More tales from the restaurant industry
It was the Friday before my Monday construction inspection with the city, and I had to cater a party of over 400 people. I had two 200-pound hogs smoking at the same time, 100 pounds of cabbage to shred, and 25 trays of mac and cheese to bake off.
Without a permanent staff, I had to do all the smoking myself. During these overnight cooks, I set an alarm on my phone, sleep in my truck, and tend to the fire every hour. So I got a relaxing three and a half hours of sleep before awakening, half-dead and feverish, to a Saturday morning of loading gear into the party site and setting up shop.
Then it started to rain. No, not rain—monsoon. Except when monsoons start in India, I imagine the parties take a rain check. But no ma'am, we troopers had to weather the storm. (Note to self: any plans for an Arrogant Swine Seattle are permanently shelved until further notice).
Once the catering was behind us, I spent Sunday getting the restaurant prepped and fixed up for the inspection the next day. What's the inspector looking for? That my build-out is up to city code, safe for customers, and in compliance with special requirements, like handicap accessibility. So hauling off two truck-loads of construction debris was a good place to start.
I forget how many Advils I crunched down to keep my fever in check while keeping my contractors busy screwing in handicap bars and rear exit push-bars. When we finished, we power washed the whole interior until she sparkled under the last rays of the day's sun.
At 6 a.m. Monday morning, we hauled some stray scrap metal to the junkyard. At 7:30, my architect did his walk-through to make sure we didn't have any hiccups. By now I was on day four of a nasty fever The Advil stopped working and hallucinations set in. I was tasting colors when a leprechaun began dancing Gangnam style out of the corner of my eye.
At 11:30, two inspectors from the Department of Buildings showed up. They looked like Mulder and Scully from the X-Files: a badge flashed, clipboard in hand, ready to fight against the otherworldly dangers that threaten mankind.
To save you from further fanfare: we failed the inspection.
We didn't just fail—we epically flunked—with a nine-item litany of objections. My partners were so crushed by the news they went home for the day. But like any good degenerate workaholic, I buried my pain in more hard labor. Not that I'm sure what I actually got done; by that point I was so feverish I had forgotten my own name.
Early Tuesday morning, after five days of ignoring my illness, I finally dragged myself to an urgent care clinic to get a prescription. A nice sign greeted me, stating, "We do not participate with the new Affordable Care Act." What's more, despite affirmations from their website, they didn't take my insurance, either. It took another eight hours to get treated by a doctor friend of mine.
Now that, my friends, is my F My Life story.
A Stacked Deck
I'm not above losing my shit when things go wrong. Sometimes, the only way to get something done is to be mean about it, and anger is a useful energy that can be channeled into other projects. But I couldn't even get angry after we failed the inspection. Exhaustion won out.
The City of New York stacks the deck against restaurateurs. A multi-billion dollar hedge fund, one whose actions can and have had major impacts on the global economy, deals with fewer regulatory bodies than your average barbecue restaurant.
Restaurants don't just deal with the health department. We must contend with the State Liquor Authority, the Fire Department, the Department of Environmental Protection, the Department of Buildings, and the Business Integrity Commission. The Department of Buildings has sub-groups we also must face: mechanical filings for heating and cooling, construction permits, permits for changes in use, a whole separate department for hoods and ranges...I even need to apply for a permit to put up a freakin' sign.
I'm not opposed to regulation, but I find it odd that an industry composed largely of mom and pop shops with fewer than 20 employees apiece has to jump through dozens more hoops than hedge fund goliaths with the power to ruin the global economy. To add insult to injury, the tax dollars generated by restaurants are 100% plowed back into our local economies. We create jobs and spend money in our own towns, rather than, say, the Cayman islands.
After bombing the inspection, I started making panicked phone calls. To my architect. Several contractors. Two other architects. And a network of restaurateurs.
Their responses? "Meh, it happens to everyone." Many of them count on failing their inspection.
Life has a few arresting moments: points of such magnitude that they shut down your ability to respond. The first time you see the Grand Canyon is one. Listening to Shostakovich's fifth symphony is another. One more? Me, upon realizing that the inspection system is designed to ensure that most of us fail it.
The issue's become so big that the New York City Mayor's office has set up an entire task force, the New Business Acceleration Team (NBAT), to deal with it: one bureaucracy to address the failings of another.
Some friends tell me the NBAT has been a huge help to them. Others found that working through them just delayed them even more.
I just wish I knew in advance. I worked my ass off that Sunday to prepare for that inspection. If I knew I was going to fail no matter what, I would have stayed in bed and eaten pancakes.
So Why Did You Fail?
Here's the wonderful part about judgements from inspectors: they're as inconsistent and illogical as the system itself. For example, I got dinged for not having a push-bar front exit. A push-bar is used in emergency exits in case of a fire, so you can simply push the door open rather than fumble with a knob. I had one for my back exit, like 99.99% of New York City businesses. I called no fewer than 35 different restaurateurs for advice. "Do you have a front door push-bar? What about you? And you?"
Not a one did.
Here's another charmer. The inspectors wanted me to remove the roll-down front gate in front of my door, so people can exit 24/7. Randomly walk down any New York City street at 2 a.m. What do you see? Everyone has a roll-down gate. The logic is pretty simple: if no one is inside, we roll down the gate to prevent theft. If my violation were a real violation, every single restaurant in the city would need to shut down today.
The inspectors didn't seem to understand all their own rules. One looked at my outdoor seating area and smugly said that I needed a public assembly permit, as I'd obviously be seating more than 75 people out there.
But the law is crystal clear on this point. If your indoor space seats more than 75 people and/or your outdoor space seats more than 200, you need a public assembly permit (see page three of this PDF). My outdoor space is huge, but not 200-people huge. The numbers didn't add up.
What's Uncle Ho Gonna Do?
This turn of events could have been crushing. Appointments with the examiner at the Department of Buildings are backed up for the next three weeks. With the added bureaucratic hurdles, failing this inspection could delay my opening for another two months! But Uncle Ho has an ace up his sleeve.
Let's go back to the beginning, when, in a balmy December of real estate searching, I stood in the frost staring at a dank warehouse with a cratered parking lot, cracked walls, and a leaky roof. I was prepared to pass it up when the broker said these magic words: "Oddly, the Certificate of Occupancy (C of O) is for a Diner/Restaurant."
At the time, I didn't understand how powerful this fact was, but I had a hunch it was going to save my tail some day. That same kind of hunch is what convinced me to propose marriage to a woman I'd only known for three days—who stands by my side 12 years later. I didn't know what exactly I was seeing, but I could tell it was special.
The C of O for a Diner/Restaurant means that my construction, no matter how complex, all falls under "renovations for an existing eating and drinking establishment." Say, for example, that I signed up for a laundromat space I loved in nearby Greenpoint. I would have had to file for a "Letter of No Objection" and a "Change of Use" with the Department of Buildings to start any work. At the end of construction when I passed inspection, I would be issued a brand new C of O for a restaurant. If I failed, I wouldn't be able to open, because you can't sell food in what is legally a laundromat.
A restaurant doesn't have that problem. Even if one fails its inspection, it can keep operating while fixing the violations. That means I can keep onto my opening schedule while getting the Department of Buildings to remove my violations.
So score one for gut reactions, for the bride of my youth being my saving grace, in sickness and in health.