How I Built a Barbecue Restaurant in Brooklyn: The Trouble With Contractors

James Boo

In the Inferno, Dante travels through nine levels of hell. The first three are staffed by contractors.

I get asked all the time what's the worst part of starting a new restaurant—a question I'm sure is only posed to entrepreneurs. I really can't imagine any other job where random folks come up to you saying "pardon me good sir, might you tell me what blows about your work?"

For me, the answer is dealing with contractors.

Have you ever gotten your car serviced where you're pretty certain you're getting ripped off? All you wanted was an oil change and suddenly they're changing out your timing belt that's connected to some "royally shot" rotor that now needs replacing. Now imagine that feeling times a billion.

The biggest issue with contractors is that they don't like talking to each other and they all think the building architect is an idiot. The architect has 99% of the answers any contractor needs, but contractors insist on only talking to you. One time, the cement guys realized their pitch was off—water wouldn't flow cleanly into the drains. So they turned to me and asked what they should do, as if I had an answer for them! I'm in the hog-cooking and beer-pouring business; I've never asked a construction worker how to butcher a pig.

If remodeling your kitchen filled you with joy, or you trawl Pinterest looking for wood panels off barns you can bring into your dining room, perhaps working with contractors may be more up your alley. I, on the other hand, have actually given up on Ikea projects. (In case you were wondering, they don't give refunds on partially assembled bookcases.)

But right now, let me be your Virgil and guide you thus through the first three circles of hell, and the contractors who reside there.

Electricians (Limbo)

James Boo

Like Dante's first stop, dealing with electricians is a fairly tame affair. It's not that difficult to find a decent one and they generally don't cost all that much. Their plans don't need to be filed with the Department of Buildings and they don't need to be approved by the building architect.

Electrical work comes so cheap because it's mostly "filling orders." It's really no different than ordering a burger, except instead of doneness and choice of cheese you're looking for where the lights are and how many amps your toaster runs at. My electrical work was delayed largely because Electrician #1 and the architect couldn't agree on who draws electrical plans. Electrician #2 is a bit more flexible in dealing with the ad hoc nature of opening a restaurant out of a warehouse in a Brooklyn industrial park.

But electricians need details: lights, numbers, placement. That means they're more inclined to ask me questions than offer advice. Even for simple questions, like "how many lights do you need," my answer is "I have no clue."

This seems to be a common thread among all the electricians I've spoken to. New York City has more restaurants than the average country. Hundreds of new restaurants go up every year, dozens of them the size of mine, and yet not one electrician will have an idea about how many lights I should fit in that space. There is no statistical mean, no bell curve distribution—somehow every new place gets a different number of light fixtures. For my part, I just hopped over a few blocks to Roberta's Pizza, a similar sized space, and counted their lights.

Numbers are just the beginning. Here's how most conversations go with my electrician.

Electrician: Now what kind of light fixtures do you want? Me: What kind of light fixtures do people usually put over these areas? Electrician: They're all different. Let's start with the bar. What would you like over that? Me: How about those hanging thingies? (In my world, "thingie" is a legit technical term.) Electrician: You mean pendants? Me: Yup give me those. Electrician: There's thousands of different ones. You want barn? Urn? Bowl? Drum? Lanterns? Me: Couldn't you just pick one that looks kinda industrial and surprise me? Like Santa? Electrician: Nope. Plus I wouldn't know where to begin. What finish do you want? Nickel, black, brass, chrome... Me: How about you just pick your favorite? Electrician: It all depends.

Construction Contractors (Lust)

Josh Bousel

My first construction contractor took the job, pulled his permit, and then proceeded to go on vacation. Already we were off to an awful start. In a perfect world, the construction contractor is supposed to be coordinating everything that needs to be done and keeping the flow moving among all the specialist contractors. In reality they're really only able to deal with masonry and framing. Plumbers don't listen to them, and electricians don't care for their existence.

Construction is a "measure twice, cut once" activity. Unfortunately for us, no one really seems to like reading the building architect's plans. We cut and moved the side door no less than three times because none of the contractors read the plans. After spending a good three weeks just to get the floor ripped out, only to replaced, I decided to go with a contractor of a more particular expertise. Enter Fabio.

Fabio—that is his real name—is the construction mastermind behind Show Palace, an all-nude strip club in Long Island City.

I have never given strip clubs their due as a business. The infrastructure of Show Palace is nothing short of stunning. There's power running everywhere. Lights—synced with music—flash from every angle. False walls and stages rise, drop, and spin round and round. Cameras from all over feed into the security room; you couldn't pick your nose in the joint without someone capturing it.

In the world of hospitality build-outs, a strip club really is the pinnacle. Students at Harvard dream of working at NASA; construction contractors dream of building strip joints. I have a whole new respect for their build-out. The girls aren't too bad looking either.

By contrast to all the bells and whistles at Show Palace, my restaurant is simply child's play. Anything is possible through Fabio. Within days we had frames up everywhere. Need a walk-in framed? No problem. Skylights installed? Done by lunch. Life-sized statue of a Minotaur guzzling beer like mouthwash? Fabio has him available in your choice of wood or formica. And unlike electricians, Fabio the contractor had a suggestion for everything you asked him, usually at a lower price. How should the bar lights look? Where should the hand dryer go? Which brand of body-glitter did Candy use last Thursday? Fabio has an answer for anything you need.

The moral of the story, boys and girls, is that if you're going to hire a construction contractor, hire one that builds strip clubs.

Plumbers (Gluttony)

James Boo

Ask ten different restaurateurs for a plumber recommendation and you'll get nine defeated looks. A colleague of mine has a stack of no fewer than eight plumbing permits pulled for the same job that never got finished.

The thing is, once you sign a contract with a plumber, it's nearly impossible to fire them and replace them halfway through the job, no matter how many weeks they disappear for, not returning your phone calls. While you can always threaten to not pay them, they can put a plumber's lien on your project, which could jeopardize your liquor license application and piss off your landlord. The Department of Buildings makes it a royal pain to switch plumbers.

So you soldier on with the same plumber. They could swing by your apartment, eat all your ice cream, and sleep with your girlfriend and you'd still think twice before firing them.

In other words, plumbers are the elites of the contracting world. The alpha males. They make the most money and have the fewest fucks to give. They're kinda like lawyers—you can't live with them and you can't throw them into your smoker.

I have to say though, it's a lot of fun watching a plumber work. Watching a plumber at work can fill you with a near-religious awe. He digs up trenches and connects far-flung pipes together and it's like watching God sew the sinews of Adam together.

But plumbers can you drive you batty, as they're hyper-critical of everything else. Unlike the electrician who has no opinion on anything, and the construction contractor who has useful opinions on everything, plumbers make it their business on giving you pointers on everything else except plumbing.

I spent Sunday making some new planters to add some green to the outdoor dining area—and to use up all the extra scrap wood lying around. The plumber came in the next day. "You got in some new plants," he asked. I beamed with pride at my unevenly assembled garden, now flowing with yellow flowers and Japanese holly. "Yup! Watcha think?" The sneer said it all. "Looks like shit. You really should fire the idiot who put it together."

The Ninth Circle (Treachery)

Josh Bousel

Let's jump down a few circles to meet some other minor players in the build-out process. The HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) guy whose only work with you is largely filling the architect's order. The asbestos guy whose only job is to give you the yea or nay on whether or not you have asbestos. Asbestos workers are a particularly passionate group of people. (All that I've met without fail have given me 20-minute run downs of the genesis of asbestos removal. The Clean Air Act of 1970. The "Great Awakening" lawsuit of 1929. And of course a litany of significant hazardous removal pioneers throughout history.)

Eventually my time will come: the day of reckoning when the contract work is finished and city inspectors come by to the property. The day is not far off, and I can already hear the weeping and gnashing of teeth from others who've gone down the road ahead of me.

Stay tuned, dear reader.