On Tuesday, Los Angeles’s new and more progressive-leaning city council approved a motion to streamline the heavily red-taped permit process for opening a restaurant, with a particular focus on the future of outdoor dining. While still ultimately a work in progress, the effort is intended to assist restaurants after LA’s outdoor dining restrictions are lifted, and will continue on a more permanent basis once the pandemic ends.
Acting on longstanding complaints from LA restaurants and bars about the lengthy application and approval process across various city, county, and state agencies, the council’s new motion advises specific city departments to assess and recommend actions for streamlining, reports CBS-2.
Some of those requests include asking:
- The Bureau of Engineering to develop options that streamline the sidewalk dining permit process
- LA’s Department of Transportation to report on the fiscal impact of indefinitely extending the Food Pick-up Zone Program, where cars can quickly (and without cost) stop to grab a pick-up order from a restaurant
- The Los Angeles Police Commission to consider more broadly accepting permit applications that allow live music and/or dancing
- The Bureau of Street Services and the Los Angeles Fire Department to streamline the process surrounding the installation of tents, canopies, and awnings on public spaces at bars and restaurants
Before coronavirus, the outdoor dining permit process specifically was costly, restrictive, and frequently filled with delays. But back in May, LA mayor Eric Garcetti announced LA al fresco, a dining initiative that allowed restaurants to immediately turn public sidewalks and parking lots into outdoor dining areas for no cost. The program proved (mostly) popular, and eligible LA restaurants received almost immediate permit approval, illustrating that the permit process could be expedited in the first place — though it has still left the vast majority of LA’s robust street food vendors out of the conversation.
City council member Bob Blumenfield, who shepherded the city council motion effort, believes that L.A.’s decimated restaurant community will have a hard time recovering if the city does not act to change the current costly, time-consuming system. He’s not alone.
According to Amped Kitchens CEO, City of LA Small Business Commissioner and working group chair Mott Smith, the process was in need of a revamp long before the pandemic. He states that the permit approvals for zoning, construction, liquor licenses, and health department inspections often cost thousands of dollars, all to be spent well before the restaurant even opens for business.
“Our process wastes months of time on useless activities, “says Smith via email. “Every day a medium-sized restaurant spends in this process — waiting for plan check review, inspection, or whatever — costs that business between $1,000 to $3,000.”
One example from Smith is LA’s Department of Building And Safety, which uses up to 30 percent of its staff time processing zoning parking requirements, something he believes are no longer relevant in the age of transit-oriented building, rideshare programs, and speedy pickup and delivery for restaurants. Other SoCal jurisdictions eliminated parking requirements for bars and restaurants long ago, while LA still holds on.
He also pointed towards Fire Department inspections that often cause occupancy delays while opening. There’s a need for safety, obviously, though delays prove immediately costly for those waiting to be given the green light. “If we force a restaurant to spend an extra nine months in the bureaucratic labyrinth, that can add about $275,000 to over $800,000 of needless expense to an already very tight business,” Smith says. “Keeping the status quo would deal the final death blow to our [food and beverage] community.”
“Looking at it another way,” Smith adds, “if the City adopts these recommendations, it would be like writing a stimulus check of $100,000 or more for every restaurant that needs a public approval to open or reopen — at no cost to taxpayers.”