The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

Mayor Announces Sweeping Reforms Of Restaurant Licensing System

By Anthony Todd in Food on Jun 13, 2012 8:20PM

We've been beset lately with stories of licensing woes, many of which we couldn't print because chefs and owners were too afraid to go on the record. Tales of complete (yet unopened) restaurants sitting empty because of backlogged permits, graft, insane costs and just about everything else you can think of that could stop a restaurant from doing business. Luckily, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel, as the Mayor's office issued a release announcing a serious set of licensing reforms that could make running food businesses in Chicago far easier.

Eventually, the City plans to expand these programs to include all businesses, but he's starting with restaurants. Restaurant permits and inspections are a serious barrier to doing business, as restaurants must be inspected by multiple departments and get permits signed by different offices, all of whom work on their own schedules and have their own priorities. The new plan will reduce the number of inspections and required permits by 50% and provide businesses with pre-inspection guides and consultations to make the process less adversarial. What a thought — using licensing to promote business (and make it safer) instead of impeding it!

We honestly had no idea how much of a mess it was to schedule inspections. From the Mayor's announcement:

"Today, the City forces businesses and building owners to waste time and money trying to navigate an antiquated, decentralized system for scheduling a permit inspection. Building permit inspections can only be scheduled through an online form, and there is no system for handling walk-ins or phone requests. The Department of Buildings has a dedicated team of dispatchers, whose full-time jobs are to review inspection requests, verify inspector availability, and manually send a confirmation email to each customer. Every day, inspection appointments are printed out at City Hall and hand-delivered to inspection supervisors located 18 blocks away. Inspection supervisors spend hours each morning manually reviewing and implementing these schedules, time that could be better spent overseeing and training inspectors and addressing customer questions and issues."

This will be replaced with an automated, centralized system that the city claims will pay for itself in less than 5 years through efficiency and savings.

There are still a lot of problems for Emanuel to address - liquor licenses are notoriously impossible and food trucks are still being ticketed. Given the size of the city bureaucracy, it will take a lot of vigilance from the top to make sure that individual inspectors aren't abusing their power or passing the buck from department to department. Still, it's good to see the Mayor putting this issue front and center, and admitting that the current system has flaws. As the release says in big, bold letters, the goal is to "Make City Hall a partner to new restaurants, not an obstacle." Amen to that.

The complete release is below.

Mayor Emanuel Announces New Reforms to Make Business Inspections Smarter, Simpler