Montgomery County Offering New Services to Aspiring Restaurateurs and Food Entrepreneurs

If you have plans to open a restaurant or dream of starting a food-related business, Montgomery County has two new resources for you.

First, the Department of Permitting Services has launched a program called “Recipes for Success” that is aimed at assisting aspiring restaurateurs to navigate the County’s permitting system.  To open a restaurant in Montgomery County, permits or inspections may be required from multiple county agencies, an this program is aimed at greater coordination and consultation between the restaurant owner and all the agencies at one time.  The County has also published a packet of materials and information to help guide the permitting process, touting the promise that “Montgomery County Welcomes Restaurant Businesses.”  For those that have found the County inhospitable to bars and restaurants in the past, this should be welcome news and, at a minimum, a step in the right direction.  (Perhaps even better would be if the County could do what New York State is trying on an experimental basis — to allow restaurant owners to submit a single “universal application” for all required permits.)

The other bit of welcome news is that the County is supporting a food industry incubator project similar to Union Kitchen and the forthcoming Mess Hall in Washington, DC.  The incubator project, which will be based at the Universities at Shady Grove, is intended to provide workspace, equipment, and training to culinary startups who may lack the necessary funding or experience.  From where we sit, anything that helps entrepreneurs — particularly food and drink entrepreneurs — get started is a great move by the County.

UPDATE: SHA Opts Not to Appeal Pre-Condemnation Ruling from Montgomery County

This is to provide an update on this story from earlier this year, where we successfully defended a property owner’s right to deny the State Highway Administration’s efforts to gain access to his property for environmental testing, and actually had the statute in question declared unconstitutional.  As matters turned out, the State Highway Administration did not appeal this ruling.  Some observers argued that SHA had no choice but to appeal, as this statute was essential to their condemnation powers.

Perhaps, however, SHA determined that it would rather lose the ability to gain access to this one piece of property than risk an unfavorable opinion from the appellate courts of Maryland, which would have effectively invalidated the statute for all prospective eminent domain actions throughout the state.

Relatedly, the California Supreme Court is reviewing a lower appeals court’s finding that California’s similar pre-condemnation exploration — or, as the Maryland court called it, “test drive” — statute was also unconstitutional.  The parties are currently in the process of submitting their briefs and oral argument likely will be held next year.  We certainly will be watching.

Can Montgomery County’s Liquor Control System Be Saved?

For the past year, the Montgomery County Department of Liquor Control’s dispensary system, which requires every keg, can, or bottle of alcohol sold within the county to be purchased from the County itself — either directly or indirectly — has been under fire.  The State Comptroller, Peter Franchot, a county native and the state’s chief regulator of alcohol, has even called for it to be abolished.

Earlier this year, the Department of Liquor Control itself commissioned a report from a Philadelphia consulting firm to determine what the DLC needed to do to modernize its operations and better serve the county’s consumers.  That 95-page report was released yesterday and it highlights multiple weaknesses in DLC operations, including an aging truck fleet, insufficient number of stores to meet the needs of either customers or retailers, high operating costs, and low profit margins.  The report also notes that the Chevy Chase location, which just happens to be a block or so from the border with DC, has been a colossal money pit — losing $278,000.00 in fiscal 2013.

The report includes recommendations to deal with this raft of challenges, but it also raises the question of whether the system is worth saving at all.

Sure to add to the pressure on DLC is that the Montgomery County Office of Legislative Oversight is due to release its own report on DLC in the coming months.  Until then, and as we embark on a new legislative session in January, the drumbeat of criticism against DLC is likely to continue and grow.