These days I’ve been helping some friends put together a new restaurant/bar operation in the Warehouse District. The principals involved are veterans of the local restaurant/bar scene, so there aren’t a whole lot of surprises being thrown at any of us. But, as with any new operation, there’s a lot of “one step forward, two steps back” thing when you’re waiting on construction crews to assemble the plumbing, electrical stuff and hand-mill a new bar on-site.
The most frustrating thing about putting together such a new business is all the hurry-up-and-wait stuff involved in licensing and permitting. Things are particularly messy this time of year, as health inspectors want to make sure they’re gotten around to as many places as possible before the big Carnival crowds arrive. Throw the Super Bowl on top of it and you’ve got, well, a task more difficult than a left turn off Tulane Avenue.
Being part of this process, even as part of a group of veterans, has reminded me of all the steps required to actually get open. There are enough rules and requirements for even the most basic of businesses, not to mention one that sells hard liquor and serves food. Not only must the various health and food-safety codes be met, but things have to be planned and steps taken far in advance so everything hopefully pops at once. Just one example is liquor licensing, which is a time-consuming process involving window signage, waiting periods and background checks locally and at the state level. You can’t just drive to Baton Rouge and make a visit to City Hall. Phone calls are pretty much useless, so you’ll be making several trips to both places.
In opening my own place several years ago, I learned it’s a huge help to make the time to get to know the various inspectors, agents and others who will be signing off on your paperwork. You also need to get a working relationship with your business neighbors, the area’s neighborhood association, your city councilperson and, if you can, your district’s legislative folks. The worst thing one can do is to view and treat these folks are The Enemy. Just like a baby, birthing a restaurant (especially one that sells alcohol) is something that picks its own schedule. You might have a target date, but you can’t force it or be overly frustrated when/if that date isn’t met. And that, in itself, is frustrating.
A few years ago, I remember someone from outside the area leased some space on Magazine St. and simply announced they planned to open a restaurant with a large bar. The main problem was they announced it without prior consultation with surrounding residents and businesses. Instead of taking the attitude of, “here’s what I’d like to do, now is there a way to make it work?”, they took the attitude of simply, “here’s what I’m going to do.” Bad move. The place never came close to opening. A cooperative attitude breeds cooperation.
When I decided I wanted to sell beer and wine at my place, the first folks I talked to were leaders of the two nearby neighborhood associations. Once they were assured I was flexible and willing to address any of their concerns, I was able to approach my councilperson and begin navigating my way through the approval process. It took six months and I had to agree to a series of caveats (close at 9pm, no live music, no go-cups, etc.) to keep the support of the neighbors. This is simply how one gets things done.
This time around, it’s not my name on the license or on the dotted line. But I’m having a delightful time dealing with it all and watching the progress. The best thing is working with folks who have been around long enough to understand we’re not in a race. As mentioned in an earlier column, many folks are rushing to get open by Mardi Gras or Super Bowl.
I’d rather do it right than do it fast. It makes it a lot easier to smile when the plumbing work you thought would be complete last week is still a work in progress.
We’ll get there. Let’s go watch a parade.
Craig Giesecke has been a broadcaster and journalist for over 30 years, including nearly two decades at the AP and UPI covering news, sports, politics, food and travel. He has been the owner of J’anita’s for five years, serving well-reviewed upscale bar food and other dishes. Comments are encouraged and welcomed.