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Indie restaurateurs deserve a chance

Atlanta's Byzantine licensing process is bad for small businesses

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In my March 2008 review of Dynamic Dish, I wrote, "It's going to be hard to resist seeing Dynamic Dish as a canary in the coal mine, on more than one level. Can Atlanta support a restaurant that is quirky, unique and hard to fit into any comfortable category?"

Last week, when chef David Sweeney cooked the restaurant's final meal, the answer came back: No. Atlanta was not able to support this restaurant, despite a near-religious fervor for its food and feel by the city's foodies.

Like any restaurant's closing, the story of Dynamic Dish is a complex one. No one factor can be blamed. Sweeney struggled with the cost of maintaining high quality in his product, insisting on using only organic produce. The one thing that may have saved him — a liquor license — became a costly fiasco, partly because Sweeney tried to navigate the complex process without a lawyer. He describes years of permitting issues, miscommunication between city departments, a total lack of compatibility between city and state regulations, and a system that requires so much time and money to navigate that a solo business operator could easily drown in the details.

Dynamic Dish's closing points to a generally hostile environment in Atlanta toward businesses that don't fit the norm of corporate, well-oiled operations with a ton of money behind them — in other words, businesses run by regular people.

In July of this year, Paul Luna wrote a column in this space about the time and money the licensing process had cost him and his downtown restaurant, Lunacy Black Market. In it he said, "The licensing process only favors one kind of restaurateur: big businesses with bottomless bank accounts."

There's no doubt that these restaurants are good for the economy. Dynamic Dish was a beacon for Edgewood Avenue, paving the way for a slew of new businesses to open along what was an almost deserted stretch of storefronts. These businesses employ Atlantans, increase the city's tax revenue, and add to our reputation as a dining destination.

When I arrived in Atlanta almost five years ago, I was discouraged by the lack of neighborhood restaurants and confused by the city's reverence for big, glitzy eateries that had a certain level of excitement but very little genuine personality. In the years since, the city has seen a positive change, with more neighborhood-oriented, chef-owned restaurants opening. Places like Dynamic Dish. Places like Shaun's, which closed recently when owner Shaun Doty realized that between the bad economy and a $5,000 liquor license reapplication fee for the new year, his Inman Park restaurant was no longer financially viable. How many places have to close before the city takes notice and does something to make the system easier to navigate? Are we headed backward, to a dining community made up entirely of big restaurant groups? Is the chef/owner a dying breed in Atlanta?

All of the business owners I've spoken to are resigned to the costs of liquor permitting. But the Byzantine process is crippling, and in some cases fatal. For the sake of Atlanta's neighborhoods and financial outlook, the system needs to become friendlier to small restaurants, lest we fall backward into a scene that has nothing to offer but big businesses in Buckhead.

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