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‘We’re Being Punished for Not Selling Alcohol’

When the city plays business-booster favorites [1], someone’s bound to feel left out.

And the cast-asides might not be the runt, niche industries you’d expect. Chuck Patton, 45, has become one of the faces of San Diego’s coffee industry since building a following as a vendor at the La Jolla Open Aire Farmers Market back in 2002.

Four years later, he opened Bird Rock Coffee Roasters’ La Jolla Boulevard location – across the street from a Starbucks – where lighter roasts and a local touch have kept customers coming back. His Little Italy location [2] has a little over a month under its belt, and now Patton’s set his sights on Linda Vista.

I met him inside the mostly empty shell of what will become a roasting facility and coffee bar on Morena Boulevard [3]. It’s in a part of town Patton considers underserved in the coffee market.

“I think to be successful in coffee you need a combination of that,” he said, while lounging on stacks of lumpy coffee bean bags, “finding a place that’s underserved, but you also need the income too. Not everybody can afford to pay $5 for a latte. It’s kind of a balancing act. And you want some place that looks cool.”

That criteria ultimately found Patton turning his home-roasting hobby into a business. But he says that path would’ve had a few more roundabouts were it not for the team he hired to get him through the city permitting process unscathed. Not every business is so lucky. But breweries, Patton said, get an unfair hall pass, sidestepping health department hoops [4] to open doors on tasting rooms sooner. “And here we are, we’re being punished for not selling alcohol,” Patton said.

I talked with Patton about the roadblocks for businesses like his, and what he believes San Diego could do to buck its reputation as business-unfriendly.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

As you were setting up your first retail location in Bird Rock, what were some of the challenges or regulation snags you ran into with the city?

I think we’re in a unique position because we also wholesale coffee (selling beans to restaurants and shops to serve or resell to customers). So we have access to a lot of other experiences. Again and again, we’ll pick up a client before they open and then kind of watch their process as they go through the city.

It seems like there’s a general feeling of people working for the city are afraid to make a mistake. And so when they come across an issue that they haven’t seen before, especially like with a coffee roaster – not real common – they’ll immediately assume the worst and send you back to square one.

I don’t think there’s a real system in place (to say) “OK, what is this? Let’s deal with this here and keep the process going forward.” It’s not just with coffee roasting; it can be with anything. There could be one thing that comes up with a normal restaurant plan that throws someone for a loop, and then they get sent back to another department. And then they have to go through this process again. It’s frustrating and it costs the owner money because they have to resubmit plans, and most importantly, it costs time. And time is money.

If we could change that mentality, the powers that be and the people who are reviewing permits (could) have this feeling like, “I want to get this business opened as soon as possible. What can I do to help them through this stage? Instead of just sending them back to another department, is there something I can do to move the process along?”

So you’re saying there’s, in part, sort of an attitude problem?

I wouldn’t say an “attitude problem,” but there might be a climate that makes people nervous about liability, rather than an incentive to get that business opened. There’s no incentive. It doesn’t seem like there’s an incentive in any of these departments to get the business open as soon as possible.

I could understand why there might be a sense of wanting to err on the side of caution.

Absolutely, I would agree to that. But when you’re forcing a business to start at the beginning, you’re not doing anyone any good. The goal of the city should be to get businesses, safely, up and running safely, but to generate tax revenue and to create jobs.

And instead, again and again, not just with us but with some of our customers, what should take a week or two can stretch out to six weeks or four weeks. And heaven forbid something happens right before a holiday, because then you lose two weeks for every day you’re out.

So has there been any particular step that was a real thorn in your side?

Luckily, not for us. The delays were more like typical delays that’ll add three days here, add five days here, add six days here. With the retail location in Little Italy, we weren’t trying to convert a residential (space), an old house for example, to a food service, which can be extremely difficult. It was a shell, it was nothing. That cleared up some stuff right off the bat.

How long did it take you?

Little Italy? About 70 days from breaking the ground for construction. Before that, it was another month of plans and getting through the city.

But what we did and what we were in a position to do, which a lot of people are not in a position to do, is we could hire people that could go through the city.

If you are trying to get a permit through by yourself, to save money on someone who really knows what they’re doing, that’s really where you see again and again (from the city), “OK, start from square one, go back to the beginning, go back to start, go back to start.”

I thought that all cities were like that until I was talking to a friend of mine who was on the mayor’s board in Denver during a big growth spurt. And I said, “Is it like this in Denver?” And he said, “No, not at all. The whole city’s set up to help the person get through as quickly as possible because they want to generate tax dollars. They want to generate employment.” So it’s totally different. I assumed everybody was like this.

A lot of times what people will try and do, they’ll pay someone to do the plan and then they’ll try and get it through, the plan through the city. And so because they’re not really well versed in construction or know how to go through the ins and outs and what the city’s looking for, they’ll come across a lot of speed bumps. And it’ll end up costing them more in the long run.

That sort of fits with the narrative we’ve seen in start-ups, that a number of them just don’t know what resources are available to them.

Right, they don’t know, so they have to go in there. I would never know how to do it, and I know it would cost me more money in the long run but again, we have the money to spend on it so we could do it.

If we could somehow change the system as far as resources and changing the environment to one that says, “OK, we’re all on the same team. Us getting open more easily and quickly helps everybody. It helps San Diego. It helps generate tax revenue and helps create jobs. It helps create maybe a cool restaurant for a neighborhood.”

There’s so many benefits to getting people up and running more quickly. I went to one of — was it Nathan Fletcher? That’s the guy that didn’t win right? … And I did ask him at one of his meet-and-greets. He was one of the only politicians that I heard say that the people that are getting plans through and getting construction approved should be held accountable, not for how long it takes but for how quickly someone can get through the process, because that helps everybody. But there’s no incentive for them to do it at this point in a quick, easy way.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer is known for being fairly business-friendly. Have you seen any particular change since he’s taken office?

You know, I haven’t, but I’ve had my head in a hole for the last couple months. But here’s one thing that the mayor and the City Council do have power over that makes things easier.

I think the brewing industry is a terrific example of a forward-thinking Mayor (Jerry) Sanders recognizing [5] that there’s a particular subset of businesses in San Diego that if we can make it easier for those businesses to grow, not only does it help generate revenue for the city but it also puts the city on the map, makes it a tourist destination, generates more jobs, generates more tax revenue.

And so what he did with the brewing industry is he circumvented a lot of the health department red tape. Let’s use that as an example. You recognize that San Diego is known for breweries. They have an organized group, the Brewers Guild, and really what that’s done — yeah, we see a lot of tasting rooms open, but the key thing is you see how quickly they’re opening.

I saw an interview with one brewer saying, “Ah, that doesn’t help us that much,” but the guy who said that has never tried to go through the health department to open up a cafe. He didn’t have to install a grease trap, he didn’t have to do this, he didn’t have to do that, which saves you a ton of money, but the main thing is the time.

So when you have an industry being supported like that by the city, it really encourages growth. It makes it great so there’s another reason to come to San Diego.

Here’s the problem with that. If you look at the coffee industry in San Diego where we are now, we’re consistently recognized as one of the top 10 coffee destinations now in the country. It’s becoming an artisan subset in San Diego. So when I went to the city, I said, “Hey, you know, we’re doing the same thing a brewery is. Can we open up a tasting room without going through the health department?” “No. That’s just an exception for the brewing industry.”

So you tell me, what is the difference between the brewing industry and the coffee industry right now? That would be a great thing for Mayor Faulconer to get into, is to think about, are there other industries in San Diego that could benefit from a streamlined process like the brewing industry’s benefiting from? Why is it just limited to the brewing industry? Why can’t we open up a little tasting room here without going through the full health department?

When you look at a company like us where we’re having real positive social change and impact from where we buy our beans – we’re paying farmers a lot of money, we’re donating to causes that help farming communities all over the world. I don’t see a lot of breweries doing that.

And here we are, we’re being punished because we’re not selling alcohol. There’s an opportunity for Faulconer and City Council.

What’s been good about doing business here? 

I like the fact that we’re becoming a coffee town. On the surface, it’s certainly not a coffee town, based on climate and the beach. We don’t have a lot of snowed-in days where we just sit inside drinking coffee all the time. People are choosing to do that. I think they’re appreciating it more.

Back to going through the city – the good thing about the city is once you’ve been through that process of getting something open, at least it’s consistent in that you kind of know what to expect next time. You can expect that it’s going to take longer than you think it’s going to take. So there’s that. But I certainly think there’s room for improvement.

I think it’s a good place to do business. I’m a little biased just because I’m from here. I feel really fortunate that I was able to move back to San Diego and start a business that is sustainable, allowing us to live here.

Anything else you want to add?

I don’t want to come off that everyone working for the city is bad. I think it’s just the environment that’s set up to make people nervous in the city. That I want to be clear on. Because I think there’s a bunch of great people working for the city, and a lot of the inspectors we have are really reasonable and down to earth.

I just think that if San Diego really wants to be taken seriously as a business-friendly town, that’s where you have to start. Really make that process easy, and educate the public as far as how to do that easily and make it consistent.

I don’t think it’s a good thing for the city just to make an exception for one class of businesses. I don’t think that’s cool. Especially when you have the coffee industry that’s getting as much or more press right now as the brewing industry.

Once you get opened and up and running, I think it’s a great place to do business. I think if you offer San Diegans a good product, and prepared well and transparently, they’re going to respond positively. I think that’s really the nice thing about doing business in San Diego, is that San Diegans are eager to support that. They want to support local businesses.

The way we’ve been supported in Bird Rock has just been terrific. People really rally around businesses that are doing the right thing.