How I Built a Barbecue Restaurant in Brooklyn: Why No One Opens on Time

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

In July of 1620, a group of people we now call the pilgrims boarded an aging ship named Mayflower on a journey to a new life in a foreign land. Back then, the only safe thing to drink on long ocean journeys was alcohol.

But the pilgrims didn't have it easy. Their massive floating keg party found itself battling a leaky ship, violent Atlantic storms, and a captain who was alternating between screaming "I love you man" and singing show tunes. Four months later on November 9th, with what I can only assume was one hell of a hangover, they managed to land on Plymouth Rock. Four months.

Their achievement depresses me. A bunch of mid-millenium people, traveling across an ocean in a wooden boat powered by nothing but dumb luck and booze, managed to escape pirates, shipwreck, squalid conditions, and waves tossing them in all directions—and still manage to reach their destination in less time than the average New York City restaurant takes to open.

Why does it seem like no restaurant ever opens on time? We really do seem like the flakiest business in the world. Even Danny Meyer, the single most on-point guy in the industry, faced massive delays when he was opening the now iconic Eleven Madison Park. The running joke is that everyone tells you they'll be open in three months, which they'll keep on saying for the next two years.

My personal goal was to open the Arrogant Swine by the early part of summer, a busy time for restaurants in general and barbecue joints and beer gardens in particular. Three quarters of my seating is outdoors and 90% of my catering is during the summer. So while I've hit some pretty low moments in my corporate career, none felt as defeating this past Labor Day weekend. I signed my lease back in February, then spent all day, every day, trying to open by the start of summer. And I failed.

I could blame all sorts of setbacks and people, but at the end of the day it's my name on the door, and I couldn't make it work. Failure is a distinct feeling. As the sun set on Labor Day, and by extension New York's summer, I felt a hollowness in my heart and an inescapable sense of aloneness. A fighter in a ring has lots of supporters—friends, family, trainers, fans—but when he's knocked out, he bleeds on the canvas alone. His best efforts aren't good enough.

So what gives? Why can't anyone ever open on time?

No Money, No Honey

I didn't start construction until April, two months after I signed my lease, for one simple reason: I didn't have the cash. Investors, who are fickle and pull out of projects all the time, need talking points to get interested in giving you money. Securing a space gave me that base, but even then, getting money takes time.

The extremely erratic nature of restaurant build-outs can easily frighten away people who've pledged money to a project. In all phases of the build-out, there isn't a single participant who is rooting for you to open as expediently as possible—except for the Department of Health, since they can come crash your opening day and issue fines.

Explaining this to a layman is more or less impossible. The time frame is as illogical as asking someone to imagine a circle with 90 degree angles. How does a two-week delay with the plumber push your opening back by three months? Why does it take six months for the gas company to simply come in and switch the meter on? Plenty of investors have bailed on projects simply because they couldn't cope with the nonsense.

If you've been following this series you've probably figured out by now that I'm a cheap fuck. I could have spent $20,000 on my 44-foot-long bar as one guy quoted me, or I could stand in the baking sun with a mini-flamethrower and char the silly out of plain lumber from the hardware store for New York's first shou sugi ban bar top.

Dollars are like bullets, and I have to pick my shots very carefully. I could drop an extra $5,000 on a real oven to bake cornbread, but space and cash were running pretty low, which is why almost every side dish at the Swine, from cornbread to mac and cheese, is a waffle. We use waffle irons not because we think they're cool, but because they're the only real non-smoking heating equipment we have. In all honestly it's a lot of extra work to make everything with the irons, but the limitation has given our menu its own personality.

Not everyone shares this point of view. I know of one other barbecue spot in Bushwick that's delayed its opening for the past two years; a lot of their funds got sunk into their dining room's beautiful furnishing. And my model obviously doesn't work for everyone. If your idea of cuisine involves tweezers and immaculate cubes of food, you might want to drop some coin on the decor. But there's a difference between "need to have" and "nice to have," and keeping the latter in mind has saved me plenty of cash.

Many restaurants in my neighborhood are opening with development bank loans. Their release of funds are marked by pre-agreed-upon benchmarks in construction. Marry the bureaucratic nature of bank loans with contractors who take forever to show up and finish a job, and you have a great recipe for a year-long delay.

The Contractor Time Warp

Here is how most contractors work. When you sign on for a job, you pay a 50% deposit and they send in a crew to do the work. 25% more comes midway through construction and the final 25% at completion of the job. This motivates contractors to start work right away, and in the beginning stages you'll see a lot of work happen fast. They'll finish the first half of the job with lighting speed so they get the next 25%.

After that it's pulling teeth to get them back in the door. By this point they've already started another job which is paying them a 50% deposit; why rush to finish your job which is only paying 25%?

So delays come down to pay schedules. Finishing a job may only take three or four more days, but it literally takes three to four weeks to get contractors back to finish the job.

While a project like the Swine seems like an enormous undertaking, I'm a piker compared to a multi-million dollar project that a contractor could be working on. Obviously they'll treat me accordingly. Our total installation for plumbing came to around $50,000, which is the equivalent of me catering three or four weddings. That's weeks of hard labor for contractors compared to me lounging on a chair smoking a pig for the same amount of money. Most mom and pop restaurants are the same way—our bills are too small to motivate anyone to come by and finish the job.

A contractor's overhead is massive. In order to maintain the high payrolls of electricians, plumbers, and construction crews, their teams need to constantly be working. Thus contractors will take on 20 jobs at a clip when in actuality they only have the staff to handle five. It becomes an endless "rob Peter to pay Paul" scenario where they'll ignore you for a few weeks, come back and work for two days, then disappear for another few weeks. And you really can't do anything about it.

Fancy yourself a handy man? Believe you can connect electrical boxes and copper pipe with the best of them? Well no go—New York City requires that the person doing the work be licensed, and unless you have one of those pieces of paper lying around, you're basically screwed.

The Department of Buildings

The New York City Department of Buildings (DOB) is a Gordian knot of bureaucracy, a massive hospice located in downtown Brooklyn where hopes and dreams go to die. Everything in the DOB is antiquated. Physical paper and microfiche are still the modus operandi, because we all know this technology fad is gonna end any day now. Thank Jesus that the DOB was started in 1892. If this organization was around any longer, permit applications sent to it would probably be chipped into clay tablets.

Because everything is so old at the DOB, they lose stuff all the time. Loss is so prevalent that it's actually calculated into the architect's time frame. Then, after a long delay, they'll kick back your construction plans with "objections." Objections are when your plans don't meet code—bathrooms too small, easements too narrow, etc. The DOB misplacing your paperwork is also an objection which you need to fix. Yup, this is a "blame the victim" organization.

Do not think for a moment that buying a pre-existing business will cure your woes with the DOB. I have colleagues who took over an old existing restaurant, only to discover, during their liquor application, that there were a dozen or so open permits on the property. They can't get their beer license until all the open permits are closed, and they need to get touch with whomever opened the permit to close it. Now these are long languishing permits. It's likely that the contractor didn't get paid for the job and isn't exactly predisposed to help you out. Compounding that problem is the fact that many of the permits are so old that the original contractors died. Good luck resolving those permits.

Got Gas?

Most restaurants are powered by gas. The utility heats up the space efficiently and provides cheap cooking fuel. It's also a resounding pain the ass to deal with. The gas company has a monopoly over our lives. There's no way you can complain and there's no recourse should they decide to ignore you. The people at the gas company couldn't care less whether or not you use their services and thus will take their sweet time getting to you.

I have a colleague who took one and a half years to open a bagel shop. A bagel shop. Not an artisanal bagel shop mind you with wood-burning ovens and organic starters. A cheap, generic, resell-mass-produced-bagels-with-frozen-cream-cheese-and-Restaurant-Depot-deli-meat kind of joint. A year and a half went into building out this tiny 400-square-foot space. Six of those months were spent waiting for National Grid to simply show up and turn on the gas. That was it. Six months. Everything was installed, there was power, water, refrigeration, and a space ready for customers.

But no gas.

Six whole months of sitting on your hands for what amounts to a half hour for the gas company to come in and turn on the meter.

One of the chief reasons we were able to open so quickly (relatively speaking) is my phobia of the gas company. Let's be perfectly clear. If you're looking to build for the long haul and you're a deep-pocketed restaurant group, building for gas is the single best way of running a shop. The sheer amount of times we have to scramble because our electrical equipment trips up has shaved years off my life. But if you're a scrappy, malnourished kitten of a startup looking to run with the lions, you could do worse than to give it a go with electricity.

I've had plenty of critics about it, seasoned vets who've been in the industry for years. At the end of the day this is a chess game. We only have so many moves. I could have let the gas company delay me an extra six months which would have cost me $45,000 in rent when I only had $20,000 left in the bank. Or I could have run my tumultuous opening and banked over $115,000 in revenue in my first month of operation, during the slow season.

Opus 2014

We were closed for New Year's Eve as holidays tend to be pretty slow out in the industrial wastelands of Bushwick. Over the past decade I've kept a personal tradition: To smoke the same cigar at the end of the year. The cigar of choice is the "Anejo" by Arturo Fuente, an annual limited release meaning "old." Every New Years Day I smoke something I've never had before. Out with the old, In with the new, get it?

I couldn't find any Anejos because I've been so busy running the shop and they sell out quickly every year. So I picked out another limited release in the Fuente line up: the Opus X. Opus is Latin for "work," fitting for my new life.

I drove past the Swine and took a moment to appreciate the bizarre thing that now stands at 173 Morgan Avenue. On December 31st, 2013, it was nothing but a rotting building packed with industrial supplies. I had nothing. No prospects, no lease, no money. If you talked to me then you would have been talking to a lost loser, adrift and hopeless.

On December 31st 2014, around me stood three bars "soon" to open. They have been soon to open for the past three years, the current average rate it takes to convert a space in Bushwick, and their build outs are managed by folks with deep industry experience. There I stood, no experience in construction, no experience running a restaurant, no flipping clue about what it takes to build an empty space into Bushwick's first outdoor beer garden. Six months from the inception of construction we opened our doors for business. The upstart beat out pros.

As puffed on my Opus X, a deep fatigue hit me. The year was going to end in a few hours and I felt all of 2014 smack me in one go. We hear about life flashing before our lives at near-death experiences and moments of crisis, and I guess this was close as I've ever come to feeling that. I talked before about the hardships I faced opening up the shop, but in truth I never felt them. I never felt tired, I never faced the hurt; the project possessed me and I pushed myself past any limit I've ever believed I had. If there was any extra money to be made, if I could have opened a day earlier, I gave it all to do so.

At that moment I paid the debt I owed myself. I felt every sleepless night, I felt every tear and every curling pain. Mental exhaustion pounded me the same way I pounded walls in frustration throughout the year. The loneliness and lost emotions I buried deep in my psyche flooded back to claim their due. I didn't celebrate my own opening day, but as 2014 ticked down, I realized the gift the universe has given me. I was privileged to do what many couldn't do for the year. I completed my Opus.