First Time Business Owners Leap Through Hurdles to Open in Boston

April 28, 2018
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It was a bustling scene at Roosters Men’s Grooming Center for their opening night celebration on Beacon Hill. Residents, influencers, bloggers and more streamed in from across town to pack in to see the newly opened men’s hair salon along Charles Street.

Already well known for their South End location on Tremont Street, the upscale barber shop didn’t open with the ease that one might expect. Owner Tyson White, who opened his first location back in 2014, said the first time around had a lot of hurdles to even just open his doors.

“The first hurdle is the real estate market and the feasibility of the site,” said White. “Once you find a location you need to make sure you can use it for the purpose of your business.”

White said it is somewhat hard to know because there are certain types of uses for state, city and neighborhood level. “It can be a long process.”

For a first time business owner, there is no overall guideline or to-do list that points you in the right direction to get all the permitting, licenses and inspections needed to open.

Off the top of his head more than 10 permits and licenses were needed before he could start his business. Examples include: demolition and interior redesign permit, plumbing, electrical, fire inspection, structural inspection, barber shop and state board inspection, furniture permit, signage and more.

The tricky part was that in order to get them he had to go through multiple agencies at the city, state and neighborhood levels.

He leaned heavily on organizations such as the South End Business Alliance and the Beacon Hill Business Association to help guide him through the complicated process. The network of small businesses really helped him not to make the mistakes that other business owners made in the past.

But often times, he said you would get a fine or a stop work order and that’s how you would find out you were missing something.

“There’s always going to be a surprise,” said White. “If you miss one permit or get a stop-work order or they fine you – it puts you behind even if you didn’t intend to miss it – its just a complicated process,” he said.

White said he learned a to during his first opening and was more prepared the second time around.

“But the process does seem to have gotten better,” he said.

But he said it can be frustrating to see a larger operation, such as a Sweetgreen, Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks turn around and open up in the neighborhood so quickly because they have the resources and the lawyers that know how to navigate the process.

“Small businesses are at a little disadvantage going through this complicated process,” said White.

One hurdle that can really put a business back if they are not prepared for it is to change the zoning code for the use of occupancy of a storefront.

Currently, a lot of the zoning is outdated and does not include new business models such as yoga studios, cycling studios or juice bars. If it fits underneath as a subcategory like a gym, the Inspectional Services Department (ISD) allows it go forward but, if it doesn’t it starts a long process of going to the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA).

Commissioner William Christoper said that if the project is as-of-right and doesn’t require zoning change, the process should take about 30 days.

If it has to go through the appeal process to establish a set of zoning it can take at minimum three months to complete. It needs 20 days to provide a public notice for a hearing, another 20 days to be able to appear before the ZBA Commission, and another 20 days to allow for litigation.

To help speed up the process Christoper said they first look to see if the zoning fits under an umbrella. For example, a spa can be zoned for a part of the Back Bay because it is in a commercial district.

“The ZBA was established to protect the neighborhoods,” said Christopher. “The ZBA enforces the zoning; it doesn’t create it.”

LexRx a medical clinic in Beacon Hill that specializes in BOTOX and dermal fillers for lips, lines and lashes went through some big hoops to be able to open.

After doing a mostly concierge service and sharing a medical space along Newbury Street, co-owners Alexa Nicholls Costa and Alexandra Rogers both nurse practitioners decided to find a permanent place of their own, landing them on Charles Street in Beacon Hill close to three years ago.

“It was a big learning curve for us,” said Costa, who also leaned on the Beacon Hill Civic Association, Beacon Hill Women’s Forum, and Beacon Hill Business Association for support.

Costa said that they began paying for the lease, despite not being open yet as they were waiting for their permits to clear. They later learned that they didn’t have to being paying the rent until they opened but, they figured the lawyers fee would have been the same cost of just paying the rent.

“You weren’t told by the realtor all these things that need to place,” said Costa. “They just hand you the key.”

In order to change the zoning to allow for medical use for the space it took from July to February or approximately seven months to go through the ZBA process.

Costa said she understands why it took so long.

“There’s so much going on int he city and there is a long list of people waiting to be heard by the board,” she said.

At a Boston City Council hearing hosted by City Councilor Kim Janey on April 10, the Councilors took a deeper look at the opportunities and challenges facing small businesses in City of Boston.

“Small businesses already have a hard enough time as it is securing lines of credit and establishing a customer base, the last thing you need is for the city to fee and permit you to death,” said At-Large Councilor Michael Flaherty.

He continued, “Small local businesses are the lifeline of our neighborhoods, a lot like our community health centers. Some of our largest employers and some of those employees live in our neighborhoods and spend those hard earned checks back in the neighborhood. We have a selfish interest here to help our small business grow.”

The Office of Small Business Development was created in 2016 to help small businesses navigate the regulatory process and push them towards resources provided by the city.

In addition, the city works in a public-private relation with Boston Main Streets a network of 20 main streets organizations that use a comprehensive revitalization approach to create, build, and sustain healthy commercial districts.

Since 1995, Boston Main Streets have helped create 1,394 new businesses, 8,176 new jobs and 373,680 volunteer hours. Also held hundreds of events and improved storefront occupancy rates. The organization does not keep track of stores that remain open or close over time.

“We work on bringing people together to make sure decisions are made from the lens of the community and assisted through the programs the city has,” said Stephen Gilman the program director for the Boston Main Streets.

Examples of business resources include small business certification, that allows businesses to be published through the city’s online directory and receive notifications for contracting opportunities.

In addition, they provide funding for preserving and improving historic facades and storefronts and have an on-site technical assistance program.

Gilman said it isn’t typically the high rents or the competition with online retailers that store owners say is a problem but, it is the need for more customers and more foot traffic.

He said, Main Streets is working to increase more traffic through events and marketing online.

Last year, Councilor Michelle Wu implemented Acoustic on Main, that allows neighborhood businesses to host acoustics performances without having to get a live entertainment license or change of occupancy – making it a lot easier to bing customers in with live music without having to pay a fee or interact with City Hall.

But, one problem that seems to continuously come up is the permitting process and how difficult it can be to go through all hoops and hurdles. Councilor Janey asked how the city is planning on stream lining these processes to make it easier.

“Those are real issues,” said Christopher, ISD Commissioner at the hearing. “We have the responsibility of providing healthy, safe environment, particularly when it involves food but, sometimes it can feel very arduous for someone going through the process. ISD really changed its attitude. We used to be the business of ‘no’ but that has really changed.”

Christopher said recently there have been a number of businesses he never knew existed before come in and ISD tries very hard to lay out a path through the permitting process, so, “that it does not feel like a hurdling task over and over.”

Councilor Flaherty said that it always seems like that there is a last minute issue that has to be resolved before a store is set to open.

“Inevitably something falls through the cracks,” said Flaherty. “The inspection needs to get done by a certain time, or that’s on us, that’s our bad. We either need to refund them back on their permit fee and or let them open on a temporary basis until we really get out there.”

Christoper agreed and said sometimes its not even the city’s fault, it can be the state’s.

“But sometimes it is our fault,” said Christopher. “There’s a backlog or sometimes there are pieces that are missing in the puzzle that we don’t know until we get out there because every condition is different…It’s something we are all working on – as much as I hate the 11th hour reaction – we do react well to it.”

At the newest location of G20 Spa & Salon on Exeter Street in the Back Bay President and CEO Joyce Hampers said although there was some last minute things to do before opening, the City was really good at working with her team to make sure they can open their doors in time.

Hampers said they had a set opening day and if they missed it, they would not only lose money but would lose their trust with their clients and make it appear that they had bad marketing.

Hampers opened her first spa in 1994, since then, she has grown and relocated her business a few times in the Back Bay.

“Every time we relocated, it’s like the first time,” said Hampers. “Every year there are more hoops to go through.”

To open this salon she said she had to get over eight different licenses and permits from both the city and state, and some, she said, overlapped. For the nails license she said once it was just the state and then it was just the city and now the salon needs an individual license from both.

Hampers said she wishes the city and state would get together and stop going back and forth because it is confusing on who you are supposed to answer to.

But, she said most of the licenses have a good reason.

For example, the health clearances are all important because she wants to make sure she is providing a healthy environment for her clients. Same with the pool certification, she wouldn’t want the chemicals to be off in the hot tub. “They’re all based in real logic,” she said.

One permit that really bothers Hampers is the business certificate. Every four years she has to pay $60 to be certified as a business but there are no inspections and no requirements for it, she just has to pay the bill.

“Dig, dig, dig, dig for it,” said Hampers. “It’s $100 there and $100 here.”

This time around she started the process in May of last year and opened for business in February of 2018. Hampers said she learned that it doesn’t always move on the time table you envisioned.

“I’ve never run into anyone who was purposely trying to make it tough,” said Hampers. “There’s just a lot of red tape – 25 years of this is a long time to have to be dealing with it.”

At SkinMD a laser and cosmetic group that is opening its fourth location on Newbury Street this week said they couldn’t have done it without the help of a hired contractor to help with permits and licensing.

It took them four to six weeks to get all the permits and licenses in place.

“It’s not an easy process, its very strict,” said Dr. Paul Flashner the owner and physician for the practice. “We couldn’t do it by ourselves now even if we wanted to because we’re very busy. But, it was still a lot of work even with [the contractor’s] help.”

Dr. Flashner said the contractor saved them a lot time and now he is excited to open up his newest location. There was one thing they missed that the inspector wanted that ended up costing them a few extra grand but, he said, the rest went seamlessly.

“We help people look great and feel great,” he said. “We chose Newbury Street because of the profile of it and the sheer numbers of people who go by the location whether they live or work in the area.”

In hindsight he wished that they started their first location on Newbury Street from day one, but it seems to have worked out regardless. They’ve been able to grow their business being in Watertown, Peabody, Worcester and Norwell.

Maybe one thing that might have deterred him at first was the high rent in the downtown location.

“Why pay the high rent?” he asked. “But really, you pay the high rent for the prime location. Difference in rent is made up in the people you get into the business.”

Carlyon Ryan of the Boston Chamber of Commerce, which is largely made up of small businesses, understands that it can be very difficult to take the leap into starting something new.

Although, Chamber of Commerce tends to focus on the larger regulatory issues they are beginning to work on creating networking events and tax help for small businesses.

Ryan said she understands it can be very difficult for a new business because it can be tough to navigate through the process, especially if they haven’t done it before.

“To get going is intimidating,” said Ryan. “There are big steps and risk associated with it, but its a leap people need to take. It’s important to have small businesses for the region but, it takes risk and it is a challenge.”

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