Beloved French restaurant Chez Napoleon is still unable to open, more than 10 weeks after our first report and 21 weeks after – blocked by an endless saga of maintenance documents and approvals in New York .
The 62-year-old restaurant is one of the city’s oldest French establishments and has been run by Elyane Bruno and her son William Welles since 1982. It has been closed since December 9, when Con Edison representatives inspect their newly built smart meters. installed. detected an unusual odor and shut off gas services.
Inspectors could not find a gas leak but marked the line as outdated and not up to code. Since then, restaurateurs and their lessors have been fighting in vain against administrative formalities (a bogeyman for small businesses tackled in 2016, but with no discernible effect). They forged ahead with necessary replacements and repairs, but found themselves slowed by the snail’s pace of communications and approvals between contractors, inspectors and city agencies.
The Department of Buildings says it will turn the gas back on as soon as repairs are complete, but Bruno and Welles are currently awaiting a fire inspection before a gas valve – replaced at a total cost of $4,500 for the part and its paperwork associated – can be reactivated. “I received the valve and handed this big piece of crap to the plumbers. I believe they were working on installing it in the basement today…or so I hope. They tell us that it will be $300.00 for the valve and the $4,200.00 is for paperwork, permits and inspection,” Welles said.
“At some point, I lost the thread between the plumber and the firefighters,” says Elyane Bruno. “The plumber is waiting for them to finish their work in the kitchen. Then they can turn the gas back on. But they need a permit from the city which also has to inspect it — I don’t know, I have to tell you I’m lost. They lost me.
“It’s a catch-22,” Welles said. “We can’t turn on the gas for this valve without the fire department, so we’re stuck in this weird place. We’re waiting for the fire department to arrive, then permits and inspectors to hook something up – nobody can really tell us in detail, you know? They’re just like, ‘Yeah, we have to do some paperwork,'” he said. Welles and Bruno have already spent $4,500 on the valve work alone, most of it on paperwork costs.
Bruno agreed: “What takes time is the paperwork.” She lamented the critical time and business revenue lost to the neighborhood favorite. “To make the plan, to submit it to the city, to get the permit – it’s already taken two months,” she said. “And now it’s something else with the fire extinguisher, and we might have to wait two months for the FDNY inspection. It never ends.”
New York City is notorious for its red tape. In 2016, the “Red Tape Commission: 60 Ways to Cut Red Tape and Help Small Businesses Grow” reported recommendations to speed up city processes after consulting with small businesses struggling with city bureaucracy. The executive summary of reports from 6 years ago highlighted these 5 points:
- General dissatisfaction with City agencies: When asked to rate city agencies on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being very dissatisfied, business owners gave most agencies a rating of 2. and administrative hearings, the Taxi and Limousine Commission and the Department of Urban Planning were cited as the least satisfactory to hire, while the Fire Department and the Department of Small Business Services received the highest ratings .
- Extremely slow permit and license approval process: Nearly 30% of small businesses surveyed (29.65%) said it took them six months or more to get all the approvals they needed from the City to open their doors, and 13.4% put more than a year.
- Privately hired “shippers” add costs but little value: Nearly 40% of small businesses surveyed (39.4%) said they found it necessary to hire a private “shipper” to navigate municipal bureaucracy, but more than half said spending the extra money would not was neither helpful nor effective.
- Lack of fairness, information and communication: Nearly half of all business owners surveyed (48.3%) said they did not feel they were treated fairly by city inspectors, and more than 57% said that agency inspectors failed to adequately communicate expectations and requirements.
- Frustration over city policies: When asked to identify their biggest frustration with city government, fines and inspections were cited as the most common complaint among respondents (20.28%), followed by agency response (18.4%) and high taxes and fees (17.4%).
Bruno and Welles keep an eye on the various levers and pulleys needed to navigate the pinball machine that is city government, and seek additional support from city council member Erik Bottcher to connect the pieces. “We need help – before it all turns into one big corporate machine,” Welles said. “A joint Zoom call would be great. Having all the powers in place in a virtual room to talk about it would speed things up. That’s what we hope. If we can facilitate that, that would be great.
The Chez Napoléon team, which had to forgo its 60th anniversary celebrations at the height of COVID-19, hopes to open as soon as possible, although Bruno acknowledges that “even if we reopen in two months, our summers are very slow”.
She celebrated her 75th birthday in April and isn’t used to being far from the restaurant, having started as a waitress under the original ownership of Chez Napoleon, then buying the restaurant with her mother, chef ‘Grandmere’ Marguerite Bruno in 1982. For now, she’s trying to keep busy while waiting for the next round of approvals. “I’m busy at home, taking care of the garden – it changes my mind,” she said.
Council member Bottcher had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.