The Bottom Line
How to Start a Restaurant, from an Expert in Design, Permitting, Licensing and Development
Eddie Navarette, also known as ‘Fast Eddie,’ is the Founder and Chief Consultant of FE Design and Consulting. Over the past 19 years, Navarette has helped restaurateurs navigate the complex landscape of permitting, licenses, design, engineering and development, all to ultimately “get the doors open on time.”
From building and health codes to permits, licenses and planning variances, Navarette has worked with more than 500 concepts that include renowned names such as Lemonade, Sprinkles Cupcakes, Providence, Pitfire Pizza, The Bellwether and Animal, among others. He took the time to share some tales from the restaurant design and development world, as well as deliver valuable advice for aspiring and current owners to take in.
What inspired you to go into restaurant design and development?
Kitchen design and navigating folks through the perils of restaurant permitting wasn’t something I wanted to do initially. It wasn’t what I went to school for or dreamed about, nor would I ever dream about even doing it now [laughs].
My initial goal was to get a job with the Power Rangers. I wanted to be a musician and have a day job in production. When that didn’t work out, I actually got my first job out in L.A. as a kitchen designer. In the process of learning kitchen design and inspecting everything from discount stores and gas stations to restaurants and nightclubs, I found out there were a lot of limitations [to launching a restaurant] governed by the regulatory bodies and the design team.
I wanted to know more, and started learning what the codes and processes [around restaurant development] were. I expanded my knowledge outside of kitchen design and started working with architects and engineers, getting into the intricacies of how kitchens and restaurants were built. I learned about the electrical systems and types of plugs needed, how to achieve desired temperatures in different areas, the list goes on. In that journey, I started to provide services from just kitchen design to architectural plans to alcohol licensing and planning applications. I led presentations to neighborhoods and did anything necessary to get the signoff for whatever application we were doing.
And what led you to start your own business around restaurant design and development?
I realized that there was a ton of opportunity to make a business out of knowing the answers to the questions a lot of industry professionals didn’t know. Restaurant development doesn’t have to be complicated. I thought that I could be that person to help people navigate through the process.
It was also being so emotionally connected to these folks that put everything on the line to start their businesses. These people who told me about how easy they thought it should be, but got delayed; their friends who gave them bad advice were no longer their friends. It was helping these people that told me, ‘this is something I want to do.’
Now, my company has about 17 employees. I get the same joy leading my employees as I have leading the business owners I work with. There are so many challenges out there, but I guess that someone has to be there to help people navigate the journey to create the business they envisioned in the first place.
What got you the nickname Fast Eddie?
Everyone wants to claim that they were the one to give me the name Fast Eddie [laughs], but the most solid memory I have comes from my time as a musician, when I was first starting out in high school. One of the first venues I played at was a 21+ venue. I was 16 at the time, and when I went on stage I was totally terrified. I played through the entire set in about half the time it typically took us. My bandmates, who were all much older, looked back at me when we finished and said, ‘Oh my god, Fast Eddie.”
On a related note, that band was originally called Dogstar, but we were forced to change our name because Keanu Reeves took it from us. It was a ‘growing up in L.A.’ kind of experience [laughs].
But now, everyone in the business just knows me as ‘Fast Eddie.’ It’s become a big part of my brand, to the point when people hear the name ‘Fast Eddie,’ they know someone who’s worked with me and the conversation instantly turns to one of trust and friendship.
How did you land your first client? How do you get new clients?
I worked for a kitchen designer for three years before going off on my own. It was in that period where I met a lot of customers. They trusted me with the knowledge I had gained at that point, and started asking me to help them with a few issues.
I started working with clients before I even left [the kitchen design job], building up my reputation as ‘the guy’ to help people out. It started with little projects like awning permits. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into but I knew I was getting the job done. I knew a lot of professionals in the industry that would help me along the way.
My father was a used car salesman. I learned a lot from him, about how to close a deal and get what you needed. It helps me a lot in doing what I do now, working with government bodies, contractors and architects. Being able to adapt and relate to different communication styles is critical to land new business. And as far as getting clients now, I do most of my business by just being out there, attending restaurant openings, dining out and supporting my current clients, being a part of the restaurant community.
At the end of the day, though, any professional in the industry would agree that it’s about dedication, being resourceful, and above all, communication.
Talk about some of your most recent projects and the challenges they’ve posed that other owners should learn from.
The playing field is always changing. Regulations are always getting more restrictive. It’s not getting any easier. Different governmental bodies and industry professionals all have a different way of interpreting code. This is especially hard for restaurant owners, who don’t really speak that language. It’s like walking into a mechanic’s shop without knowing anything about cars.
It comes down to doing your due diligence. Do your research, understand a realistic timeline and budget to get a project off the ground. Understanding these items gives you negotiating power with landlords, construction professionals and others.
There are all kinds of different governmental regulatory boogymen out there, and the due diligence is really going to help you. People make the mistake about talking to the city about how long a project is going to take. The people behind the counter don’t necessarily have that knowledge. Only someone who’s done it before will.
You’re going to need folks who know about applications, regulations and planning, otherwise you’re going to have a hard time. If you’re hiring an architect or engineer, make sure they have experienced building out restaurants before. They need to be familiar with the dynamics and regulations of that area.
You can never do enough due diligence.
Where do you see restaurant design trends going in the next 5 years? What types of layouts and concepts are going to pop up more often?
One of the biggest issues in restaurants is how to reduce labor and how to increase efficiencies to become more sustainable. The underlying change we should be looking to is making it so that restaurants aren’t spending so much.
For me, it’s about logistics and coming up with responsible designs that increase efficiency. Ways to save on utilities, designs that require fewer people on the floor. I really enjoy the design portion of my work. Laying out a flow for the business. Each little piece of square footage means so much. But in order to be a responsible designer, you have to be familiar with regulation and how you’re going to execute your design to ultimately save on these costs.
And you say you do advocacy work for restaurants?
Advocacy has been at the core of why I do what I do. It’s not just about getting through the process and not looking back…I can never do that. I see these issues and bottlenecks with restaurant regulations, and look at how we can modernize codes to get with the times.
Restaurant owners deal with a lot of outdates regulations that make opening a business unnecessarily hard, so we go to bat not just for them, but all business owners and entrepreneurs like them. We’ve been in the field long enough to know that it’s our responsibility to help shape the bigger picture.