This post was originally published on All We Can Eat.
(UPDATED: 3:50 p.m. Friday, Oct. 21)
Bo Blair is clearly frustrated by the Montgomery County bureaucracy that forced him and his business partner, chef David Scribner, to pay months of rent before they could even open the doors of their new Jetties in Bethesda (4829 Fairmont Ave.).
The latest location of the sandwich and salad shop will officially launch tomorrow for lunch — but it apparently was a royal pain in the tuchis to reach this moment. Blair is not exactly a rookie in this restaurant business; he oversees a small empire of cool, casual operations, including Surfside in Glover Park, Bayou in Foggy Bottom, Smith Point in Georgetown and two other locations of Jetties. All of which is to say: Blair has plenty of experience building out restaurants; he’s not one to whine.
Until you get him talking about opening a restaurant in Montgomery County. “I’ve never, ever experienced anything like it, and I’ll never open another business in Montgomery County ever again,” Blair says.
To give me just one example of his woes, Blair relates this story about dealing with Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission or WSSC:
“We just got approved by them,” Blair begins, noting that the agency finally gave Jetties the green light on Wednesday for the restaurant’s water and sewage infrastructure. “We’re talking about a sandwich and salad store. You would have thought that we were seriously opening FedEx stadium in the middle of Bethesda.”
He offers up an anecdote about the “grease trap issue”:
“They made us put in a grease trap that was about as big as a small car. We told them over and over and over again that this was wrong. This is not what this grease trap should be. They would not even talk to us on the phone. We would have to drive our plumber up to near Columbia, Md., over and over and over again, any time we had an issue.”
“They tell us to get this grease trap that, seriously, it’s like something that would be in FedEx stadium...They said they won’t even answer any questions until we install the grease trap. We get the grease trap, we install it, the [WSSC] guy comes out and he looks at it and says, ‘Well, this is wrong.’ So he makes us get rid of that and get a grease trap that is literally a tenth of the size...To work that simple part out, it took like a month. We had to install a completely useless grease trap simply for them to come out and say it’s not the right grease trap. They would not even entertain the idea that what they were telling us to put in was wrong.”
“That was the tip of the iceberg,” Blair concludes. “Every single thing was a disaster.”
Blair figures he could have opened Jetties in Bethesda four months earlier without all the extra bureaucracy from the county; he’s particularly frustrated with the delay because those were four months in which he and Scribner were paying rent to the landlord.
“I couldn’t be more angry about the whole thing,” he says.”Opening a business in D.C. is 10 times easier than opening a business in Montgomery County.”
Generally speaking, any work that requires an engineering plan, such as the installation of a grease trap, those plans must be brought to WSSC for inspection and approval. The same goes with every change to a plan. Other than that, the utility notes, WSSC spends a lot of time talking to customers and businesses over the phone.
As for the grease trap issue specifically, Jim Neustadt, director of communications and community relations for WSSC, notes that the company told Blair that he did not need such a massive piece of equipment, even though WSSC did approve Jetties’s plan to install the larger unit.
“I don’t know where the confusion would come in,” Neustadt says. ”I don’t think anybody here would have told him that he had to have a grease trap in there that is the size of a Volkswagen. But we did see plans that had a large grease trap in it, and we approved those plans.”
A relevant question here, Neustadt notes, is who exactly told Blair that he needed the massive grease trap. It could be his plumber or engineer, not a WSSC employee. “They come up with the design,” says WSSC spokeswoman Lyn Riggins. “We don’t judge what size grease trap they want to put in. We just say that it has to meet this specification, and in his case, it was 25 gallons per minute...As long as it meets our minimum standard and meets all the rest of the code, we’re going to approve it.”
By and large, Neustadt notes, WSSC responded quickly and professionally to Blair’s needs; they turned plans around to him and his construction team in two days or less. “From what we can tell, we gave him good service,” Neustadt says.
Blair responds that neither his plumber nor engineer told him to install such a large grease trap, but it was someone at WSSC. (He doesn’t recall who.)
Regardless, now that the headaches are (mostly) behind him, Blair can start to take a deep breath and appreciate what will separate his Bethesda restaurant from the other Jetties locations. First off, he says, they’re doing a “really cool kids’ menu,” which includes not just the typical dishes (chicken fingers, mac ’n’ cheese) but also a whole submenu of fruits and veggies as well as a make-your-own sundae bar.
What’s more, the adult dinner menu will be more robust in Bethesda; it will expand beyond the shop’s sandwiches-and-salad fare.
“Everything’s coming in a Le Creuset pot,” he says, singling out his partner’s recipes for chicken pot pie and lasagna. “So we’re doing, like, seven different kinds of dinner pots. ...We’re really kind of pumped to do more dinner out there, because we have beer and wine, and we’ve never had beer and wine at Foxhall [one of the D.C. locations], so we’ve never really pushed the whole dinner aspect of it.”