I used to live on a block in Washington, D.C., known for crack heads and drug dealers. The soil of my garden was seeded with hypodermic needles. But in just a few years, it turned into one of trendiest spots in the city.
Part of the change was due to a new subway station and a big box store. But much of it can be attributed to something else: really awesome food.
So many cool, little restaurants opened that you could eat antipasti for breakfast; squash blossom tacos for lunch; and chicken and waffles at 3:00 a.m., all within three blocks.
Parts of Boston are ripe for exactly that kind of culinary transformation. There’s just one catch: It takes a fortune, an eternity, and/or an act of God to open a restaurant in Boston.
Just ask Michelle Wu, a candidate for City Council, whose journey into politics began at the Loose Leaf Tea Loft, in Chicago.
Wu, just 23 at the time, was a recent Harvard graduate with a consulting job in Boston. Then she got a disturbing call from her younger sisters. Their mother had begun displaying signs of serious mental illness. Wu and her boyfriend (now husband) Conor Pewarski moved home to Chicago to care for them as well as open a family business.
“My mother had always talked about having a little tea shop,” said Wu, whose family hails from Taiwan. Wu thought her mother could take over once her health improved.
They tasted teas, signed a lease, and installed a kitchen. Debts piled up. Inspectors took months to visit, delaying their opening. Wu turned to her city representative for help. Finally, they opened in 2008. The whole process had taken six months.
Hard as it was in Chicago, opening in Boston would have been infinitely more difficult.
In Chicago, just one permit is required. All paperwork goes to the same office.
In Boston, permits and licenses are spread across a dozen different agencies.
In Chicago, Wu paid $600 for her permit. In Boston, entrepreneurs face a dizzying array of fees that are impossible to calculate until plans are in motion.
Need a dumpster? That’s $420. Want to serve food? Fork over $200 to the Division of Health Inspections. Want more than 50 seats? Shell out $100 to $1,000 to the Fire Department for a Place of Assembly Permit. Homemade ice cream on the menu? That’ll be $100.
More burdensome than the money is the time. Many new restaurant owners hire lawyers to navigate paperwork, driving up costs even more.
In Chicago, Wu and her family just put a sign in the window and opened. But in Boston, they would have had to get approval from a neighborhood board. In Chicago, they held open mic poetry nights to attract customers. In Boston, they would have had to apply for an “entertainment license.” In Chicago, they used second-hand furniture. But in Boston, they would have had to buy it new or have the Boston Fire Department chemist test every chair to prove that it wasn’t flammable.
Many of these requirements make sense for safety, Wu said. But in a city as old as Boston, new requirements have simply been tacked onto the old. Do we really still need a “common victualler license,” which dates back to at least 1786? Enforcement fell by the wayside sometime in the last century. But in recent years, the Menino administration has started requiring it again.
Less than a year after Loose Leaf Tea Loft opened, Wu realized her mother wasn’t going to get well enough to run the business. She and Pewarski sold it and moved the whole family to Boston.
But the experience shaped Wu. She volunteered at a legal clinic to help low-income entrepreneurs get permits. During a fellowship at City Hall, she created a “restaurant roadmap” to explain the process.
Now, she advocates a two-week turnaround for permits to small businesses. She also has a plan to create a new class of liquor licenses for small restaurants in struggling neighborhoods, which cannot be transferred away.
Her ideas complement the fierce advocacy of City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, who is also running for reelection. Between the two of them, Boston might just get its culinary revival.