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Why owners say opening a bar or restaurant in Miami is the worst

Back in September, we caught wind of a new farm-to-table Indian restaurant opening in Dadeland. We were so excited, we wrote a preview to prepare y’all for the great grand opening of Ghee Indian Kitchen in early January.

Oh, how naive we were. It’s now April, and Niven Patel is still trying to open his doors.

Patel’s been a chef for years around Miami, most recently at Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink. But he wasn’t prepared for the obstacle course of trying to open his own restaurant in Miami-Dade.

The zoning and permitting process is cumbersome, at best, and it’s one of those systems in which you have to “know someone who knows someone.”

“There’s all the stuff that goes inside the walls that no one sees,” Patel said.

After you find a location, getting the right team of architects and engineers to draw up the plans for the new building is the first and most important step, Patel explained. These are the people who should know the city and county codes back and front and who should be drafting up plans with those requirements in mind.

But sometimes they don’t. And so begins the rigmarole of pushing your plans through various departments in the city and the county, constantly amending them to bring them up to snuff.

This is why Patel’s opening has been delayed almost four months and counting. And loads of prospective small business owners find themselves in the same boat.

A small business support group

Opening up something that doesn’t require a physical space, like a consulting business, is as simple as registering an LLC and opening a bank account. But when it comes to a brick-and-mortar establishment, the process can last months, even years.

The permitting process is the main reason nine out of 10 businesses in Prism Creative Group’s “Support Local” small business campaign said they wouldn’t have opened a business if they knew what it would be like, says Isabella Acker, Prism’s founder.

Support Local is an online directory through which hotels and other businesses can find and contact local makers. It’s also an initiative to build community among business owners so that they can lean on each other to ask questions about everything from getting the right permits to sourcing the right paper cups. Because if you’re going to go through the whole process yourself, you’re going to need a support group.

A bureaucratic nightmare on ‘Miami time’

Miami-Dade has 34 different municipalities, so many owners have to go through not one, but two, winding, confusing permitting processes.

Some municipalities aren’t so bad, but others, like the City of Miami, whose process is less efficient than the county’s, and Coral Gables who has its own set of rules and regulations, are bureaucratic nightmares, according to people who have opened brick-and-mortar businesses in those areas.

A whole industry has sprung up to stick a bandaid on this: permit expediting. Business owners hire permit expediters, people who have relationships and know how to work the system to get plans checked faster.

“Relationships are the most valuable thing. I can pick up a phone and make something happen,” explained Lori Norris, the president of Priority Permit Expeditors. She’s been in the biz since 2004.

Hiring someone to do the nitty gritty permitting work happens across the U.S., but here, the “you have to know someone who knows someone” phenomenon is goes a bit further, according to Eduardo Suarez, the co-founder of Casa Florida, a restaurant and bar at the River Inn Miami that’s still under construction.

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Suarez opened three restaurants in six years in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. But he’s months late on opening his first spot here in Miami.

“Miami timings are, you know, cafecito and pastelito at 9 a.m. and and then lunch then coffee after lunch… weeks here are much slower. I thought it would take six months. Now we’re at a year. We’re hoping to open in the the next four months,” Suarez said.

In December, while waiting for a permit, their point of contact went on vacation, recalls co-founder Gaston Gonzalez. They didn’t hear back until January.

When that happens, it’s a big problem. Many business owners sign leases and budget a certain amount of money for opening costs. When the open date is delayed, they have to shell out more money than they planned, and for longer without bringing in any revenue. They start dipping into the red before they’ve even opened their doors.

‘Caught off guard’

The City of Miami is trying to fix it. Michael Sarasti, the city’s chief innovation officer, tried to help a friend open a business here, and learned first hand what a pain it could be.

Now he’s helping revamp the whole process. Two of the goals: Provide enough information up front so that business owners aren’t on hold for hours on the phone. Allow business owners to submit their plans electronically so they’re not waiting in line just to turn a form.

He’s helping turn these horror stories into data sets the City can act on. It’s the main project in Miami’s participation in the Bloomberg Philanthropies “What Work Cities” initiative, which is aimed at developing tools and data to improve how governing gets done.

The City is also hiring more staff, says Devin Cejas, the city’s zoning administrator. They had more resources during the 2008 building boom, but that dipped during the recession and hasn’t been totally restored.

“I think the city as a whole and the development arm was caught off guard… We had an amazing rebound and that’s unprecedented and we were never given enough time to catch up, unfortunately,” he said.

The county has already implemented electronic filing systems which has really sped things up. And although places like Miami Beach and Coral Gables have strict regulations, they generally have adequate staffing to process the permits, says expediter Lori Norris.

Still, it’s a slog, and the founders of places like Casa Florida, Ghee Indian Kitchen, and the many other businesses waiting to open their doors will just have to keep on keepin’ on.

There’s not really much else left for them to do.