If there’s one major theme of restaurant openings in the city of Detroit, it’s the delays. Ask a restaurant owner for an estimated opening date these days and they’ll hesitate, give you a time six month to a year out and then tack on a few months for good measure. Sometimes delays are the result of finances or construction issues, but more often than not it’s the result of planning approvals, permitting, licensing, and inspections — steps related to city and county government.
The delays aren’t just frustrating for the owner, they can make or break a new business. “Expenses pile up,” says Timothy Tharp, co-owner of Grand Trunk Pub, Checker Bar, and The Whisky Parlor in downtown Detroit. “You still have to pay architects and lawyers, and people and that's enough to put someone under.” The City’s hold-ups and hassles, says Tharp, send a seemingly backwards message to business owners. “You'll hear people say, 'The City seems like they don't even want me here.’”
It’s these challenges and mixed messages that Tharp hopes to see remedied with the founding of the Detroit Restaurant Association, an organization started and run by local restaurant owners and advocates. So far, the organization’s members include Tharp, his business partner Dave Gregory, attorney Larry Charfoos, the Gatzaros family (owners of Fishbones and the London Chop House, Ron Cooley of Slows , and chef Marc Djozlija of the Detroit Optimists Society restaurant group (Wright & Co., The Peterboro). Unlike the larger Michigan Restaurant Association, the Detroit Restaurant Association will focus on issues that the organizers believer are unique to the city of Detroit. “There needs to be advocacy on the political level for restaurants and a voice for them,” Tharp says.
While Detroit’s restaurant industry has grown rapidly over the past five years, government processes for dealing with the flood of new businesses haven’t kept pace. “The business licensing process in the City of Detroit is completely broken and dysfunctional,” according to Tharp. “It costs restaurant owners ungodly amounts of time and energy trying to get all the inspections they need and trying to get this business license and it never even happens. You pay for it but you never get it and that's where the city needs to be held accountable.”
One of the Detroit Restaurant Association's top priorities will be putting pressure on city government to improve these processes, as well as disseminating information to restaurateurs and would-be restaurateurs about how to navigate the city’s many departments. The association also aims to develop resources for restaurants such as conducting ServeSafe and TIPS alcohol training classes and provide outreach and networking through membership events. The organization plans to start simple, offering free membership with a sign-up for their monthly newsletter, but within the next year or two charging a yearly fee.
When it comes to improvements at the city level, Tharp says he’s seen advances over the past several years but more needs to be done to promote the development of new and established businesses. “I love the city and I think it's on the right track. I think Mayor Duggan is doing a tremendous job in terms of reforming a lot of the incompetence and corruption that takes place in a lot of the different departments but there's still a long ways to go on the ground level.”
• Detroit Restaurant Association Website [Official]
• Detroit Restaurant Association Facebook [Official]