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Beloved French eatery Chez Napoleon is still unable to open, over 10 weeks after our first report and 21 weeks in — stymied by a never-ending saga of New York City maintenance paperwork and approvals.
The 62-year-old restaurant is one of the oldest French establishments in the city and has been run by Elyane Bruno and her son William Welles since 1982. It has been shuttered since December 9, when Con Edison representatives inspecting their newly installed Smart Meters determined an unusual smell and turned off gas services.
Inspectors could not find a gas leak but marked the line as too old and not up to code. Since then, the restaurateurs and their landlord have been fruitlessly battling through the red tape (a bugbear to small businesses tackled in 2016, but to no discernible effect). They forged ahead with the necessary replacements and repairs, but found themselves slowed by the snail’s pace of communication and approvals between contractors, inspectors, and city agencies.
The Department of Buildings say they will turn the gas back on as soon as repairs are completed, but Bruno and Welles are currently waiting on a fire inspection before a gas valve — replaced at a total cost of $4,500 for the part and its associated paperwork — can be reactivated. “I received the valve and handed this fist-sized piece of bamboozlement over to the plumbers. I believe they were working on installing it in the basement today…or at least I hope so. They tell us it will be $300.00 for the valve and the $4200.00 is for the paperwork, the permits, and the inspection,” said Welles.
“At some point, I lost track between the plumber and the fire department,” said Elyane Bruno. “The plumber is waiting for them to finish their work in the kitchen. Then they can put the gas back on. But they need a permit from the city who also needs to inspect it — I don’t know, I have to tell you that I’m lost. They lost me.”
“It’s a catch-22,” said Welles. “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 on the fire department to come in, and then for the permits and the inspectors to hook something up — nobody can really tell us in detail, you know? They’re just like, ‘Yeah, we need to do some paperwork,’” he said. Welles and Bruno have already spent $4,500 on the valve work alone, most of it in paperwork fees.
Bruno agreed: “What takes time is the paperwork.” She lamented the critical time and business revenue lost for the neighborhood favorite. “To make the plan, to submit it to the city, to get the permit — that took two months already,” she said. “And now it’s something else with the fire extinguisher, and we may need to wait two months for the FDNY inspection. It never ends.”
Bruno and Welles are monitoring the various levers and pulleys required to navigate the pinball machine that is city government, and looking for additional support from City Council Member Erik Bottcher to connect the pieces. “We need help — before it all turns into one big corporate machine,” said Welles. “A joint Zoom call would be great. Having all the powers that be in one virtual room to talk it over would fast track everything. That’s what we’re hoping for. If we can facilitate that, it would be great.”
New York City is renowned for its red tape. Back in 2016, the “Red Tape Commission: 60 Ways To Cut Red Tape And Help Small Businesses Grow” reported recommendations to speed up the city’s processes after consultation with small businesses fighting through the city bureaucracy. The reports’ executive summary 6 years ago highlighted these 5 points:
- Broad dissatisfaction with City agencies: When asked to grade City agencies on a scale of 1-5, with 1 being very unsatisfied, business owners gave most agencies a grade of 2. The Buildings Department, Office of administrative Trials and Hearings, the Taxi and Limousine Commission, and the Department of City Planning were cited as the least satisfying to engage, while the Fire Department and Department of Small Business Services got the highest marks.
- Painfully slow permit and license approval processes: Nearly 30% of small businesses surveyed (29.65%) said it took them six months or longer to get all the approvals they needed from the City to open for business, and 13.4% took more than a year.
- Privately hired “expeditors” add cost but little value: Nearly 40% of small businesses surveyed (39.4%) said they found it necessary to hire a private “expeditor” to navigate the City bureaucracy, but more than half said spending the extra money 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 like they had been treated fairly by city inspectors, and more than 57% said agency inspectors had failed to adequately communicate expectations and requirements.
- Frustration over City policies: Asked to identify their single greatest frustration with City government, fines and inspections were cited as the most common complaint among those surveyed (20.28%), followed by agency response times (18.4%) and high taxes and fees (17.4%).
The Chez Napoleon team, who had to give up their 60th anniversary year celebrations during the height of COVID-19, hope to open as soon as possible, though Bruno acknowledges “even if we reopen in two months, our summers are very slow.”
She celebrated her 75th birthday in April, and is not used to being away from the eatery, having started as a waitress under Chez Napoleon’s original ownership and then purchasing the restaurant with her mother, Chef ‘Grandmere’ Marguerite Bruno in 1982. For now, she’s trying to keep busy while waiting for the next set of approvals to come through. “I’m busy at the house, I take care of the garden — it takes my mind off this,” she said.
Said Erik Bottcher of Chez Napoleon’s ordeal: “The past two years have been hard enough on small businesses without government making things harder now. My office has been in regular contact with the owner of the building since February to ensure that government bureaucracy doesn’t delay the reopening of this beloved local restaurant. We’re also moving forward with organizing a meeting with everyone involved to make sure the path forward is as smooth as possible.”