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Get the neighbors on your side

Question:

I have a commercial space available for rent and have a restaurateur who would like to lease the space. The neighborhood association has been objecting every step of the way—noise, crowds, trash, alcohol, parking. How can I get them on my side?

– Real Estate Developer, Philadelphia, PA

Answer:

A relationship with a community group is an often-overlooked key for a new restaurant. While their power varies from toothless to vital, depending on the municipality, too many restaurateurs take an adversarial approach with the community where they are convinced they need to sneak their plans past them or fight aggressively and win.

One of the challenges for restaurateurs and reasons for this tension is that for some owners, the only time they attend a meeting or appear before a community board or neighborhood association is when they have a proposal for which they seek approval or endorsement. Owners and operators dedicate an increasing amount of time to community relations, and many restaurant groups have a dedicated employee specific to the task. Amelia Ekus, former director of community development at Epicurean Management in New York City, says that showing up only when you have business on the agenda is the wrong approach. “Attend all the meetings of the community board, even smaller task force meetings which tend to be less formal. Get to know people before and after meetings. Make a human-to-human connection. Get rid of the idea that it’s business versus community.” 

Ekus also recommends that before going to the neighborhood to ask for their blessing, you first ask how you can help them. Many community groups maintain a wish list or annual needs report that they furnish to elected officials and private foundations. See if there is a problem you can address by sponsoring a solution that may be as simple as taking interns from a vocational high school program, offering space for meetings or classes, or hosting an event. Along these lines, identify some influential community based organizations and see how you can help them as well.

In making your presentations to the board, come armed with details to show that your restaurant will be adding more than just tasty food to the neighborhood. Indicate how staff will be trained in responsible alcohol service; present a waste management program that includes best practices; have a plan to hire and train directly from the community.

Finally, Ekus reminds, “Community board members are primarily business owners or leaders of non-profits and their third or fourth commitment is to the community board. [Given their busy lives,] it is always easier for them to say no.” Given that challenge, remember that it is easier to say no to a stranger than to a neighbor, friend and colleague.

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