The often-torturous process of opening a restaurant in Los Angeles got a little easier last week, as the city moved to streamline its notoriously cumbersome rules for setting up a food business.
Citing cases in which it took up to two years for restaurants to get permission to open — so long that a downtown eatery planned during the economic boom debuted during the bust and failed soon after — city officials said new rules would cut the waiting and wrangling in half.
Now, developers seeking to build restaurants will be assigned case managers to help them through the process, said Raymond Chan, executive officer of the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety.
In addition, the city has worked with the county Department of Public Health to eliminate conflicting rules among the many agencies that regulate restaurants.
"Building a restaurant involves almost all the building trades — mechanical, architectural, health, grease control, electrical," Chan said, and each one requires a different set of inspections.
Until now, he said, inspectors from different departments would come to a restaurant construction site and demand different types of safety measures, or insist that the owner pull out materials that another inspector had insisted on using.
In one case, he said, a restaurant owner put in one type of equipment for processing and removing grease at the behest of the health department. Then, he said, the city's Bureau of Sanitation, which handles trash removal, insisted that the part be replaced with a different type of equipment — at a cost of up to $40,000.
Jeanmarie Dumouchel, who has been a project manager and designer on four downtown restaurants in recent years, participated in a pilot project under the new system and says the difference is dramatic.
Two years ago, when she served as project manager on a remodel of the historic Cole's restaurant in downtown L.A., it took 15 months to wade through the permitting and construction process, she said.
"A mechanical engineer would come in and see something he would want changed or modified," she said. "We would make the modifications, then the Fire Department would come in and change it for something they were in favor of."
The conflict went on for weeks, she said, delaying the restaurant's opening by six months.
By comparison, she said, the building and permission process for Las Perlas mescal and tequila bar — across the street from Cole's — took just nine months. "A representative from the L.A. Department of Building and Safety walked onto our project one day with his pad and his pen and said, 'I'm here to help you,' " Dumouchel said. "I got goose bumps."
The move to streamline permitting requirements for restaurants came from the Central City Assn., a downtown business organization whose president, Carol Schatz, said she got tired of hearing horror stories from restaurant owners.
The rise in downtown's restaurant and bar business has been key to the area's revitalization, Schatz said. It has provided about 17,000 jobs — half in construction and the other half for waiters, bartenders and other food service workers.
"It's very critical to the downtown renaissance," Schatz said of the food business. "But for the last two years I have been hearing one story after another."
The worst, she said, was a restaurant that was ordered to take out thousands of dollars' worth of tile from its bathroom because one of the city departments said the color was not allowed.
"Under the old process it was taking an average of 12 to 18 months for a restaurant to get through the system," Schatz said. "Now they've cut the processing time in half."