By Sabina Mollot
Earlier this year, Frank’s Trattoria, a pizzeria and restaurant across from Peter Cooper Village, went eight weeks without gas to cook with following a gas leak at a neighboring building. The roughly two months spent without gas was due to delays in getting inspections from Con Ed as well as getting all the necessary paperwork from Department of Buildings. The owners at the time told Town & Village they were trying to stay afloat by cooking what menu items they could using electric stoves they purchased. However, they still lost a lot of business since they couldn’t make pizza that way and because the portable stoves took longer to cook with, some customers would choose not to wait.
The owners told us they didn’t even know how much they lost, but it’s possible the amount was $140,000.
Apparently, this is the average loss to Manhattan businesses that had the same problem in recent years, who also had an average wait of 68 days for the gas to go back on. Those figures are the result of a study conducted by the office of state Senator Brad Hoylman, with owners of businesses being interviewed through a survey.
Hoylman conducted the study Cooking Without Gas: How Unresponsive Utility Companies Hurt a Vital Sector of NYC’s Small Businesses on the heels of releasing another report that probed the reasons for high rent blight in his district.
For Cooking Without Gas, he sent a survey to members of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, which represents restaurants, bars, clubs, lounges, and hotels in the city. Based on the answers, the report found:
- 82.1 percent of respondents experienced some form of delay in getting gas turned on, upgraded or adjusted.
- Though 68 days was the average wait time to get gas turned on, one delay was as long as a year. Most respondents said the process took over 30 days.
- 94 percent of respondents who had experienced a delay said it caused business interruption and 81 percent reported that it led to a cutting employee hours and/or layoffs.
Hoylman said another problem is that frequently business owners get left in the dark about when their gas will actually be turned on. This means they either have to invest in expensive alternatives like portable stoves and hot plates or not operate at all.
Those who responded to Hoylman’s survey included the owner of Chop Shop on West 24th Street, who, after months without gas, bought hot plates and electric burners while also switching to a mostly cold menu.
The owner of Moscow 57 on Delancey Street went seven months without gas after opening in 2014 before finally closing in November of the following year.
“If not for Con Ed, we’d be there for another 100 years,” the owner, Ellen Kaye, is quoted as saying in the report.
Bespoke Kitchen on Hudson Street met a similar fate. Not long after signing the lease, the restaurant owner Nicolas Bustamente learned that due to construction at the building, his space would be without gas for several months. He changed his menu and operated with electric equipment, but it was close to a year before the gas was restored. Then due a series of construction “mishaps” the gas was turned off again and again and again, each time forcing Bustamente to start the slow and, over time, pricey process of getting it restored. Getting only vague timelines about the utility work, Bustamente opted at one point just to close for three months, and then closed for good in June after falling behind on his rent. He described the experience as “a nightmare” and said he felt forced out.
To help prevent situations like those, Hoylman is sponsoring legislation that would create a “Bill of Rights” for utility customers that are small businesses. The bill, inspired by similar legislation for residential customers, would require including timeframes when addressing problems and require prompt investigations into customer complaints. Hoylman is also suggesting that utilities make internal reforms to improve service and communication. In particular, he recommended creating an office of a small business liaison to work with restaurants and other small businesses. The senator is also calling on the Public Service Commission to investigate utility service delays, including holding public hearings for stakeholders.
The study acknowledges that utilities are likely being more cautious in the wake of recent gas explosions, including the fatal one in the East Village in 2015. However, it goes on to argue, “These tragic explosions have occurred in the city for decades and we found no connection between safety precautions and the problems cited in this report.”
Asked about Hoylman’s study, a spokesperson for Con Ed, Joy Faber, said the procedures to get gas restored to buildings are there with good reason — safety, with the utility only being one of the players involved in all the bureaucracy.
“Procedures are in place for the safety of our customers, employees and the public’s safety,” Faber said in a written statement. “The process of gas turn-ons also involves private contractors (plumbers), and city or town inspections. Once we are notified that a location is safe for a gas turn on, and the site passes our integrity test, the company responds quickly to restore gas service.”
Still, Hoylman says the process is clearly in need of improvement.
“I hear about it a lot from small business owners and restaurant owners,” he said, “that they’re often stuck in the middle of the utility company and the DOB and the building owner and not knowing who to turn to, they reach out to the utility that often doesn’t have information for them. So time and again they’re forced to improvise and we’re seeing the consequences of that with delayed openings and layoffs and in some of the worst instances, closing. We have to do something because a lot of these small businesses are failing.”