The authors would like to thank the entrepreneurs who took time out of their busy lives to invite us to their businesses and tell us about their experiences starting and running a business in their city. They include: Dennis Ballen, Marcus Bullock, Debbie Carlson, James Dupree, Ana Galindo, Lucio González, Sara Hopkins, Yohance Lacour, Christina Moffatt, Luis Murua, Topher Patch, Jesse Rice, Paige Roth, Beth Rovazzini, Tameka Stigers, Sinnidra Taylor, Tim Tobitsch, Emily Ward, and Joey Ward.
Dennis Ballen is the founder and “Head Bagel” at Blazing Bagels. Originally started in the neighboring city of Redmond in 2002, Dennis’ bagel shops can be found throughout the Seattle area and claim to have the best bagels west of New York City. Blazing Bagels now employs over 130 people and makes 30,000 bagels a day at the Redmond store and facility. Having opened several Blazing Bagel locations over the years, Dennis is no stranger to cumbersome permitting processes and quirky agencies. His experiences heading downtown to the permitting office were frustrating, where rules about appointments and office hours changed constantly. “You can’t go on a Tuesday, and you can’t go on Thursday, and you have to go before nine o’clock on the opposite days,” says Dennis. “You can’t stand in line. You must have an appointment. It changes all the time.” Dennis had to take time out of his day to head all the way downtown when he could be spending that time running his business. His frustration could easily be remedied by a straightforward process, more accommodating hours, and allowing walk-in appointments. Dennis also experienced frustration with city inspectors. “We had to change our circuit box because it was around 40 years old and needed to be replaced. It took four people from the City of Seattle to come out to not only inspect, but to stand around and watch, to look at it, to supervise. And each person that came in had different time schedules.” Situations like this could be avoided by streamlining the inspection process, which would save not only Dennis’ time, but also city inspectors’ time.
Marcus Bullock is a DMV native and founder of Flikshop, an app-based service that lets families easily send photos and short notes—a vital lifeline—to their incarcerated loved ones. After being released from prison in 2004, Marcus’s first endeavor was starting a painting and contracting company, which employed other returning citizens. He founded Flikshop in 2011 after experiencing the disconnect from family members firsthand, and then founded the Flikshop School of Business, which teaches incarcerated youth life skills and entrepreneurship principles. When it came to starting his business in D.C., Marcus “never thought the process would be so arduous” because of the many fees and unclear licensing structure. As someone who had to work hard to rebuild his life, he supports other returning citizens who want to do the same. By making the process simpler, other returning citizens like Marcus can rebuild their own lives by starting a business.
When Debbie Carlson started Faces Etc of MN, a multimedia makeup school in Minneapolis, her goal was to teach aspiring artists how to turn their passion for beauty into a sustainable career. At the time, makeup schools were few and far between, and going through expensive cosmetology training meant learning skills that were irrelevant to the makeup industry. It was a trend that Debbie intended to buck by opening Faces Etc of MN, despite the many difficulties she would face dealing with state government agencies. First, she was denied a license by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, which had never heard of a makeup school and told her it sounded like piano lessons. After pushing back and educating officials on her business model, she was issued a license that costs $1,350 annually and requires annual completion of a packet of paperwork and requirements that takes Debbie three months to address. On top of all that, in 2018 the Minnesota Board of Cosmetology began harassing practitioners in Debbie’s industry, assessing massive fines to makeup artists in an effort to force them to get licensed (which in turn required spending thousands of dollars on unnecessary cosmetology training). Debbie fought back, and with the help of the Institute for Justice, convinced legislators in 2020 to exempt makeup artistry from the Board’s onerous requirements. Her story illustrates how, even on top of local rules that entrepreneurs must navigate—like zoning, building permits, and business licensing—people like Debbie in many cases still must deal with state processes like occupational licensing that add additional regulatory burdens and complicate their desire to earn an honest living.
James Dupree is a world-renowned artist and long-time Philadelphian. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, he has showcased his art at his South Philadelphia gallery since 1982. But in 2012, the city tried to use eminent domain to seize his studio to give the land to a private developer. Fortunately, James was able to generate enormous support from his community and fans, and the city backed down—but he continued to face uphill battles with his business. James wanted to find a second building where he could work and live in the same place, which would allow him to continue to make art with relative ease. City regulations, however, only allow this arrangement in a few neighborhoods throughout the city. “The city has changed zoning in a handful of neighborhoods over the years to allow commercial and residential to be on the same property, but there are so few of these that property values have gone up a lot,” said James. That makes finding a new space for James’ gallery and home quite difficult. Roadblocks like this eventually led James to move outside of Philadelphia, to a location where he will be able to have his next gallery, studio, and home on the same property.
Ana Galindo has been vending on Chicago streets for 15 years, selling traditional Mexican treats like tamales, elotes, and aguas frescas—treats she learned to prepare alongside her mother while growing up in Mexico. Street vending, Ana notes, is a way not just to flexibly provide for herself and her four kids, but also a way for her and her customers to feel connected to their cultural roots. But Ana’s journey has not always been easy, especially when obtaining permission to vend from city officials. In Chicago, street vendors that sell from carts like Ana’s are required to prepare their products in a restaurant or commercial kitchen, a requirement that is stifling for many vendors, who, especially during the pandemic, have struggled to afford steep rents for kitchen space. On top of those steep rents, the multiple licenses required to make food and vend used to cost street vendors $800—until recently, when officials listened to vendors’ concerns and agreed to lower the fee to $100 (a needed change that should serve as a model to other cities). Meanwhile, rules for cart specifications and the kinds of food vendors can sell are not only complicated and often poorly communicated, but also keep vendors from being able to fully capitalize on meeting customers’ demands. As an example, Ana recalls going to City Hall with all the documentation needed to get her license, only to be told that the instructions she had been given before were faulty—and that she would not be able to obtain a license based on the products she planned to sell. Ana also recounts being told she needed to serve toppings in individual containers, contrary to her customers’ preferences. Before she obtained her license, officials even went so far as to penalize her for vending by assessing multiple tickets and pouring bleach on her products to prevent further sales, an experience Ana found devastating. All in all, Ana believes the process for street vendors must be simpler so that more people like her can get licensed to vend legally instead of having to operate in the shadows.
new york city, new york
Lucio González is an immigrant who years ago escaped violence in Mexico to pursue the American Dream and now lives and works in the Bronx. He learned how to work in a kitchen as a teenager, cooking tacos to support his family after the death of his father. When the pandemic hit in 2020 and Lucio lost his job in a New York restaurant, it made sense that he would return to the same trade: selling authentic tacos on neighborhood streets to provide for his family. It was a promising opportunity that came to a screeching halt one day when city officials showed up to shut him down. They assessed him three tickets—with fines totaling $2,050—for vending without the proper documentation. They gave him vague verbal instructions about how to resolve the tickets, and handed him papers, written solely in English, with threatening language and unclear next steps. Spanish is Lucio’s primary language, and he at times struggles to understand and express himself in English; as a result, he was left feeling confused as to how to proceed, now saddled with thousands of dollars in debt he could not afford to pay. Unfortunately, the problems Lucio experienced with the city are not unique: Cities like New York increasingly rely on fines and fees to generate revenue, punishing hard-working entrepreneurs like Lucio for making honest mistakes in a complex regulatory environment where rules and procedures are often poorly explained. If city officials did a better job of working with Lucio to help him get the licenses and permits he needs, he would be able to earn a living without fear of punitive enforcement. As Lucio himself explains, “No quiero deberle nada a nadie. Solo quiero luchar cada día, y hacer lo mejor posible para traer un plato de comida a la casa.” . . . “I don’t want to be in debt. I just want to work as hard as possible every day to put food on the table for my family.”
Returning citizens already face overwhelming challenges, both economic and social, when they reenter the workforce after serving their time in prison. But in many cities, those challenges can be exacerbated by rules that make it even more difficult for those with records or debt to start their dream job or business. Take Yohance Lacour. While in prison, Yohance picked up leathercraft—a skill he loved that gave him hope for what his future could look like. After his release, Yohance decided that he would go into business for himself, producing luxury shoes and leather goods that represent a style he had been developing since he was a boy growing up on the South Side of Chicago. But there was a problem, one that Yohance had not anticipated: While he was incarcerated, he had been assessed parking and towing fines related to a car that was in his name, but he never received notice of the fines because he was incarcerated. And because he technically owed money to the city of Chicago, officials there refused to issue him a business license under an obscure law—referred to in other jurisdictions as “clean hands”—that forces entrepreneurs to resolve even small amounts of debt to the city before starting a business. Yohance’s journey to small-business ownership was cut short. Even after resolving the fines, Yohance found understanding the city’s complex regulations for starting his business to be a difficult task: Officials failed to communicate requirements clearly, and there were no step-by-step guides designed for applicants who were just starting out. To support entrepreneurs like Yohance, cities should remove barriers to entry, such as “clean hands” laws, that place burdens on returning citizens and residents from disadvantaged communities. They should also ensure that resources on how to navigate red tape are available for those who may not be able to hire lawyers or expediters.
des moines, iowa
Christina Moffatt is the owner of Crème Cupcake + Dessert, a sleek bakery in Des Moines’ Ingersoll neighborhood that transforms into a cocktail-serving lounge in the evenings. By day, she crafts delicious baked goods that have earned her recognition by the likes of Food Network’s Cupcake Wars; by night, she assists fellow small business owners with growing their operations and surviving disruptions brought about by the pandemic. When asked about her experiences starting a business in Des Moines, Christina notes that the process is difficult. For people just starting out, even knowing what the requirements are is a challenge, as the city lacks true step-by-step guides for applicants. Since her business serves food and alcohol, Christina must seek approval from both the city and state. But due to the lack of information from the city, Christina did not even realize at first that there were city processes she had to complete. Once she got started, she found that meeting both city building-code requirements and state food-code rules was especially frustrating, as the two groups of officials often failed to work together and ensure that she correctly followed relevant codes. To get her liquor license, Christina then had to go before Des Moines’ city council to defend her business—a process she describes as intimidating, especially for those who do not speak English as their first language. On top of all that, she must pay $1,700 per year for the license. According to Christina, if the process to start up were streamlined, more businesses like hers would be able to open up and serve their communities.
new york city, new york
Luis Murua operates Nuts4Nuts, a food cart on the corner of 5th Avenue and 46th Street in New York City. Since 2006, Luis has manned this corner and sold warm, caramelized nuts to office workers and tourists. “It’s tough working a cart like this, but I love working for myself. I stopped working during the pandemic when New York City was a ghost town and worked in a warehouse for a bit. The work was good, but I missed being my own boss. When things started to open again, I was back out here working the cart.” Originally from Mexico, he took after his father by starting his own business and working for himself. But to do that as a vendor in New York City is incredibly difficult. New York City caps the number of mobile vending permits at 5,100 citywide. And while recently-passed legislation increased the number of available permits, relief for vendors like Luis is still out of reach. With the waitlist for permits over a decade long, Luis rented his permit from another vendor for a whopping $12,000 a year, or $1,000 a month. “It’s expensive. But I make it work. I’ve got rent to pay and have to support my family.” Fortunately for Luis, his monthly payments were reduced during the pandemic. But for other vendors, they are not as fortunate and continue to pay exorbitant prices for the right to operate their vending businesses. New York City could provide immediate relief to thousands of vendors by removing the caps completely, allowing vendors to obtain their own permits and provide in-demand goods to their communities while supporting themselves and their loved ones.
new orleans, louisiana
Topher Patch is the founder of Meyer’s Frozen Lemonade, a frozen treat cart found roaming neighborhoods and parks across New Orleans. His cart is a unique setup with a freezer, power source, sink, and water tank set up on a tricycle. After moving from Rhode Island to New Orleans in 2004 to attend college, Topher worked in banking for over a decade before he decided it was time for a change. In 2019, he started applying for permits for the business. And in 2020, he began selling homemade frozen lemonade made with Meyer lemons, which are sweeter than regular lemons, from a bicycle cart. Topher was excited to bring a traditional New England frozen treat to New Orleans. Doing that, however, was anything but easy. He sent in many documents to the city, only to have them lost. “And getting them on the phone is impossible. Unless you can get an appointment (which is nearly impossible due to the COVID-19 pandemic) it’s very difficult to talk to someone to have your questions answered.” Topher lost plenty of time in this back and forth.
To make matters worse, the Louisiana Department of Health has refused to approve his cart after two years of back and forth with Topher. Despite spending countless hours documenting the health and safety of his business, the department will still not issue him a health permit and will not give him clear directions on how to receive their approval. “They’ve never really seen a concept like this. Something that’s not an actual food truck. And they don’t even know what they really want from me. So it’s easier to say no,” said Topher. And without a health permit, Topher is hesitant to expand his business at risk of being shut down. “To start a business, it’s a lot of investment. And for me to invest, I want to have the assurance that my business is going to be approved, since the carts will be constructed to meet their requirements.”
Entrepreneurs often must get approvals from multiple levels of government before opening their doors to the public. For Jesse Rice—a banker-turned-brewery-owner—that meant waiting nine months for paperwork from the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau before even starting the state and local permitting process. Jesse is the owner of both Black Circle Brewery and a bar called Loom on the north side of Indianapolis. After completing the federal requirements, Jesse remembers having to go in person to agency headquarters to carry out all the steps for getting alcohol permits. Jesse says these agency offices do not seem to talk to one another or work together, so entrepreneurs end up having to drive back and forth between offices to obtain clearances. City processes, too, for things like sign permits and property tax clearance forms are archaic, causing extra bureaucracy and delays. At one point, Jesse was even cited by an inspector because officials had mistakenly put the same address on the paperwork for Black Circle Brewery and Loom, forcing him to pay a fine and an attorney to resolve the situation. Because applicants with outstanding citations cannot receive permit approval, the tens of thousands Jesse had invested in a new distilling operation were put on hold because a clerical error prevented him from obtaining a distilling permit. While anecdotal, these kinds of experiences lead to serious delays, and tend to result from confusing regulatory processes that are inefficient and prone to agency or applicant error. To support aspiring small business owners just starting out, Jesse believes city and state officials should work together to digitize all their paperwork and processes. That way, applicants will not have to make stressful in-person trips to complete requirements.
des moines, iowa
Imagine you have spent months preparing the commercial space that will house your dream business. You have invested tens of thousands of dollars and carefully followed city procedures for starting up in your town. But as you approach your long-awaited grand opening, you get a call from a city inspector who, on his way to performing the final inspection, informs you he has to cancel because a single form had not been submitted. For Paige Roth, a Des Moines entrepreneur who owns a chiropractic practice on the west side of town, it was a devastating experience—and one that happens all too often in cities where requirements are poorly explained or when officials do not communicate effectively with applicants for licenses and permits. Paige notes that in Des Moines, the time and cost associated with receiving approvals, especially for building permits, can be burdensome. Because the process is faster and cheaper in the suburbs, the city loses out on development that might have taken place had the process been easier. Everyone would win if the city were more proactive in making the experience of starting a small business smoother and more accessible: it would mean fewer headaches for job creators, and a more diverse crop of empowered entrepreneurs for Des Moines’ neighborhoods.
Located in the town of Speedway on the edge of Indianapolis, B&W Heating and Cooling has been in Beth Rovazzini’s family since the 1960s. Today, the company’s 30 employees serve customers in multiple jurisdictions, contracting on residential and commercial projects throughout the region. When asked about her experiences applying for permits and licenses to complete work in Indianapolis, Beth notes that one of the biggest challenges is knowing the right person to call—an acute barrier for those who are just starting out and have fewer connections within city government. Indianapolis recently transitioned to a new online portal for building permits, which streamlined the process for submitting paperwork. But for trades licenses, B&W must contend not only with duplicative licensure, as some trades require registration at both the state and local level, but also with slow and frustrating approvals from the city. Beth finds that due to inconsistent information from officials, the only way to resolve an issue is to go in person to city headquarters with a blank check. Meanwhile in neighboring Hendricks County, only general contractors need a local license, significantly reducing the red tape that B&W must navigate to serve customers. According to Beth, Indianapolis city officials should work to establish a more accessible and transparent process, ensuring that small businesses have the resources they need when navigating the rules for opening up shop.
st. louis, missouri
Tameka Stigers was born and raised in St. Louis. Since 2008, she has owned and operated Locs of Glory, a natural hair braiding shop and wellness center. Her business has grown from a small operation out of her home to a full-fledged salon providing services like hair braiding, massage therapy, facials, and more. In 2018, Tameka and the Institute for Justice teamed up to pass legislation that exempted hair braiders from Missouri’s cosmetology licensing law. The law had required them to attend cosmetology school (which can cost up to $30,000) to learn how to use chemicals and heat—practices braiders reject. With the exemption, braiders employed in Tameka’s shop and across Missouri can more easily start their careers without needing to acquire an expensive cosmetology license. But they still must navigate local red tape to open up shop. Many times, St. Louis city offices lost Tameka’s paperwork as applications must be submitted by paper. “This frustrates the heck out of you because they do so much by paper. You have to submit everything in person; if you mail it, you can’t trust that they won’t lose it.” Often, business owners can make payments online for these applications, but still must submit them in person. “A lack of cohesive online resources is definitely an impediment to being a successful business owner. I shouldn’t have to spend countless hours from my day to go downtown to submit forms when I should be running my salon and seeing clients.”
Tim Tobitsch is the owner of Franktuary, a food truck-turned-restaurant serving gourmet hot dogs and craft beer in the Lawrenceville neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Inspired by the poor quality of hot dogs at his college dining hall, Tim saw an opportunity to elevate the simple food to a unique and quality culinary experience. The first Franktuary brick-and-mortar location opened in downtown Pittsburgh in 2004. Because the building was in a historic district, there were no blueprints on file with the city. This created problems and delays out of Tim’s control, such as not being able to secure a permanent occupancy permit for six months after opening. Tim also had to install expensive signage to comply with the zoning regulations of the historic district. Eventually, Tim closed the location and moved Franktuary to the Lawrenceville neighborhood. Getting his food truck operation off the ground was an even tougher battle for Tim. Pittsburgh officials wanted to charge him an annual fee for having his logo on the side of his truck because it constituted a “billboard.” The city also said he could not get his food truck permit because his food truck was wider than four feet—an arbitrary rule that was not clearly listed anywhere in city documents or resources. “There were so many obstacles that I ended up giving up on getting permitted in Pittsburgh. I stick to places where I’m invited to avoid the hassle.”
In 2019, Joey and Emily Ward opened Southern Belle in Atlanta, a restaurant that serves farm-to-table cuisine in an historic building—with a second speakeasy restaurant, Georgia Boy, hidden inside. For Joey, a seasoned veteran of the restaurant industry, it was an opportunity to enjoy the creative freedom that running an independent restaurant provides. His wife, Emily, a practicing lawyer, handles the legal and regulatory side of the business, while her father, an MBA, contributes his business acumen. But despite their level of expertise, Joey and Emily found the process of starting up so complicated that they had to hire two teams of expediters—one to manage local permits, and the other to manage liquor approvals with the state. At the outset, Emily tried to research the permitting requirements for starting a restaurant on her own, but she quickly realized that it would be a full-time job. She notes that when she could not find an answer online, she would call agency officials, only to be told that she needed to talk to a lawyer. “It was so frustrating not knowing what to do other than to hire somebody to make things magically happen.” Joey adds that the single most difficult part of the process for him was not knowing what to do and exactly when and how to do it: City approvals alone range from historical-preservation and parking requirements, to abiding by fire codes and earning the support of neighborhood associations. For someone looking to start small, the level of uncertainty involved in applying for licenses and permits could prevent them from opening at all if they do not have the resources to pay thousands for paperwork and hire lawyers to shepherd them through the process. “If you have to hire expediters, that means the system is broken . . . you shouldn’t have to guess and then hope you guessed right.” To make things easier, city officials in Atlanta should create a true one-stop shop for starting a business—a single location with step-by-step guides for completing the steps needed to get to opening day.
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