San Francisco Restaurant Legislation Could Cut Though Endless Red Tape

SAN FRANCISCO — Last May, San Francisco’s Planning Department did something profoundly weird.

The agency tasked with enforcing regulations on San Francisco’s restaurants released a YouTube video lambasting those very laws as a needlessly convoluted, headache-inducing morass of red tape that could lead to the department sending inspectors into various restaurants around the city to confiscate toasters and ice cream cones.

Even though the video, entitled “Hello City Planner,” gave voice to the frustrations many San Francisco restaurateurs have long had as they attempt to navigate the city’s labyrinthine planning code, it seemed targeted less at the general public than the city’s Board of Supervisors–the eleven San Francisco residents with the most power to actually do something about the problem.

“While the Department is tasked with enforcing the city’s planning law, we also want to make sure that the rules make sense, that they are not overly burdensome to business owners and that they are actually addressing the real impacts that restaurants have on our neighborhoods,” Planning Department officials said in a statement.

Less than a year later, a handful of supervisors, led by Castro representative Scott Wiener, have taken up the cause of planning code simplification by introducing a bill aimed at making opening a restaurant in San Francisco considerably less complicated.

The city currently requires a restaurant to fit under one of a baker’s dozen of different definitions, each coming with its own rigid set of rules. For example, something listed as a “retail coffee shop” is allowed to serve bagels, as long as house bagels aren’t toasted. If the owner of a “small self-service restaurant” wanted to go green and package food in reusable containers instead of disposable wrappers, he or she would be unable to do so or without risking sanctions.

It’s a system that Rob Black of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association called “almost Kafkaesque.”

Wiener’s bill, originally introduced by former supervisor (now suspended sheriff) Ross Mirkarimi and slated to go before the Board of Supervisors Land Use & Economic Development Committee on Monday, shrinks the number definitions down to three: the relatively self-explanatory restaurant and bar categories as well as a third type, limited-restaurants, which aren’t allowed to sell alcohol.

“Over the years, we’ve created this monstrosity by doing so much micro-level legislation to solve individual problems that flare up,” Wiener told The Huffington Post.

The present system was largely established in the late 1980s in response to concerns about chain restaurants pushing out local eateries and fears that the city’s burgeoning slate of restaurants–both of the home-grown and chain varieties–would gobble up a huge portion of San Francisco’s real estate and leave precious little for other types of business.

“As long as I’ve lived in San Francisco, the process has gradually gotten more complicated as people try legislate their own agendas into the planning code,” said Ted Lowenberg of the Haight Ashbury Improvement Association. “You have people trying to create the perfect system, but making it worse in the process due to constant micro-management.”

Lowenberg said Wiener’s bill marks the first time he’s seen the city’s planning code move from complexity towards simplicity. “If city departments have ever attempted to make the process [of opening a restaurant] more rational, they’ve certainly done it on the QT,” he said.

Piggybacking off the present definitions, many neighborhoods have created their own set of restrictions as to what restaurants are allowed to move in. For example, the Haight-Ashbury has a hard cap severely limiting the total number of restaurants. New bars and liquor stores are also prohibited from opening in a wide swath of the Mission.

While there was some initial concern about these neighborhood-centric regulations being wiped out, Wiener’s measure keeps them largely in place.

“This common sense legislation recognizes that we can protect our neighborhoods while also promoting food-based businesses and allowing these businesses to be flexible and creative,” said Wiener in a statement.

Nate Pollak, owner of the popular SoMa eatery The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen (and HuffPost blogger), applauds officials for addressing some of these permitting problems but thinks the new law misses the bigger picture.

“I think its great they’re simplifying the planning codes, but we actually had the most trouble with the Building Department,” said Pollak. “In opening our restaurant, all of the plans were…approved by the Planning Department and then at lot of them were later rejected by an inspector. This happened over and over again. There’s no consistency in how the code is applied across the departments.”

Pollak told a story of how inconsistent enforcement of the fire code law led to his restaurant being forced pay a professional inspector $80 an hour for three days to literally watch paint dry. The whole ordeal pushed back the opening by two months. “The only reason we were able to have it handled so quickly was that we asked the city’s Small Business Commission for help and they got involved,” said Pollak. “Every single experienced SF restaurateur I talked to about opening a restaurant told me this would happen, that there would be a hassle with the inspectors.”

Despite the complexities of the current system, these are boom times for San Francisco restaurants. The San Francisco Chronicle forecast that restaurants in 2012 are expected to boast both sales and employment levels higher than then before the beginning of the recession:

“Restaurateurs here are reporting that the last quarter of 2011 was their best in years,” said Rob Black, executive director of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Restaurant Association trade group. “We may actually be better off than the rest of the nation. We’re ahead of the trend as far as economic activity. Office vacancy rates are below pre-recession numbers. And there’s a high occupancy rate in hotels and conventions. All this bodes well for our restaurants.”

Wiener’s bill is expected to go before the full Board of Supervisors before the end of the month.

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