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Give and Take: Starting a Business in Pacifica

One man's perspective on the process and the people.

Launching Surf Spot more than four years ago has brought me into contact with many aspects of Pacifica life and the trials of opening a large business here. While some of the struggles and adventures would have been present in any community, a few are unique to Pacifica or similar smaller coastal cities.

Geography weighs heavy on any potential project in Pacifica. California's Coastal Commission maintains tight control over any construction on the west side of Highway 1. Surfers are generally supportive of their efforts as the protection of the coast translates directly to protection of the ocean as well.

But Coastal Commission decisions take time, so I chose to ignore that side of the highway for my project. 

Sunny valleys are also part of our geography. The weather is appealing to a restaurateur, but if there is one thing we have all heard it's "location, location, location.” 

Your location has to suit your concept but perhaps more importantly, the location you select will determine how many people see your business, how easy it is to get to and park at.

The Corral Steakhouse was a classic example of how difficult our geography can make it for a new business. Local and deeply talented chef Brent Heckerman launched a menu and style of restaurant that was dead on for Pacifica. Executed very well and presented by a friendly and professional staff, the concept was great.

It was the isolation and lack of exposure that brought on The Corral's demise. When The Corral closed its doors I had to really think about the viability of good food in Pacifica. I resolved to find the perfect location for my vision.

But before choosing that location, I realized I was going to need partners.

Moving to Pacifica only eight years earlier, I knew I would need a partner who was born and raised here. Local knowledge of the land and the community is crucial to cultivating the kind of place people want to spend time in. I also needed someone with a sense of style who could make things happen.

One day, while standing in a surf shop, I found that person. 

I lived in Sharp Park, and I loved the original Logshop location with the rattan furniture, giant saltwater tank and the red devil skate room. When the next incarnation of the Logshop came on in Linda Mar, I decided to whom I was going to pitch the restaurant: Tait Cowan.

My pitch went something like this: The restaurant will be made from things I feel are missing in town—a comfortable outdoor space with fire pits and heating, diverse ethnic flavors with vibrant seasonings and aromatics, a menu that changes all the time so a customer will come back again and again and live music.

Tait dug the notion of a really fun, exciting place to hang out in town and we began crafting some of the specifics. Steve Long, a long time friend and collaborator, and I went to work on refining the ideas into what Surf Spot will present in just a few months. 

Land is what we needed. Land and money. Of all the potential properties and buildings we considered, one always came back to the top: The old Gem Patio building in the parking lot of Sea Bowl. Thus began a year of convincing the partners and investors and eighteen more months of negotiating and wrangling over a deal that would enable the business to grow and thrive. David Szeto was the third piece to the puzzle.

After two and a half years, I was on my way.

David knows partnerships are by nature difficult and sometimes painful. Many marriages start with a prenuptial agreement and our very complicated relationship needed to be structured and vetted to the upmost standards for everyone's comfort. I believe laying out exactly what everyone is responsible for and what will happen should something go sideways is the best way to prevent an implosion later.

What came next is two solid years of back and forth over plans and codes.

That was just the first two and a half years, and there would be two more before we came to our present situation, perched on the brink of final construction.

Before you start typing in the comments about how screwed up P-Town politics and bureaucracy are, let me say I acknowledge the dysfunction and it would be dishonest to say there were never glitches. Across this nation of ours you will find municipalities just like ours, struggling to build or rebuild a business base and evolve the way they do things to move forward in the ever-changing economy. But top on my list of reasons for writing this piece is to dispel the common perception that the city of Pacifica and all of its dysfunction is why the process took so long.

What worked for Surf Spot in this process was the flexible positive approach we took. This allows a city government to work with you and address your project’s needs. Believe me, the city wants more commercial entities to be built and for existing ones to thrive. A huge slice of our budget woes are a direct result of our lack of new businesses and empty storefronts.

That said, when I presented the vision of Surf Spot to the Pacifica Planning Department for the first time, I could tell this would not be an easy process.

Renovating an existing building into a restaurant is one of the most complex endeavors one can undertake in the business.

Kathryn Farbstein was the city official I dealt with that day and I found her to be helpful from the very start. Listening carefully to where she thought the most challenging issues would arise, I made notes and worked with my partners to address the items one by one.

Farbstein's advice allowed Surf Spot to make a presentation to the Planning Commission that sailed through with unanimous approval.

"City staff wants to encourage commercial projects to help the city of Pacifica economically and to provide amenities and services for the residents of and visitors to Pacifica," she said.

Michael Crabtree told me some time after the Planning Commission meeting that our presentation was one of the more thorough and organized he had seen and that this made it much easier for the commission to approve. We came with visual aids, a clear and concise explanation of the project and our goals, and a posse of supporters, all of whom helped the project attain approval. The organizers of Surf Spot were careful to address neighborhood and municipal concerns in our presentation and integrate any changes required into our vision for the restaurant.

Once the project was approved, the business of designing and building began and, as I mentioned, our project was a complicated one. The single most helpful factor in that process was that we were willing to give and take during exchanges with the city planners. They worked with us to point out problems in our design and suggested possible solutions to ensure we were in sync with all the codes.

George White, Mr. Crabtree's replacement as planning director, came into his position amidst a swirl of rumors surrounding the approach he would take. Four separate people approached me to say he had a "more progressive attitude" and "fresh start approach.” 

Meeting with White when writing this article, I found this to be true. White emphasized his desire to partner with existing and new businesses to find solutions and to facilitate economic growth. Bringing jobs and revenue to the city of Pacifica is his focus. 

But, there was one glaring exception to the positive, helpful approach exhibited by city staff in the building department. To be entirely fair, I have to emphasize that it was not the people involved but the structure of the process that stood in our way. 

Doug Rider, Pacifica's building official, is a straight shooter who is adept at helping correct drawings and providing suggestions to bring them up to code. There was one problem, however: Rider is not a full-time employee of the city. He’s an employee of a company based in Redwood City and works in Pacifica just two days a week. He is available to Pacifica residents by phone, but the reality is he has to see the plans to answer specific questions.

Piled on top of that obstruction is the fact that plans for building in Pacifica must be submitted to an outside entity that is paid to find code violations and is not directly invested in helping achieve Pacifica's goal of stimulating economic growth in our community. An "in house" building official would be able to provide the same cooperation and support the planning department provided.

Preventing the need for repeated plan submissions by working with projects to resolve code violations thoroughly and giving more flexibility to the building department to allow conditional approvals would be the benefit of an in-house building official.

Resubmissions require costly printing and create a cumbersome dynamic which spurs a volley of responses as the plan checkers issue requests and the architects review and redraw plans. Never exactly sure of the details the plan checker is looking for, we "fixed" drawings only to be told upon resubmission we did not make all the changes or the correct changes.

Pacifica would benefit immensely by having Doug Rider as a full-time building official and plan checker, especially if he was in-house, but the sad reality is that it cannot afford one. But Surf Spot and other new businesses will provide increasing revenues for the city of Pacifica and will help us toward that goal.

George White said he would love it if we could see the type of economic growth required to fund a full-time building official. Maybe some day we will get there.

Meanwhile, I am putting out a call to all of you who think you have a project that would be perfect for P-Town. Go for it. Do not let fear of the system or rumors of entrenched city officials get in your way. Refine your vision, talk to and listen to the planning department, and remember to work as partners, not adversaries.

Surf Spot is finally under construction, so watch us build and if you are interested in details about the project or want updates we will be posting items on Twitter and Facebook as we get closer to opening. Look for opening events to begin before the end of the year.

Derek Burns June 05, 2011 at 05:45 PM
Eddie, thanks for your comment. If you read my article carefully you will notice I clearly state that the first two and a half years were on us. Even part of the last two were our responsibility. Speaking from three decades in the restaurant business, it always takes a year or two to build a new restaurant. This is true in any municipality, SF to NYC.
Derek Burns June 05, 2011 at 05:56 PM
Thanks Frances!
Derek Burns June 05, 2011 at 05:57 PM
Thanks Chris!
PTP June 05, 2011 at 07:27 PM
Obviously Mr. Burns wasn't aware that a fast track is available for projects where plan approvals, permits and Environmental Impact Reports (EIR) are NOT required. Don't believe me? Just ask Councilmember Vreeland. Oh, and don't forget to mention the code word, "BIODIESEL".
Lilly June 05, 2011 at 08:59 PM
Nice to read about this development of a dream. It must be so exciting for you. Congratulations!
Derek Burns June 05, 2011 at 09:39 PM
Thanks Lilly, a long time coming but well worth the wait.
Derek Burns June 05, 2011 at 09:41 PM
PTP, I specifically left references to specific council members and purported malfeasance out of my article. Plenty if that stuff on patch already!
Eileen Manning-Villar June 05, 2011 at 11:02 PM
Hey there Derek. Thank you for the informative and well-written article. I am so looking forward to opening day at the Surf Spot. It used to be because I know the food will be wonderful. But now that I hear about that the outdoor heated space with fire pits, well the waiting just got harder. Thanks for keeping it positive! Looking forward, Eileen MV
Derek Burns June 06, 2011 at 12:10 AM
Thanks Eileen, This project is going to provide Pacifica with all kinds of cool surprises:-)
Steve Sinai June 06, 2011 at 12:22 AM
Great article, Derek. I've never opened a restaurant, but it sure seems like it takes a lot longer to open one in Pacifica than surrounding cities. The guy who bought the building Horizons was in spent over 3 years trying to reopen it, without success. It took Gorilla BBQ forever to start operating once they made an announcement, and why is it taking so long for that new cheesesteak place to open up? In SF, when one restaurant goes out of business, another one somehow manages to pop up in the same spot within a couple of months. I am happy to hear that the city's attitude toward business is changing. Now it's a matter of streamlining the process.
Lionel Emde June 06, 2011 at 01:54 AM
Yes, a very well-written and interesting article. I can see why a restaurant would take so much longer to design and construct in a new location; we're talking public safety here. "In-house" building officials won't be available anytime soon. That era in Pacifica has come to an end.
Jeffrey Simons June 06, 2011 at 02:08 AM
Tait Cowan and Dave Szeto are excellent business partners to have. I'd still love to see Tait's Harmony@1 project get off the ground and I hope the new "business friendly" attitude of the planning department will translate into new and better projects. Much credit goes to the new blood on City Council, and especially oft maligned City Manager Steve Rhodes, for their fearless evaluation of the permitting process in the Planning Department which HAD traditionally been mired in the "entrenched city officials" that were far from rumors. Mr. Burns brings a lot of vision and experience to this project, and perhaps in his humble presentation he forgot to self promote his Knives and Fire team, which I will be more than happy to do for him: http://www.knivesandfire.com/restaurants.html
Derek Burns June 06, 2011 at 06:17 AM
It's way easier when the space is well suited for what you will do. Not our case however... Thanks for the comment.
Derek Burns June 06, 2011 at 06:21 AM
Thanks Lionel, I am sure it is a pipe dream but it would streamline the operation, that's for sure.
Derek Burns June 06, 2011 at 02:01 PM
Thanks Jeffrey, I am launching a new website next month focusing on the restaurant and my media projects so check back!
Mary Ellen June 06, 2011 at 05:31 PM
Thanks for a very well written, balanced article. The article also provides all of us a little insight into the frustrating circle we find outselves in here in Pacifica of not being able to fund positions that would encourage new businesses and speed up the process for for them to come on line. I appreciate that you kept it "real" but also positive. I can't wait for the Surf Spot and I know that it will a huge benefit for us in town but also a destination location that will will attract folks from all over. Thanks again.
Cnith June 06, 2011 at 09:58 PM
A pacifica spot like the half moon bay brewery... hey, why the heck not?! It's good to dream! If a little tiny caboose can grow into such a huge business (or so it seems that way since it's always so busy!) why the heck not a little spot near/in a surf shop? More power to you! Let's hope our ahem... screwed up...town's folk don't blow the dream for you! I know how much this town hates development, lord help me know why. Your place sounds cozy. :) As long as it's not super expensive, you'll see me stopping by! :) One request, please don't fill it up with carb laden foods. Make a variety for us healthy folks. My particular diet doesn't worry about fats and proteins, but we do have to watch our carbs carefully which makes almost all restaurants moot to dine in. Hence my love for the little orange caboose. Just meat please! :) If you could have those options, I'll be there a lot! :)
Scotty June 06, 2011 at 10:40 PM
This is very informative,and thanks for sharing, Derek. I can't wait for your spot to open -- you'll get plenty of my money, I'm sure. Camden, if you have the time, it might also be interesting to hear what the proprietors of Boston Bill's experience has been as they get closer to opening.
Derek Burns June 06, 2011 at 11:17 PM
Thanks Mary Ellen!
Derek Burns June 06, 2011 at 11:26 PM
We will be different the the HMB Brewery in many ways. One of which with be the seasonal, local produce driven menus. Those who want to load up on carbs certainly will be able to indulge, but the bulk of the menu will be protien and produce driven. Prices will be moderate, not the cheapest but a good deal. Thanks for your interest and comments. Oh yeah, I love Gorilla BBQ too!
Derek Burns June 06, 2011 at 11:27 PM
Thanks Scotty, I am sure Boston Bills is just going through the process. I really doubt the city is in their way. I will look forward to Camden's report.
Cnith June 07, 2011 at 10:05 AM
Well then I'll definitely hit up your spot! :D Local produce to boot! :D I can hang with moderate prices not insane ones like the green enchilada or nona's. (both overpriced imo for what they are) Here's to a brand new venue in this sleepy little town I love so much! :D
Traci Ewell June 07, 2011 at 04:29 PM
So exciting! AND all within walking distance!!! Pacifica has needed this for a long time! Patio, fire pits and good food all in one location! (will this be a dog friendly patio?) Looking forward to it! Traci E.
Peconic Sunset June 07, 2011 at 05:14 PM
Sounds great! I can't wait for this to open up. In addition this is a good article about due diligence and partnering to enhance your likelihood of success. Best of luck!
Derek Burns June 11, 2011 at 05:02 AM
Thanks Traci, and yes, we will have dog friendly zones for owners who can behave themselves
Derek Burns June 11, 2011 at 05:08 AM
After decades in the business I have learned that you have to trust and defend your vision as a chef if your place will that feel. You know the one that makes people want to come back, to be a local. Everything worthwhile takes time, thanks for your comment!
Zoe June 12, 2011 at 05:21 AM
Great article Derek! Nice to hear something positive! Can't wait for you to open!!
Stephanie Hamilton June 14, 2011 at 06:49 PM
Whoo hoo - can't wait for it to open! And thanks for all the inside info!
Scotty July 11, 2011 at 12:14 AM
It looks like Boston Bill's might have thrown in the towel -- I noticed a new "For Lease" sign and the temporary signage is now gone. It might be interesting to get their perspective on the process.
Steve Sinai July 11, 2011 at 02:45 AM
I had the same question about Boston Bill's. I drove by today and noticed the sign was gone.

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