Starting a restaurant is one of the most frequent ways that people launch a small business career. It’s especially common in immigrant communities, where it is often the first way newcomers can establish themselves, serving their fellow community members and bringing new variety to the City’s food scene. Yet getting permits for a restaurant is a long and tedious task, taking up to seven months to complete, and replete with confusing and sometimes inconsistent regulations. That’s why I jump-started a regulatory reform process that brings together the agencies that give restaurants permits, with the goal of making starting a restaurant easier and swifter.
The idea came up from the small business community during our work on the Economic Recovery Strategy in response to the Great Recession (see http://conlin.seattle.gov/2011/04/21/economic-recovery-initiative-launched-by-council/) for more information). We know that small business is a key generator of jobs and economic activity so we asked representatives to tell us what the City could do to make it more likely that new businesses could open.
They pointed out that it was necessary to go to the State (including the Liquor Control Board), the County (Health Department), and the City (Finance for licenses, Planning and Development for construction/renovation permits, Fire Department for assembly permits, etc.) in order to open a restaurant. Different agencies required different kinds of architectural drawings. Some regulations were even in conflict – the Liquor Control Board and the City have different specifications for the height of the fence to separate restaurant and bar spaces (required in order to separate areas where food is served and minors are permitted from the area that focuses on alcohol service where minors are prohibited).
New York City found that it could dramatically cut both the time and the red tape by coordinating restaurant permitting. We want Seattle to be able to do the same. So I asked our Office of Economic Development to bring together the relevant agencies and create a cross-agency team to work through the issues. The agencies have now agreed and signed a Memorandum of Understanding to carry out the work.
The specific tasks will be:
- Create a Restaurant Core Team to support the process and work through implementation plans for their respective agencies.
- Identify and help resolve conflicting, confusing and inefficient regulatory requirements for restaurants as part of a formal implementation plan.
- Develop an online guide to assist people through the regulatory process, which Seattle will host on our growSeattle website.
Carry out a communications strategy to market the process improvements and help prospective restaurateurs to access the new website.
The City has committed $75,000 to this process, and the State and County have also agreed to participate. Because of the particular salience of this effort to the immigrant community, the City Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs will be involved as a partner to help access diverse communities. There will also be close ongoing communication with the affected business communities to make sure that what is developed is workable and provides meaningful improvements.
I’m advocating for next steps including legislation that resolves conflicting, confusing, and inefficient regulatory requirements; a one-stop online portal with a guide, an interagency phone number and a streamlined permitting system and specific assistance for the immigrant and refugee communities.
This is a great example of the kind of work that the City can do to make it easier to start and grow a business. We can achieve the regulatory results that we need – healthy environments and consumer protection – while still allowing the businesses to get underway efficiently and quickly.