Small Business First: A New City Program Aims to Help Independent Restaurants Thrive

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As any restaurant owner can tell you, the innumerable challenges of operating a small business in NYC are practically prohibitive; a tangle of red tape and endless permits prior to opening, and the looming, omnipresent threat of inspections and hefty fines afterwards. And while the inscrutable demands of agencies like the DOH continue to place undue burden on independent establishments, Mayor de Blasio recently announced a Small Business First initiative—designed to improve the city’s regulatory environment by working directly with small businesses (programs include financing, legal review of contracts and leases, assistance navigating government requirements, and minority/women-owned business enterprise certification), and focusing on cross-agency collaboration, in order to simplify rules and compliance processes.

We spoke to Meredith Weber, Director of Communications for Small Business First, about the program’s 30-odd initiatives, as well as how businesses—both new and established—really stand to benefit.

Talk to me about some of the major challenges of starting, operating, and growing a small business in NYC. 

The way that this whole thing started was that we spent time going out to communities, and hearing from stakeholders and advocates and small business owners and elected officials and BIDS, to find out what small business owners needed the most, as well as some of the biggest challenges they faced when it came to starting a growing their businesses; especially related to the regulatory environment of the city. And what we kept hearing over and over again was that they needed more information, clearer information, and easier access to that information, along with one place where they could find out everything they needed to know about rules and regulations, and someone to adjudicate whatever fines and violations they received. Another one of our goals is to transform the environment of regulation in NYC, making it one built on education, as opposed to punishment and fines.

So how are you actively assisting restaurants during their pre-opening processes and inspections?

We also have a business acceleration team. When you’re opening a business in NYC, there are so many different licenses and permits and processes you need to go through and be aware of, and so we have client managers that provide one-on-one-assistance, who will walk you through everything you need to know in order to navigate the city’s regulatory environment. So when new restaurants are readying to open, one of our small business compliance advisors will come in prior to their official inspection to essentially stage a mock inspection. That gives business owners a chance to fix whatever needs to be fixed, before they face any fines or violations or further hold-ups.

And how do restaurants and other small businesses connect with SBF in the first place? 

We have a marketing campaign and an online presence. We’re also doing roundtable conversations in neighborhoods to get the word out both directly to businesses, as well as community organizations, which is really helpful when you’re working with non-English speaking businesses owners. It’s very important to us that all of our key materials are translated, and that we develop relationships with trusted community partners, that can act as middleman between non-English speaking business owners and us.

Do small businesses need to pay for your services?

Everything we offer is totally free. That being said, this is a really great resource, but it’s only as great as the businesses that use it.

Currently, you’ve got thirty initiatives in place. Can you touch on a few of your key programs?

Our primary mission is a website where business owners can create an account. And then based on that account, they’ll get personalized information on permits and applications or anything else that relates specifically to them, so they can keep track of everything they have going on with the city, including violations, all in one place. Right now, business owners need to juggle correspondences with a variety of different agencies. In addition, we’ll be opening up a physical center, so if online isn’t your thing, you can go in and speak with our client managers and get all the information you need. Another big initiative was those small business client advisors, who provide pre-inspection consultations. And a few of our initiatives have to do with helping non-English speakers, such as training our inspectors to be able to use interpretation services, so they can interact with small business owners, and provide translated materials.

When did SBF begin rolling out programs?

The mayor announced our comprehensive action plan around two weeks ago, and services will start rolling out in about 6 months. Some of the first initiatives that you’ll start seeing, until our online portal is ready, is that every agency website will have an easy spot where businesses can find the information they need related to the regulatory environment. Some of the language guides will be coming out with simpler language to explain the rules and regulations. That will happen soonest. But it can take up to two years for the online portal to be up and functional; that’s the longest term.

Its obvious how new businesses can benefit from SBF, but how are you assisting established businesses as well?

All businesses have to go through inspections or deal with the city or pay fines or manage violations, so this helps any business that has to interact with the government. Most business owners want to be in compliance; they just don’t know how. So our job is to help them navigate the system.

Obviously you’re not a regulatory agency, but does Small Business First have any ability to affect real policy change, through its programs and initiatives?

We’re really just here to help. But while we, along with the Mayor, are driving our programs, they’re also a collaboration between 15 city agencies. So we’re all working together to figure out how best to ease the regulatory burden on small businesses.

For more information, visit the Small Business First site.

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