So, I've done it. Finally. I am now the proud owner of an elongated shoe box in which I hope to fit my little restaurant, the one I've dreamed of opening for the past decade. Let the real fun (and hard work) begin!
Before I start my tale of floor plans and sledge hammers, duct tape and copper pipes, let me back up and tell you the story of how I secured the future home of my restaurant.
Back in February, as I sat in a local hangout waiting for my tea to steep, I lazily flipped through the community newspaper from a nearby neighborhood. One sentence, on page 28 or so, shot a bolt of excitement up my spine: "On Jan. 31, the Board of Supes approved changes to the planning code that will allow three new restaurants or bars to move onto 24th Street." That was it. No more details.
My curiosity piqued, I later searched the Web for details and discovered an earlier article in a previous issue of the same paper. I learned that our local Supervisor (make sure you vote to re-elect him!) had, with the help of members of the neighborhood and merchants associations, drafted legislation to lift a 20-year moratorium on new restaurants along the 24th Street corridor (the main commercial strip) of Noe Valley. The new legislation paved the way for three new restaurants over the next five years. "Pretty cool," I thought. "I like Noe Valley." Then I promptly forgot about it, as I was flirting with buying another place at that time.
Fast forward a few months. Growing increasingly despondent over the futility of my restaurant quest, I decided to look beyond the list of currently available restaurants and started browsing all commercial listings. Listings for clothing stores, laundromats, art galleries, and video stores now joined the pizza places and Quiznos franchises (why are these always up for sale?) in my email inbox. Although every restaurant class I'd ever taken had advised me to buy as close to "turn key" as possible and warned me to avoid attempting to convert a non-restaurant space into a restaurant, I covered my ears, closed my eyes, and marched on. Ignorance is bliss, no?
What's all the fuss over converting a commercial space into a restaurant? Just two silly little issues, really: time and money. Floors need to be ripped up to install plumbing and gas lines, walls need to be torn open to upgrade electrical wiring, and a sturdy location needs to be found up on the roof to support the enormous motor that sucks grease and soot out of the kitchen. Construction horror stories and delays are as familiar to restaurateurs as molten chocolate cakes are to local diners. When one local restaurateur, for example, lifted up the floor boards to install plumbing, he discovered that the space he just leased on the ground floor of a 100-year-old three-story building had no foundation! Guess who had to pay for a new foundation without any assistance from the landlord? He still hasn't opened for business several years later.
All the construction tasks pale, however, when standing in the shadow of the most frightening beast that must be confronted. Yes, before you, the aspiring restaurateur, can take on any other exciting challenges, you must enter into the dark, cold, musty halls of
the Labyrinth and slay the Minotaur City Hall and face the Planning Commission.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. I decided to focus on the positive examples, the stories of happy chefs I'd met who had successfully built their own restaurants from vacant laundromats and such. If they could do it, maybe, just maybe, so could N and I. After many a long heart-to-heart, N and I decided we only had one life to live and we might as well pursue our passions and go for broke (I never noticed how literal that expression is).
After looking at a few duds, we discovered the small storefront location on Castro Street, just a few doors off 24th Street, and really liked the location. How could we not? It's just off the main drag of a charming, family-oriented neighborhood that boasts its own little farmers market (started, I might add, with the help of one of the parents at N's school). The space is just the size I've been looking for, somewhere between 1,100 and 1,300 square feet - big enough to hold 40 guests, more or less. Plus it has a patio out back that with a little work (OK, a lot of work) and the blessing of our new neighbors (all of whom, should you be reading this, we love and adore unconditionally) can eventually be used to serve a few tables. At the time we were looking, the space was occupied by a successful computer repair store, which has since moved a block-and-a-half up the street to a larger corner location.
Just as I had done at the countless other places I'd looked at (including existing restaurants), I first checked to see what the zoning of the property is. [As an aside, in the past few years, I've learned that every square inch of San Francisco is governed by the insanely detailed City and County of San Francisco Municipal Code Planning Code, aka "the Code." Every address resides in a particular district (broadly speaking, residential or commercial) which bears its own special zoning regulations. Most neighborhood commercial districts also carry their own rules and regulations which determine the type of businesses allowed, the business hours, the size of sign, etc. Trust me, ignorance was indeed bliss].
The property on Castro Street resided within the "24th Street Noe Valley Neighborhood Commercial District." A light went off as I suddenly recalled that article I had read a few months earlier. Three new restaurants are allowed. There was a good chance that this space could work!
Next, we met with a brilliant architect who knew more about restaurants and the Code than I could hope to learn in a dozen lifetimes. Over the next two to three months he helped us draft and then file the complex paperwork, including detailed drawings of the existing space and of the changes we intended to make. There were nearly a dozen requirements to satisfy. We learned that our application would be the test case for the legislation that permitted three new restaurants. In other words, if approved, our restaurant would be the first of the three new Noe Valley restaurants [Note for locals: the new restaurants opening on Church Street are not governed by the 24th Street regulations].
We also met with members of the neighborhood, such as the head of the merchants association, to garner support. We even tried to meet with the Supervisor who drafted the legislation, but he chose to remain neutral. We did everything we could, short of kissing babies. As far as we could tell, with the exception of one person who called the Planning Department to inquire about the restaurant's hours, no one had opposed our application. But still, we were apprehensive. There were some issues surrounding the interpretation of the specific wording of the legislation.
Finally, a couple of days before N had to fly off to New York to complete her graduate courses, we went before the Mino..., er, Planning Commission to present our case.
Attending the weekly Planning Commission meetings is a chance to see
democracy in action. The Commission consists of a tribunal of seven
Commissioners that listen to the opinions of members of the community,
then debate, and finally vote on issues concerning the Code. A majority of four votes is required to gain the Commission's approval.
Several times over the course of the afternoon (and evening), a few
Commissioners would leave the room to use the bathroom or perhaps grab
a bite to eat, so the meeting would have to recess until at least four
Commissioners were present.
The meeting began at 1:30 pm. We patiently waited for our application to come up. As we listened to debates over thorny issues like regulations surrounding new billboards and medical marijuana dispensaries, we gradually realized how piddly our little application was. Still, it seemed that even no-brainers, like whether or not to allow a long dormant utilities building to house a new private high school (duh!), had opponents ("It will bring gangs."). Each issue seemed to take longer to discuss than the one before it.
Finally, eight hours later at 9:30 pm, our application came up. There were only four Commissioners remaining (the other three had gone home), so all of them had to vote in favor of our application. Our architect made a quick 90-second presentation. Four votes. Four "yays." And two big sighs of relief!
As I said at the beginning, let the fun begin!
Tune in tomorrow (what the hell, I'm on a roll) to learn my restaurant's name and concept.