Up to Snuff
Only a few weeks from the planned opening of their first restaurant in 1996, Texadelphia owners Brian Mitts and Tom Landis ran into a little problem.
"We were in an old house, a pier-and-beam construction house," Mitts recalls. An inspector looked at the foundation and called the owners together. "We had to go in and pour concrete slab, and we were like everybody else--short of capital."
A little $10,000 problem.
Few owners describe the process of opening a restaurant as anything but frustrating, mostly because of code-related construction delays. They build at the mercy of city codes, health department requirements and alcoholic-beverage rules. City codes layer on top of state guidelines. Neighborhood requirements and the whims of different landlords create further confusion. "Everything's designed to protect somebody, and sometimes it becomes an impediment to opening," says Mitts, now a veteran with three locations around the Dallas area and three more planned by the end of the year.
The first Texadelphia opened almost six months late. "Different restaurant owners would stop by and ask, 'When are you going to open?'" Landis recalls "We'd say, 'June,' and they'd just laugh."
Most restaurant owners tell horror stories about their first foray into the business--tales of unforeseen regulations and extensive delays. It's almost like a rite of passage. "You've signed a lease," says Mitts, describing the first and easiest stage of the process. "It takes about three weeks to get the floor plans together and sent to the architects for air conditioning, plumbing, gas lines, et cetera, and another two weeks to get the footprint submitted to the landlord, the city and to contractors for bidding. Add everything and it's four months to get all the approvals. And our operation is simple. Actual construction is only 35 days."
Mark Maguire, part of the Maguire's ownership team, also met approval delays when considering his North Dallas establishment. "It had been two months, and I called down, and no one could find my plans," he says. "I went down there for five consecutive days and walked the plans through."
Most cities require prospective restaurateurs to submit blueprints for approval by various departments--health, planning and zoning, landscaping and even the city council. Once approved, inspectors examine construction at intervals both predetermined and random in order to discover errors or deviations before completion of the project. "We don't want to get into a situation where we haven't been to a site, and they apply for a certificate of occupancy and there's a major problem," explains Neil Gayden, environmental services official for the city of Addison. "That's why we make it a point to be out there." City health ordinances determine the type of materials allowed at a restaurant. Paint comes under the scrutiny of inspectors, as well as the width of aisles, handicap access and ventilation.
All of that attention to detail sometimes yields ridiculous moments. Inspectors delayed the opening of the Londoner in Addison when owner Barry Tate's shrubbery failed to meet code. "It can happen," admits Gayden. "We try very, very hard not to delay a restaurant's timetable, but the building will have to be safe to occupy before we allow it to open." No one would confirm the extent of the shrubbery problem, by the way, but judging by Gayden's seriousness, one would guess Tate planted some sort of flesh-eating hybrid. Al Biernat cut short an expansion project after a review of blueprints. His restaurant's new wall, it seems, approached within one inch of Highland Park. "That's why that room only holds 36," Biernat explains.
Stranger still, city officials forced the Whisky Bar on Lower Greenville to shear away several thousand dollars worth of new awning material because it covered a patio.
According to Dallas code, a restaurant or bar must provide at least one parking space for every 100 square feet inside the establishment. Covered patios count toward floor space, and hence, parking. But open patios and rooftop bars do not add to parking needs, at least according to Dallas. "We have 34 spaces and meet code," says Mike DeMarco, owner of the newly opened Mike's Treehouse on Greenville Avenue, "and our customers still have to drive around." Mike's includes a rooftop bar, an easy way for Dallas operations to add capacity without incurring parking requirements. In Addison, on the other hand, all patio seating counts, and restaurants must supply one space for every 70 square feet--unless they operate out of a shopping center, in which case the ratio changes.
"The most difficult part is the parking requirement," says DeMarco. "It's one of those things you're not getting around."
Dallas indeed adheres to strict parking codes, with some odd provisions. The city, for example, exempts space requirements for bars or restaurants operating in locations open prior to the establishment of city parking codes. Restaurateurs building new locations, however, must meet requirements, even if it means tearing the roof off a patio. "They're real strict on that," Biernat agrees. "If you don't have parking, you have to show a parking contract."
Rookie restaurateurs suffer the most in this process, although everyone stumbles occasionally. Texadelphia's management now works with designers versed in city code when planning a new site. Still, they expect surprises. "Stuff always comes up," Mitts acknowledges. "We're doing a place in Las Colinas, and we have to build a firewall--a second, completely separate wall. That's a lot of money." DeMarco did not find out about tobacco license rules until after his place opened. "We still can't sell cigarettes," he says.
It's the depth of regulation that astounds restaurant owners. Mitts and Landis are currently renovating the old LuLu's location on McKinney Avenue. "This area has special rules depending on the building, its history, age and type of architecture," Mitts points out. "I'm not sure who knows or understands all of these subcodes. You find out about them when an inspector says, 'What about this?' In other words, after you spend the money." If a location plans to sell alcohol the owners must add Texas Alcoholic Beverages Commission rules into the equation. New establishments must post a sign announcing the TABC application 60 days in advance of submittal, and the state conducts background checks on all partners. Places opening in dry areas must show 50 charter members from the county before TABC will consider a private-club permit. And the charter members must supply all the money for alcohol and bar supplies before opening.
Despite the criticism, inspectors believe they support the owners. "When it's under construction, we're on the same team as the owner, helping them get everything established correctly," says Mary K. Vaugh, director of Dallas' Environmental Health Services Department. "More than anything, we look at capabilities and trace how the restaurant will work, how it will flow," agrees Gayden. "We see the plans with all the equipment in place--they bring the food in here, they prepare it there--and we play devil's advocate." In other words, after working with thousands of bars and restaurants, inspectors recognize potential problems almost instantly. They can become a valuable consulting source as well as a bureaucratic hindrance.
"As long as you do everything they're asking, it's a breeze," says DeMarco.
The system, they admit, favors the larger or more organized operations. "If you have a big chain operation they'll bring in blueprints that are thorough, including everything they've ever had to include anywhere else," Gayden notes. "The smaller operations with less of a budget are generally where we typically find problems." Some owners even find a way to cut through the red tape. "I called the city and asked them to speed it up because we had scheduled a charity function for the Dallas Children's Advocacy Center," Biernat calls. "Otherwise it would have been four months."
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.