Nicknames like “Beer City USA,” “Foodtopia” and “Paris of the South” all acknowledge Asheville’s increasing significance as a food and drink haven. But for city development officials, keeping pace with the permitting needs of a burgeoning food industry has been a hard bite to swallow.
THE RESTAURATEUR’S HOLY GRAIL
A certificate of occupancy must be obtained and displayed prominently in commercial establishments, but for some restaurateurs, the legal document also serves as a battle scar of sorts. In business settings, the CO states that a building is fit to be occupied by a certain number of customers, and this human-safety aspect makes it more troublesome to acquire than most food and alcohol licenses.
In the simplest terms, the quest for a CO consists of two phases — the planning stage and the build-out — and the approval of both can require smaller prerequisite permits and months of collaboration between city officials and a restaurateur’s team.
Although Asheville’s business development-related services were consolidated into one building years ago, departments continued to operate in functional silos. Last summer, City Manager Gary Jackson created the Development Services Department — a new one-stop shop aimed at streamlining the fragmented permitting process. Despite major strides, his efforts haven’t placated everyone just yet.
PERMITTING ROUNDTABLE: IS THE CITY KEEPING PACE?
“We had a very difficult time in the permit process during plan review,” says Hole doughnut shop co-owner Caroline Whatley. Typically, plan reviews are facilitated by a single reviewer, but in Whatley’s case, a sudden reassignment added more than 20 new items to Hole’s to-do list, tagging an extra month onto the plans-approval process.
“The process is slower than it has ever been,” says Thirsty Monk owner and general contractor Barry Bialik. He feels the consolidated approach causes a bottleneck, since many processes are initiated by the handful of employees running the permit desk. “Everyone I know calls it ‘the time warp,’” he says. “You pretty much have to budget, for the most minor thing, that you’re going to be there for 45 minutes to an hour.”
Still others are satisfied with the city’s pace. Catawba Brewing co-owner Billy Pyatt says his Biltmore Village tasting room “came together pretty quickly,” thanks to the helpful guidance of the city staff who handled his beverage permitting. And Vortex Doughnuts co-owner Ron Patton echoed those sentiments, stating that inspectors were “thorough but fair” and worked with him over a “fairly normal” term.
Still, crossing the planning hurdle is a fleeting victory for those who face more challenges during round two — on-site inspections.
Doug Parry, who recently completed the build-out for Sovereign Remedies, reports that the sheer quantity of permits per project has gotten out of hand this year. “That’s been incredibly frustrating for me and inspectors,” he says, calling the conundrum an information overload.
Sovereign Remedies owner Charlie Hodge says that permits have a domino effect on each other. For example, a ramp permit triggered sprinkler and electrical inspections, causing a major source of bewilderment during his build-out. When Hodge called in his final inspection with the fire marshal, an official advised him to get a “final final” — one more head-scratcher to conclude the process. “It was comical — almost,” he says.
Yet most restaurateurs and contractors agree that city representatives are generally as helpful as they can be. It’s the system that needs repair.
CATCHING UP TO DEMAND
Development Services Director Shannon Tuch reports that although the city process is in a period of transition, users can already notice two of Jackson’s key improvements — more managers and new permitting software.
Jackson created three DSD management roles to coordinate the moving parts for complicated projects, field difficult questions and facilitate the orderly movement of permits throughout the system. The city had no formal permit tracking system before switching to Accella software last November, but now managers can analyze the number and start dates of applications that are pending or in review.
“The main benefit that people would experience right now is that they can pull permits online,” says Tuch of Accella’s benefits to external users. Although state law mandates that the person who pulls a permit must be the one completing the relevant work, Tuch says this rule was “clogging things up” for general contractors who could not coordinate and schedule inspections for their subcontractors. “We turned that off,” she reports, explaining that it is now presumed the parties are working together.
Bialik says that improvements in one area often lead to a bottleneck elsewhere but acknowledges the city’s efforts, such as the recent hire of former restaurateur Marni Graves. “This is the first time they’ve hired someone who has been on the other side of the desk,” he says approvingly.
Despite significant improvements to the online platform, many users aren’t privy to the upgrades.
“We found out about that when we were pretty much done,” says Brooke Souhail, former co-owner of Urban Café. Souhail and her business partners took on the permitting maze single-handedly since their downtown space was previously a fully functioning commercial kitchen, but approval of minor electrical changes took several weeks.
“As an individual coming in and trying to do it yourself, you don’t get the information upfront,” she says. “You get bits and pieces as you go along.” Urban Café recently closed for reasons unrelated to permitting.
“Maybe they are working on things, but the communication is not the greatest,” says Bialik, who also remained unaware of online functionality despite years of experience working with the city and several current residential construction projects. “If it was, maybe there wouldn’t be some of these frustrations.”
Bialik’s latest struggle stems from scheduling inspections, though. According to the contractor, a new policy requires officials to perform multiple inspections per trip to a job site. However, Bialik’s ability to continue scheduling single inspections muddles the rule and leads to no-show appointments. He says the policy has not been communicated and is haphazardly enforced, with no notice of cancellations.
“They’ve got a hard job, and they do it pretty well,” says Elm Construction and Design owner Trey Greer, assessing the city’s performance. Greer isn’t fazed by the city’s transition and chalks the “horror stories” up to the inherent intricacies of restaurant building. “Building a restaurant is literally one of the most complicated construction projects that you can walk into,” he says. “If you don’t have qualified experience — contractors, architects, engineers — involved, there is a lot of opportunity for things to go wrong.”
Korean House general manager Jayson Im experienced this firsthand. “We hired the wrong people,” he says, recalling a multimonth struggle to gain approval for a new grill concept. Now that his team includes an experienced electrician and engineer, the restaurant is back on track to install the grills this month. Im notes more responsiveness and proactivity from city officials in recent months.
PLANNING FOR CONTINUED GROWTH
According to Tuch, city officials are transitioning as best they can with limited resources. “We’re still working out some kinks with how the system works,” she says, explaining that some of the most complicated aspects are internal changes. “It’s getting better and better, and I think in the next six months it will be working really well.”
Tuch says the DSD has been understaffed from the start and struggles to find qualified individuals to fill vacancies due to high demand for development employees nationwide. Plus, the volume of permit applications is staggering.
“We’ve had a real uptick in activity,” she says. “At any given time, we have 1,000 or more applications in process.”
Once the city’s resources catch up with demand, Tuch hopes to work with Asheville Independent Restaurants to create a guide for restaurant development steps, but “right now, we’ve just got to keep up with permit volume,” she says.