Waiting for Merlot: At What Point is a Restaurant’s Opening Overdue?
Every once in a while, a restaurant that’s “Coming Soon!” just never comes. You see the sign for months, maybe even a year or more. You hear occasional reports about building permit holdups or problems with the city’s final inspection. And then, bang: One day, that cozy, chef-driven bistro opening its doors soon is…a Chipotle.
That’s pretty much what happened near the intersection of 14th and Kenyon Streets NW in Columbia Heights. Donatelli Development signed a deal in the fall of 2007 with two business partners to launch a new restaurant called Royal Blue Mediterranean Bistro. The construction was “very, very far along,” Donatelli marketing director John Groth reported to Washington City Paper more than a year later, adding, “I would be shocked if it wasn’t ready in terms of the build-out to be opened in the next couple of months.”
The “next couple of months” came and went—and Groth must have been shocked indeed. “Royal Blue, as a pure startup, wasn’t able to get all their funding together,” he told City Paper. “The space is open to lease and at the moment we have two more veteran restaurants looking at the space.”
And now, more than 24 months later, you can eat all the Barbacoa burritos you want in Royal Blue’s old spot.
So how long are restaurants typically under lease before opening? When should you worry that that oven’s never going to be fired up?
The length of time depends on the size of the restaurant—a colossal operation like a Hard Rock Cafe obviously takes longer than a 40-seat diner—and the complexity of the plans. If a restaurateur moves into a space that already has a kitchen and dining room and opts not to gut the place, that’s a timesaver.
“You would think that in this economic climate anyone that opened a restaurant in 14 months, 15 months, 16 months, depending on how much work they had to do, probably is doing OK,” says Lehr Jackson, who revitalized Union Station in the 1980s and has done huge urban retail projects around the country, including Grand Central Terminal. But he adds: “It really depends on whether it’s a prepackaged shopping center deal or whether it’s a street deal, or a historic area, where you have historic restrictions. It really depends on the location and the landlord.” Any number of factors can make or break that promised “soon.”
Ashok Bajaj, owner of seven restaurants in D.C., says he usually opens his places within 14 to 18 months of the lease signing. “Any time there’s a historic element, it’s going to be harder to open up the place,” says Bajaj, who has two restaurants, Ardeo and Bardeo, in the historic district of Cleveland Park, where the city strictly regulates how buildings can be altered and the way storefronts look, right down to the signage.
“Downtown is probably the easiest [location] to open,” he adds. He operates five restaurants there, including Bibiana, which took 16 months to open, because he decided to overhaul a previous restaurant’s interior.
Chef Darren Norris is aiming for a February opening for his restaurant, Kushi, in Mount Vernon Square’s City Vista complex—a little less than a year from when he signed his lease, he says. His rental contract requires that he meet certain benchmarks on schedule, like finishing the design, obtaining the proper permits, and completing the build-out. If he doesn’t open by April, he’ll incur extra fees. That may seem like a pushy deal, but Norris hired a third-party permit expediter to deal with city regulatory issues. He also leased a clean, simple, new space—a far cry from others he’d checked out, including two decrepit ones near U Street. In both cases, the landlord was all but desperate, offering him five years of free rent, plus hundreds of thousands of dollars to renovate the building. But he would have had to oversee the renovation and get the place in shape himself.
“To even get them to be inhabitable, to get them to a point where you could lease them, you’re looking at at least half a million to $1 million,” says Norris.
Norris signed a letter of intent on one of them, on 14th Street NW, but in “the 11th hour,” it turned out that the building’s owners couldn’t provide enough money to assist with construction.
Things at City Vista have gone smoothly compared to that. Norris recently received all his city permits—a “little bit faster than normal,” he thinks—and now his restaurant, which will serve sushi and Japanese pub cuisine like grilled chicken skewers, is under construction. He’s eager to get the charcoal heated up and the credit card machines churning out receipts.
“It’s also in my best interest to try to get open quicker,” he says. “I’m anxious myself.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery