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Getting Your Restaurant Plans Through City Hall

Restaurant Owner Kim Bartmann

Just down the road from my first-ring suburb, Minneapolis is a big, progressive city with a reputation for making life challenging for small-business owners, especially in the restaurant community. Kim Bartmann, who owns eight of the city’s innovative restaurants, is no stranger to working the system. Over her 25 years as a restaurateur, she’s been through similarly tough experiences and lived to tell the tale. 

“I’m a totally urban operator, so I’m biased toward operating in an urban environment as opposed to a suburb,” she said. “The whole farm-to-table movement has brought along with it people’s love of neighborhood restaurants in urban environments and I think there’s probably one or two franchise operators who’ve experienced pushback in that regard, like we don’t want a quote-unquote chain restaurant in our neighborhood.”

One of Bartmann’s restaurants, Pat’s Tap, is a cheese-focused gastropub with Skee-Ball in the back room. It’s the lone commercial corner in a gentrified neighborhood. After buying the former dive bar, she ran into opposition as dozens of citizens voiced concerns about the liquor license she applied for, fearing the noise and frequent police presence that doomed the previous owner. 

“There’s always some part of them that can turn negative, and you just have to remember that when you go to those meetings, it’s best to be a good listener,” she said. “My advice for someone going into an urban location who hadn’t done it before would be to not have your lawyer or consultant or someone else go to that meeting for you, because then you’re inviting the suspicions that people have.” 

She recommended hiring the help of a professional lobbyist or consultant if circumstances require, but stressed the business owner themselves should be present to show a personal connection and openness to individual concerns. 

“You need to connect with someone who is familiar with the municipality you’re operating in and knows the written rules and the unwritten rules, and has an idea of how to navigate those things,” she added. “You can design around anticipating roadblocks so they don’t come up to begin with.” 


Show your best side

3-D signs like this giant howling stag at Red Stag in Northeast don’t work in every municipality unfortunately.

Calling from his winter abode in Hawaii, Jimmy John’s operator Mike Mulligan is living the dream. His family operation owns 12 locations in the Twin Cities, all but two in Minneapolis proper—so he’s no stranger to neighborhood opposition. Contrary to reports from other local franchisees he knows, Mulligan said the city’s approval and licensing process was easy. 

“Other than baking bread, we don’t cook in the store so we don’t have some of the problems with grease and ventilation,” he said. “We have had the same lady who we have worked with repeatedly at the city, and she said, ‘I’ve worked with you guys for years, you know what you’re doing, so just keep at it.’”

Noting his distaste for some of the city’s progressive policies, like an eventual $15 minimum wage and an especially controversial employee scheduling provision, Mulligan said one of his locations received significant pushback from the neighborhood association concerned about initial plans to stay open late. 

In the end, the neighbors won, but he felt the shorter operating hours were a net positive for the store and added that dealing with their concerns meant stressing the family-business angle of the company and simply stating a desire to be a good neighbor. 

James Erickson of Solomon Strategies Group, well-connected lawyer, consultant and lobbyist with 50 years of experience, met me for lunch to share his advice for restaurateurs grinding their way through the city-approval process. Be careful to avoid sounding self serving, he said. 

With so many groups involved along the way, possibly even including historic preservation folks in some cases, hiring a professional can save countless time and frustration for the business owner, he said. 

“That’s where professionals are vital to success. They have done it before. They know to do the city and neighborhood due diligence early. They know to whom and how to first present the project,” he said. “The staff vis a vie the elected officials dynamic is different in each city; they know that balance, and that both are important in the end.”

Even during a quick meal, it was clear that Erickson is generally unflappable with no shortage of confidence. Asked how one can stay cool in heated meetings with pitchforks clanging and cameras rolling, he said striking the right tone is a mix of experience and personality.

“With experience comes the wisdom to not take the slings and arrows of the opposition personally,” he said. “It should be no secret that you absolutely need a thick skin to have a long career in this business.”

Reflecting on earlier days as a lobbyist, he added that social media has made it easier for angry people to form opposition groups and generate considerable pushback if they desire. In addition, where powerful neighborhood groups and not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) factions used to be mostly big-city phenomenons, he sees the trend radiating beyond big cities.


Getting to yes

Back in my hometown of Columbia Heights, I spoke with Community Development Director Joe Hogeboom. He said the rise of citywide and neighborhood Facebook groups has been a significant disruptor with certain new proposals.

When a businessperson comes to city hall with initial discussions of a new proposal, he said, it’s generally fairly easy to determine if the plan will be a good fit “or at least no net harm to the city.” 

His staff walks businessowners through the city’s comprehensive plan that guides future development standards, as well as any relevant zoning requirements or concerns that may arise from the planning commission or city council.

“What is a recipe for failure is when a developer thinks their plan is better than the code we have and is not willing to make any concessions,” he said. “A lot of what developers need to know is to do a little research on the community you want to go into.”

That research can include easy things like paying attention to similar business already in town. If nearby drive-thru restaurants, for example, have bike racks and minimal signage, it’s likely yours will be required to, as well. 

Hogeboom recommended meeting early with staff if the city is large and sophisticated enough to have an economic development arm. “A lot of times what the developer has to offer might be just what the city is looking for,” adding that many places are eager to assist when beneficial proposals come along. “We’ll work with you," he said. 

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