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How Do You Find a Reputable...?


punkin712
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Hi all! I'm a new member to eGullet, but a longtime lurker. I'm planning to open a small bakeshop in NJ in the next few months (my first!) and was hoping to get some advice from my new eGullet friends.

For those of you who own foodservice businesses, how did you go about finding professional service providers such as accountants, architects, contractors, insurance, etc? I got a referral for an architect/design firm from a contractor (that I ended up not using) and have been quite disappointed. The whole experience has been very painful and, although the drawings are finished, I feel like it was a constant struggle. In addition, they repeatedly tried to charge me for things that weren't done properly or for things that should have been part of the process - for example, they tried to charge me $150 for a rough set of drawings that they printed out so we could review them and make any necessary changes prior to submitting final versions for contractor bids. Needless to say, there were ALOT of changes that needed to be made, not the least of which was the name of my business and my contact information! :angry:

In addition, the accountant I had lined up decided to sell his firm and retire. I got a referral for an accountant from the branch manager at our bank, but he seemed a little too "in your face" for my liking. At this point, I'm tempted to just go with him because I don't know where else to look. I know that isn't the right thing to do, but I'm starting to panic.

Is there a general pool of names and firms who provide services for food-related businesses? And, what is the best way to determine if it will be a good fit? I'm usually very analytical and tend to research everything as much as possible before making a decision, so this uncertainty is making me a little crazy.

Any advice or suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

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ha. i've been struggling with this over the past few months while opening up my shop, so much so that I've lost my desire to cook, but I am sure that desire will return as it gets closer to my opening date.

Referrals are a good way to start. I've been using craig's list to find smaller contractors; however you have to be really thorough with smaller businesses as they might not have proper licenses and such. You have to do your homework and research. There's usually a resource in your community to find out if any of the contractors have been in trouble or fined or such.

I usually try to call 3-6 places and then from that I'll weed it down to 3 to get bids from. This is really important because bids will vary greatly. I try to get bids from both big companies and mom&pop shops. Then I narrow it down to my first and second (backup) choice, because often my first choice might flake on me or suddenly become unavailable. Here's my criteria:

Price. I'm usually very price driven, but that's not necessarily the best guage of a good fit. If you get a bid that's say 5k less and you have to babysit the person all the time well then they're making YOU work. Your job is to manage the bakery, they are just helping you with parts you are not skilled in. The main reason you're hiring the job out is that you don't have time to do it yourself. So make sure your price will cover all your needs.

Do you like the person? I really trust my gut on this one. Do I like this person? Are they condescending to me when they give me the bid? Are they being fair and really listening to MY needs, for example, do they understand that I want the job done the quickest way, which may not be the best way, but it will get the job done the way I want it to be done? Are they personable, respectful, and easy to work with. One thing I hate is when people call me on the way to my job and ask where to park or how to get there. That to me is saying they don't know how to think for themselves, or be resourceful with the internet and such.

Do they do what they say they are going to do? Keeping promises is a good indication of their integrity. If they promise to give me a bid by wednesday, I expect a bid by wednesday (actually end of day Tuesday so I can review it first thing wednesday) Are they on time? Do they follow up with their bids? Do they return your calls before end of day?

Also, it's a good idea to go over the bid in very fine detail to make sure it includes everything you need. My plumber's bid was like 25k, way higher than other plumbers, and they didn't tell me that that wouldn't include them hauling out the concrete rubble. I was expected to hire ANOTHER contractor to do that. Bogus. At that point I was so mad I didn't even have the energy to fight with them, I just fired them.

Another thing, be very careful of contractors that ask for 50% down. I would recommend trying to avoid putting a down payment if at all possible. If anything, you could put a down payment for materials for like 25%. But think about it, it's not your job to help with their cash flow management, they are working for you, and so philosophically they should cover their overhead until the job is complete. It's THEIR business, not YOUR responsibility.

NO matter what, make sure that with whomever you hire you have an alternate in the wings. I had a very long struggle (not even over yet) with the city, and it's been very challenging trying to schedule my contractors with an uncertain buildout schedule. You'll almost certainly hire employees for your bakeshop, so any of the criteria for your contractors will apply to your hired help as well.

Best of luck!

Stephanie Crocker

Sugar Bakery + Cafe

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Hi Stephanie!

Thanks for responding. I've actually been following your shop's progress on your blog :rolleyes: - I guess that whole "misery loves company" thing really is true!

I have a contractor lined up. They have been in business for a loooong time and have done alot of commercial businesses (both food and non-food) in the area. They gave me a very fair price and have been very easy to work with so far. Of course, I reserve the right to change my mind once the work gets started.

They only asked for a 10% deposit and have provided me with a very detailed schedule for subsequent payments based on work completed. In talking to others who have worked with them, the general consensus is that they only charge for work completed and don't bill in advance like other contractors I spoke to. They have an entire crew of plumbers, electricians, etc. so I won't have to source them myself. And, I live 5 minutes away from where the shop will be located so I can visit the site on a very regular basis to make sure things are happening as they should.

I'm very detailed oriented and, for lack of a better explanation, I like things the way I like them. While I appreciate other people's ideas, I don't like it when "experts" try to force something that I don't like. That's part of my issue with the architect. I had a very thorough meeting with them in the beginning of the project, provided them a sample menu, my business plan, etc. to get them off on the right foot. What they came back with was so far from what I described, I ended up doing most of the design myself. And, now that we are getting closer to construction, I feel like I can't get them to focus. Since hiring them, I have found out some pretty icky stuff about some of the people who work there and just can't wait to be done with them. Fortunately, I withheld 10% of the contract fee until permits are issued so they still have some skin in the game.

Are you working with any signage companies? I want to install two signs on the facade of our building, one large "marquee" sign and one smaller projected sign over the front door. I met with a sign guy two weeks ago (a referral from the landlord) but I'm not sure if I'm going to use him. The meeting went fine and he seemed to get what I was looking for, but as we were wrapping up he said "I'll do a rough sketch and review it with the Zoning Official just to make sure he likes it before I send anything over to you." Hmmmm...okay...shouldn't the client get the first look? Our town is notoriously strict for things like signage, so I can appreciate that he wanted to avoid any zoning issues, but he's done work here before and should know what will fly and what won't. I have a feeling he and the Zoning Official will design the sign the way they want it and just expect me to approve it (that just happened with another tenant in this center). Not gonna happen! So, I definitely need a plan B for signage.

I've been working on getting this business open for about 2 years - from initial planning to now - and while I'm excited to get started, I don't want to make stupid decisions for the sake of getting things done quickly. But, I also don't want to hold things up because of my own craziness.

I'd love to hear more about your shop and the progress you are making. How far in advance are you going to begin interviewing potential employees?

Thanks again for your post. Hope to hear from you again!

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we have awnings out front with signage consistent with the rest of the tenants, but I will be putting vinyl lettering on my glass to customize my space. I'm sort of glad I don't have the option to hang a sign...one less thing to worry about.

maybe you should do some of your own sketches and make your own trip to the zoning or dept of planning and development to see what's possible in your space; however if your city is anything like seattle, don't expect a straight answer!!! I think the projected sign can sometimes be sticky b/c it can fall on somebody's head so that's why you're running into red tape. it's like my flooring might have asbestos in it (of course I'm not sure...actually anything could have asbestos in it), but when i mention the word "asbestos" to anyone who would be working on my flooring, it's like i have the plague and they run for cover.

Edited by sugarseattle (log)

Stephanie Crocker

Sugar Bakery + Cafe

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maybe you should do some of your own sketches and make your own trip to the zoning or dept of planning and development to see what's possible in your space; however if your city is anything like seattle, don't expect a straight answer!!! \

That's exactly what's happening! I actually did a mock-up of the signs I wanted to install (both the facade sign and the projected sign) and reviewed them with the Zoning Official. He thought they were fine, but wouldn't give me a definitive answer about whether they would be approved because they weren't "official drawings from a sign company". ARGH! In fact, the Zoning guy encouraged me to do something a little more elaborate than what I was originally considering and was very excited when I mentioned the projected sign. All the while, of course, saying that he wasn't giving me a yay or nay on anything until he had something official to review.

It's so screwy.

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