San Francisco Chronicle
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As Heather Knight reports, “Even the most determined entrepreneurs are no match for the city’s hidden pitfalls and notorious red tape.”
Yoko and Clint Tan taught themselves how to cook ramen that was hailed as “mind-blowing” by The Chronicle and recognized at the World Ramen Grand Prix in Japan. They taught themselves how to run the beloved Noodle in a Haystack pop-up out of their Daly City kitchen, serving thousands of customers over five years.
So when fans urged them to open a restaurant in San Francisco, they figured they could do that too. But it turns out even the most determined entrepreneurs are no match for the city’s hidden pitfalls and notorious red tape.
All the Tans wanted to do was take over a small restaurant space that was available and serve ramen to 10 guests per evening, three nights a week. They figured that turning one Japanese restaurant into another Japanese restaurant would be straightforward, but little about opening a business in San Francisco ever is.
Now they’re $100,000 in the hole, far from opening and full of regrets.
While acknowledging they’re like “deer in the headlights” when it comes to navigating the city’s byzantine permitting process, they still wish they had more guidance. Or, perhaps, that they’d hired a professional permit expediter to get the job done for them.
Even reporting on their attempt was confusing, as city officials and restaurant experts didn’t always have the answers.
The Tans’ saga began when they secured their dream space in June and bet big on Clint Tan’s hometown.
“We thought, ‘This is our chance. We’re going to seriously do something in San Francisco and graduate from people’s living rooms and make a life here,'” said Clint Tan, 39. “Obviously our momentum is all gone now.”
And that’s with the help of Proposition H, the measure passed by city voters last November to make it easier for small businesses to get permits. Yes, the Tans got help navigating the confusing maze that is city permitting, but the maze still exists.
Since taking effect in December, Prop. H, championed by Mayor London Breed, has helped just 21 small businesses gain approval to open. And the city hasn’t tracked whether those 21 have actually flung open their doors.
The paltry number points to more needed change — including simplified codes and better customer service — to help small businesses open in a city dotted with vacancies.
Mayoral spokesperson Andy Lynch said Breed has pushed several efforts to fix “ineffective or overly burdensome” local regulations and bureaucracy.
“We need to make it easier for small businesses to open, operate and succeed in San Francisco, and we will continue to look at ways to make it easier for them to do so,” he added.
In June, the Tans took over the lease of 4601 Geary Blvd. in the Inner Richmond from a curry restaurant called Konomama. They spent $50,000 in “key money” — a normal amount, according to Laurie Thomas, the executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association — to pay for the lease, cooking equipment and furniture. The rent on top of that is $3,600 a month plus utilities.
They wanted to use Konomama’s equipment but change the seating arrangements, freshen the paint and install new bathroom tile.
Clint Tan said he connected with the Prop. H team at the Office of Small Business over the summer to begin getting the approvals. In the meantime, he disconnected a sink to work on the bathroom tile and a light fixture to paint around it, he said.
That’s when an anonymous person called 311 to report work being done without a permit. And that’s when their entrepreneurial dreams turned into a bureaucratic nightmare.
Patrick Hannan, a spokesperson for the Department of Building Inspection, said the unpermitted work was more extensive than what Tan described and included new drywall and unstable shelves erected in a storage area. Tan said the shelves were there when he took over the space.
An inspector on Aug. 19 ordered the work to stop. Eleven days later, the city allowed the Tans to proceed with permit applications to change Konomama into Noodle in a Haystack.
“I sent everybody the same information about five times at least,” Clint Tan recalled, saying he kept getting passed off to different people with different instructions. “Nobody could give me a straight answer for anything.”
Tan said the previous restaurant staff used an induction cooktop without a hood, a method he’d used to cook his noodles at pop-ups around the city with no problem, but the city said he needed to install a hood to vent steam and grease from the boiling noodles.
Tan said that proved impossibly expensive, so the permits he received last month say he can cook his noodles only in a microwave. A spokesperson for the Department of Public Health said its records show Konomama served prepackaged curry prepared with a rice cooker and ventless fryer, methods that wouldn’t work for the Tans’ more extensive menu.
Thomas with the restaurant group said the city isn’t doing enough to help new entrepreneurs understand these complicated issues.
The city also made Tan upgrade the water heater even though the previous restaurant didn’t have to. The Tans and the city also argued over the number of sinks required — twice as many sinks as workers — and the types of kitchen finishes.
Dan Sider, chief of staff at the Planning Department, said different sinks serve different purposes. And that the previous kitchen finishes were “possibly installed without a permit” and out of compliance with safety regulations.
“Noodle in a Haystack’s proposal simply didn’t follow the statewide public health rules for new restaurants,” Snider said. “Once the applicant revised his plans to comply, we approved them without delay.”
Sharky Laguana, president of the small business commission, said that if the previous restaurant kept passing annual health inspections, he doesn’t understand why so much of its equipment didn’t pass muster for the Tans.
He called the Tans’ experience “outrageous, infuriating and deeply upsetting.”
“We’re constantly trying to add a second-floor bedroom while our living room is on fire,” he said.
Kanishka Karunaratne Cheng, the executive director of Together SF, a civic engagement nonprofit, used to work as a city planner and said the deliberations over the tiniest changes to buildings used to drive her nuts in a city with far bigger issues. She said the city needs to treat business owners as customers and to update unnecessary codes.
“It always feels very punitive,” shes aid. “People want to make small changes, but they end up in a Kafkaesque web of changes that they’ll have to make, and they all start adding up.”
While a Kickstarter fund the Tans created will help them cover the $100,000 they’ve sunk into the restaurant so far, it’ll be a financial struggle to actually open.
“I wish I didn’t sign up for this,” Clint Tan said. “It was a mistake.”
Now it’s too late. They’re committed.
Here’s an idea: All ramen lovers should book reservations as soon as Noodle in a Haystack opens and leave very big tips. At least somebody in San Francisco should show the Tans some appreciation.
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