Opening your dream café - don’t let it become a nightmare!

by Tom Palm, President @ Design & Layout Services

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Opening a café or coffee shop can be a very challenging process. Every week, I talk to people who have just signed the lease and are very excited to get their café open as soon as possible. Over the last ten years in the café design business, I have heard the good, the bad and the ugly. The part that always seems to cause problems with new retailers is the two month time period from signing the lease to getting the building permit. Once permitted, it usually takes another two months for the contractor to build-out your space. So on average it takes four months to open your cafe from lease signing. The first two months of this process have all the variables and unknowns that can cause your dreams to become nightmares.

Many of the problems that occur in the first two months are not due to lack of effort but rather lack of experience and knowledge. Most new coffee shop owners have never signed a commercial lease, hired a commercial contractor or dealt with the local building and health department.

The following story is hypothetical. However, it has been experienced by far too many people in one way or another. Hopefully it will help a few new coffee shop owners open on time, stay on budget and avoid some very costly mistakes.

If I only knew then what I know now

I had been searching for the ideal location for my new coffee shop for almost a year. I heard that the flower shop was going to expand and move to a new larger location down the street. Their old 1500 square foot space would be perfect! The leasing agent has several others interested in the space so it will not be available for very long. Afraid that I might miss out on this rare opportunity, I sign the lease. I cannot believe that the dream of owning my own coffee shop is about to come true! The flower shop will be out in about a month and the lease gives me an additional two months of free rent for the build-out. I figure that I will easily be open in three months.

Over the next few weeks, I finish my business plan, apply for a loan, work on the logo, design my floor plan, and look for a general contractor. This is hard to do while still working my regular job. Time is running out. With the $2,800 rent payments starting in just over two months, I quit my job. Now things are moving along nicely, the loan is approved, the logo looks great and the floor plan is almost complete. Finding a general contractor is the hard part. Everyone seems to be so busy, but they promise to give me a bid when the plans are completed. One contractor, who had built several restaurants in town, saw some problems with my plans. He asked if I had talked to the building and health department about parking, restrooms, fire exits, ADA codes and grease traps. I became worried and took my plans down to the city.

The nightmare was about to begin! I met first with the plumbing inspector. The flower shop had only one restroom. It was up to code and handicapped accessible. However, the plumbing codes required that I have two. I figured that there was room in the budget for the extra restroom but did not like losing the space for my seating. I also did not like spending $6,000 of my money on a restroom that was really the landlords. Then the fire marshal looked at my plans and said I needed a second exit in case of a fire. This was strange; the flower shop only had one door, why should I need two? He explained that there would be more people in a coffee shop than in a flower shop which he referred to as occupancy load. This was going to be a challenge. There were tenants on both sides, and across the back of my space was the kitchen and storeroom. I really began to feel I was in trouble when the building inspector said that the front door needed to swing out, and the two steps at the entrance needed to be removed and replaced with a handicapped ramp. How big a ramp I asked? He figured about 15 feet long by 4 feet wide. Wow, between the extra restroom, another door and the wheelchair ramp, I was going to loose half my seats! The electrical inspector wanted to have his input as well. He mentions that the current panel is not up to current codes and the amp load would need to be increased for all the equipment my coffee shop required. The health department was the best; all they wanted was a $2,200 grease trap! They explained that the waste water department required all food establishments with a three compartment sink to install one. As I was about to leave, the city planner was looking at his site plans in the area where my coffee shop was located. It turns out that the flower shop only needed five parking spaces; however my coffee shop needed 14 due to that higher occupancy load issue. There was no way I could find nine more parking stalls! If I wanted to apply for a parking variance it would take about two months and the odds were against me. The people at the city were all very helpful and felt bad about all the time and money I had already spent. My begging, pleading and even a few tears did not help. Their job was to enforce the codes, not make them.

I wish this was all a bad dream but it wasn’t. This nightmare was a reality. In less than an hour, I found out that I would need a second restroom, another fire exit, a handicapped wheelchair ramp, upgraded electrical panel, new grease trap and nine additional parking spaces. These improvements were way beyond my budget, even if I could solve the parking issue. I was also told that the lead time for getting my health department approvals and building permit was around a month. By the time I revised my plans and allowed the contractors a two month build-out, I would pay over $5,000 in rent and still not be open. How could this be happening to me? How could I sign a lease that did not even have enough parking spaces?

After discussing the parking issue with the landlord, he let me get out of the lease. I am back looking for that perfect location again. I also got a job selling flowers at the new shop down the street! But before I sign another lease, I am going to bring my floor plan down to the building department and spend an hour talking with my new friends at city hall.

Tom Palm is President of Design & Layout Services.

Since 1996, Design & Layout Services has worked with over 700 clients interested in opening a café or starting a coffee shop. Services include floor plan design, health department coordination, construction documents, cabinetry and equipment sales.

Tel. 800-471-8448

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