Culinary skills and financial wizardry are important enough, but if you want to open a restaurant in this, or any, town, you must possess one important trait: Optimism.
Why? Because although chefs and restaurateurs like to tell us when they’re going to open their doors to a hungry public, their establishments almost never, ever debut on time.
“You want to believe it’s going to happen on time, and everyone warns you it’s not,” said Kwame Onwuachi, the current “Top Chef” contestant preparing to open Shaw Bijou, in Shaw.
Thanks to a fall-to-spring delay, Onwuachi has gone through three seasonal versions of his ambitious 17-course tasting menu. On the plus side, he’ll be really ready for next year.
Seeing the silver lining is key in the restaurant business.
“I think part of my job is to be an optimist about how these things are going to go,” said Michael Babin, the founder of Neighborhood Restaurant Group. Still, “There is a point in almost every project where you say, ‘I am never going to do this again.’ ”
And Babin has been at this for a while. He’s on the brink of adding two properties — Hazel restaurant in Shaw and the Sovereign beer bar in Georgetown — to his portfolio of a dozen-plus. Neither will open when originally anticipated.
So what is it that gums up the works, whether you’re a first-timer or veteran?
For a restaurant to open on time, “a thousand things have to go right,” said Brian Miller, a designer at Edit Lab at the Streetsense architectural design firm who has had his hand in many of the area’s newest eateries. “To have it delayed, only one thing has to go wrong.”
Many problems, of course, have to do with the buildings, especially when they are old — and particularly if they have never been a restaurant before.
Rick and Elizabeth Myllenbeck ran into both of those problems when they decided to open their Sonoma Cellar wine tasting room on King Street in Old Town Alexandria. Necessary additions to the 1810 structure included bathrooms, an electric panel, an accessible ramp and a hood exhaust system that needed to be made invisible from the street without the project damaging the historic building.
Their goal was to open in March. The reality: August.
Babin’s team discovered a different historic problem when it took over the Iron Gate Inn (now Iron Gate) near Dupont Circle: an approximately 135-year-old wisteria vine. The hardy plant was pulling bricks apart at the foundation of the structure, built in 1875.
That said, Babin loves projects in old buildings. “You just do them anyway, because you know it’s going to be special,” he said.
John Fielding knows a lot about renovations, too. His lease on the former Vegetate space in Shaw — the neighborhood is full of delayed restaurants these days — started in September 2014. He’d been hoping to open Chao Ku, a fast-casual Chinese spot with former Tabard Inn chef Paul Pelt in the kitchen, the following spring. He’s still waiting.
Fielding, founder of Broad Branch Market in Upper Northwest, said he had unwelcome surprises when he started gutting the onetime residence.
“There were huge structural problems hidden by the drywall,” he said.
The problems didn’t end there. Fielding is in limbo because of a stop-work order he received regarding roof construction; its resolution is being delayed in part by a legal dispute between an adjacent property owner and his landlord.
The situation has sold Fielding even more on the concept of moving into new construction, which he will be doing when he opens Soapstone Market in the mixed-use Park Van Ness building on Connecticut Avenue.
Not that new builds guarantee a timeline.
Chef Tim Ma wanted to open his Asian-French bistro, Kyirisan, in the Shay apartment building in Shaw last fall. The revised estimate is late February. The most recent hold-up involves waiting for his custom-order triple-hung windows to arrive.
Brandon Byrd, owner of Goodies Frozen Custard & Treats, ran into a problem with a custom-made bar and counter he ordered for his pending soda bar in the U.S. Department of Agriculture building at 14th Street and Independence Avenue SW.
He said the bar wasn’t sealed to be food-safe, let alone free of splinters. And a few good pushes would have knocked it over. He had to replace it.
Byrd ran into bureaucratic problems, too, because of confusion over whether he needed to be coordinating with city or federal officials.
Permitting in general is a frequent stumbling block for restaurants, especially because of regulations dealing with food safety.
“The target time frame for a permit is 30 days, which includes approvals from other District agencies,” said Matt Orlins, director of legislative and public affairs for the District’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. “If the plans are insufficient or don’t adhere to safety codes, permitting times can increase. We don’t find any common sticking points, aside from issues with submitted plans, and have not seen an increase in permitting wait times for restaurants.”
At least anecdotally, restaurateurs suspect otherwise.
“The people who review these things and do inspections have just been really busy,” Babin said. “It’s just a race.”
Sometimes, plans just aren’t up to snuff.
The Myllenbecks’ initial plans didn’t meet the standards for converting a former retail space into a restaurant. They had to hire a second architect to go through the entire building and draft a new plan.
Babin said anyone opening a restaurant has to put a lot of faith in the engineers and architects working for them. “There are some great people in the field,” he said, “but restaurants are hard. Not all of them are set up to do restaurants.” And when they fall down on the job, that can hold up permits.
Permitting delays are only one way to be left feeling completely helpless, Miller said. Utilities are another.
“We had one restaurant that was completely finished, and power hadn’t been adequately delivered to the place,” he said. “Anything that involves utility work can be a very large undertaking.”
For Erik Bruner-Yang, the problem was water. The chef and co-owner of Maketto on H Street NE, one of the most notoriously delayed D.C. restaurants in recent memory, had to overhaul his plumbing plans and redesign his kitchen when the District’s streetcar project forced a change in the location of his main water supply line.
Maketto was several years in the making, which could have proven financially catastrophic for even the most determined restaurateur. Bruner-Yang said he was bolstered by Toki Underground, his ramen shop just down the street. And he said Fundrise, a crowdfunding platform for real estate, “bailed us out a million times.”
The Myllenbecks had to look to their own assets when faced with a financial crunch because of the delays in opening the wine tasting room. They took out a home equity line of credit on their house in Sonoma, Calif., and leveraged their stock portfolio. A $14,000 campaign on Indiegogo helped.
Fielding’s Chao Ku turned to crowdfunding as well, raising more than $30,000 on Kickstarter, but that represents only a small portion of what he has put out.
“I’ve spent half a million dollars on this project,” Fielding said. “I need positive cash flow.”
Understandably, Fielding said, he has gotten inquiries from Kickstarter investors about when he’s opening. But backers aren’t the only ones he has to worry about: A delayed opening always runs the risk of making potential diners discount, or even forget, you.
“You want to stay relevant,” Bruner-Yang said. “Especially with so many restaurants, you don’t want to be on the back burner.”
Why even bother to put a time frame on your opening, then?
“In all honesty, everybody’s always aggressive in their scheduling,” Ma said. “The closer you are to opening, you sell a better package.
“It’s one of those hopeful-thinking things.”