License to Ladle
Man cannot live by bread alone, and the same might be said for a small retailer, even if that business happens to be a bakery. At least, that's what I'm told by the owners of Great Harvest Bread Company on Pine Street in Burlington. Sara Goodwin Brown and her husband, Ethan Brown, moved to Burlington from Missoula, Montana, in August 2002 and opened their bakery about a year later. Like any fledgling business, Great Harvest has had its share of ups and downs as it has carved out a niche for itself in the community. But the bakery has done well, selling specialty breads and other freshly baked goodies that can be sampled every day. If you haven't stopped in for a free wedge of cinnamon-swirl bread fresh out of the oven, you're missing out on one of Burlington's great hidden pleasures.
But February's Arctic weather can make it tough for small retailers. So to help pay the bills this year, the bakery began serving soup and grilled-cheese sandwiches for takeout during lunch. Until a few weeks ago, that is, when an inspector from the state Health Department informed them that a bakery license doesn't allow them to sell soups and sandwiches.
Like so many cases of bureaucratic hair-splitting, the switch from a butter knife to a soupspoon bumped the bakery into a new class of licenses. Not wanting to get busted for bisque, the Browns dutifully ceased and desisted their unauthorized ladling and made the requisite permit requests to Burlington's Planning and Zoning Board. "They were super," recalls Goodwin Brown. "We've applied for many permits through them and they've been very helpful and know who we are and are always eager to help businesses out."
But the same couldn't be said, Goodwin Brown reports, for the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, which also had to issue the "restaurant" a permit for water and wastewater. "I trot out to the Agency of Natural Resources expecting them to be pretty helpful like everyone else, and they seem so baffled by it," Goodwin Brown says. "You'd think this has never happened before."
Apparently, ANR took over jurisdiction of water and wastewater permitting in 1970 and, as a result, many of Burling-ton's commercial buildings built before that year -- including the building where Great Harvest is located -- were never issued a wastewater permit. That seemed odd to the Browns, considering that their building had housed a large maple-syrup plant from 1917 until 1975, followed by a Laundromat in the 1980s. Both businesses generated considerably more wastewater than does the bakery, which doesn't even have a dishwasher on the premises.
Still, such details have a way of slipping through the cracks, and so Goodwin Brown got an application and began filling it out. "It's the same application as somebody would fill out who was subdividing farmland and putting in a bunch of homes and septic tanks," she says. "Three-quarters of it are not applicable to us."
Recognizing that she was in for a paper chase, Goodwin Brown asked if there was a speedier solution. ANR told her that it could issue a wastewater permit as long as the building's landlord provided them with a letter attesting to all the other businesses that had occupied that space since 1970, as well as how many employees had worked at each one.
In addition, Goodwin Brown needed to get a letter from the City of Burlington estimating the water usage at that address in 1970 as well as water-meter readings from that year. She also needed to provide a site plan, which, luckily, she had on hand. Otherwise, the Browns would have had to shell out even more money for the services of an architect and an engineer. All this in order to serve a few cups of chicken-noodle soup to go.
"It's nobody's fault. It's a vestigial organ of bureaucracy left over from the 1970s," says Richard Donnelly at Burlington's Community and Economic Development Office. "When you look at it from a bird's-eye view, it makes sense that someone should determine whether or not the sewer capacity can handle the number of customers they may be getting. The problem as I see it is that the form is very arcane and really does bear some updating. For small businesses, it's a very arduous task."
The point here isn't to bust on the folks at Natural Resources. Like most state agencies, ANR is woefully short-staffed and under-funded for the work they're charged to do. And, as an ANR spokeswoman points out, each regional office has a permit specialist to help business owners figure out which forms are required and how they need to be filled out.
Still, if Vermont's hottest buzzword is "business-friendly," a request to serve soup with bread shouldn't trigger an application process comparable to proposing a new big-box store. And small-business owners already put in enough hours without having to track down meter readings from the Watergate era. Because for entrepreneurs like the Browns, that's time they can't spend making bread.