.

“There is so much building going on in the city right now,” said Shawn Darragh of Cheu Noodle Bar, Cheu Fishtown and Bing Bing Dim Sum, which all missed their target openings by six to eight months, he said. “Residential and commercial. Contractors, carpenters, etc. are so busy, sometimes you’re just waiting around for your turn.”

The opening team at Cheu Fishtown

The opening team at Cheu Fishtown

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Coordinating construction schedules is a puzzle unto itself.

“Carpenters can’t work when painters are working because they’ll get dust in the air,” said Eckstut, who operated several Philadelphia restaurants before he got into consulting. “The guy putting up the [ventilation] hood can’t work when the floor is being poured. And electricians and plumbers just don’t like each other.”

Permits pose challenges

Personalities aside, many facets of restaurant construction and some of the equipment installation requires specific permits from L&I and the Health Department, which are entirely separate and “don’t talk to each other,” Eckstut said.

“All restaurant-related issues should be housed in one department,” said John Longacre, the developer behind American Sardine Bar, South Philadelphia Tap Room and Second District Brewing. He gave a specific example to explain why he sees the city as “not business friendly.”

At one property, he submitted to L&I a request for a plumbing construction permit. L&I refused to issue it, saying they needed a plumbing approval letter from the Department of Health first, which must certify that the design of any restaurant kitchen meets food safety standards.

“It took [the Health Department] a month to approve our plumbing plan,” Longacre said. “We then submitted that to L&I and it went under another 20-day review. Now do that five times and you have your answer…”

South Philadelphia Tap Room

South Philadelphia Tap Room

Danya Henninger

Darragh also said the permitting process can be “gruesome.” Officials doing on-site reviews of plans and progress don’t always agree, he noted, so meeting their demands and requirements can be an elusive goal.

“Things change weekly with them. Some want this, some want that.”

Making it special

Say you’ve got all your permits and your contractor is on the ball as far as scheduling construction. Home free? Not quite.

Interior design is a huge part of any restaurant, pointed out designer Joe Miraglia, who has worked on several Philly spots, including Vernick Food & Drink (which opened on time). “Restaurateurs have this idea in their head that they want something special,” he said. “They want to create an image. It’s not as generic as an office space or hospital.”

Anything special or custom — from chairs to wallpaper to drapes — takes time, and also can have its own delays.

Dining room at Vernick Food & Drink

Dining room at Vernick Food & Drink

Danya Henninger

“A lot of clients don’t realize how long this stuff takes to get,” Miraglia said. “Especially today, when nothing is made in the U.S. anymore.” Sometimes it’s the vendor’s fault, like when he called a company in Italy to make sure 14 of the chosen lighting fixtures were in stock, only to find out two weeks later that four were damaged when they got pulled for packing and would take an extra 12 weeks to arrive.

Or operators are running low on money, since by this point they’ve shelled out at every step but not generated any revenue, so aren’t able to make final payments on custom furniture that’s ready to go.

“You usually pay half upfront as a deposit, then the balance on shipping, and I’m not a bank,” Miraglia said. “If you can’t send the balance due, the chairs won’t ship.”

Sometimes people run out of cash entirely before the doors ever open, and the restaurant fails before it has a chance to serve a single plate of food.

If things do work out, said Miraglia, who’s been designing for the industry almost two decades, all the issues make opening day that much more satisfying.

“It’s kind of like giving birth,” he said. “Months of grueling stuff — and then the lights go on and the people come in! It’s very exciting.”

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