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Hospitality Express program offers LA businesses a fast pass to open

By Hayley Fox
Published: Monday, June 03, 2013, at 02:32PM
Hayley Fox/blogdowntown

Urban Radish, a new specialty market in the Arts District, is enrolled in the Restaurant and Hospitality Express program. They're currently wrapping up their construction phase and waiting on final approvals to open.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is on his way out, but some of his initiatives are here to stay. Among them, the Restaurant and Hospitality Express program, which streamlines the development process for prospective business owners in an attempt to encourage more development.

"We were hearing a lot from our stakeholders that restaurants in particular were some of the most challenging things to open and those also tend to be the types of small businesses that operate on a shoestring budget," said Sarah Clarke, a development reform analyst with the City of Los Angeles.

She said it was the Downtown-based business advocacy group, the Central City Association (CCA), which really led the charge for change. That may explain why about one quarter of the 200 businesses that have opened under the express program are located in Downtown.

The program began in 2010 with only a handful of people, and now more than 350 business owners are enrolled and working their way through the process of opening a bar or restaurant.

But opening a small business is a gauntlet of permits, inspectors and fees. With so many steps, delays are inevitable. And although the express program is designed to help mitigate these issues by assigning each business owner a case manager, it's still a daunting process.

Yuval Bar-Zemer is with the development firm Linear City and has been working in Downtown since 2000. He's helped open multiple loft spaces, restaurants and bars — including one of his current projects Urban Radish, whose owners are enrolled in the express program.

Bar-Zemer was also involved in the opening of Church and State, which for the past four years has been flourishing in the Arts District. The wine bar next door, which Bar-Zemer also helped open, wasn't so lucky.

"The process is clearly not designed for the young entrepreneur that wants to start his first business," said Bar-Zemer.

He added that bureaucratic hurdles delayed the wine bar's opening.

"If he could have opened much faster he would probably still be in business today," the developer said. "But the upfront capital costs were so big that at the end of the day he had to bail out and basically sell the business."

The express program is designed to help mitigate these issues by giving each business owner a case manger, who coordinates with all the different departments and helps secure approvals. This manager helps with everything from permits from the Health Department, to licenses from the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.

The program aims to shave off three to nine months of the planning, permitting and construction process.

"The building code is so complex, it's worse than dealing with the IRS," said Mitchell Frank, who owns multiple businesses on the Eastside including Más Malo in DTLA.

He is currently enrolled in the express program as he renovates and re-opens Downtown's Regent Theater.

"Before we had the express program it was like pulling teeth to get anything done through the city," said Frank. "And now you actually have a phone number and they're very helpful, they're very service-oriented."

One of the first businesses to use the Restaurant Express program was Handsome Coffee Roasters in the Arts District. Tyler Wells, one of the co-founders, said that from the time they submitted their plans to opening their doors, it took about six months.

"So we got involved in the Restaurant Hospitality Express not really knowing what was going on," said Wells. "Like a lot of people who open businesses in L.A., we were nervous because you hear horror stories. There's a lot of bureaucracy, it's very difficult."

But Wells said the help they got from their case manager was "invaluable," and they were lucky enough to get into the program on the ground floor. Now, there are hundreds of businesses owners working with only a handful of case managers, meaning less one-on-one attention and longer wait times.

Frank said that some basic technology updates, such as moving portions of the process online instead of using hard copies, could save everyone time and money.

But Bar-Zemer said that to really have an impact on the process of opening a business in Los Angeles, there would need to be a total overhaul of the system.

"From my perspective it's not just, 'Oh the city doesn't know what they're doing,' and so no, they actually know very well what they're doing," he said. "However it's such a big organization which is bifurcated to all these different departments. Each one of them has their own agenda and their own territory they're protecting."

The Restaurant and Hospitality Express recently added a plan checker to their staff of folks, who will work exclusively with business owners enrolled in the program to help them move through their process even quicker.


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