Municipal Grants for Cafe Construction

Sadly the cliche “twice as long and twice as expensive as planned” seems pretty apt for most cafe build outs – unless you do most of the work literally by yourself, or you are an insanely tough, thick-skinned and detailed project manager.  Even then, to be frank, you’ll be badly sucker-punched from time to time, and it will still end up costing a fortune.

I’m lucky enough to have a cafe in a wealthy city that actively supports small, local businesses and that actually sets aside money to do so.  I suspect that many other cities have similar programs, and it might simply be a question of the scale of the check that they are capable of writing.  So hopefully some of the programs from which I benefitted might also have analogs in the areas in which you operate or plan to.  In any case, you’ll spend a lot of time with your local planning/zoning and development offices and they can point you in the right direction to find out about these programs – but the thing is, you’ll probably have to ask, and knowing what types of programs are out there helps.

I received two very generous grants from the City of Cambridge: a Storefront Improvement Program grant, and an ADA grant.  The SIP (or facade improvement) grant, paid almost 50% of the cost of my exterior renovation project.  The original facade of my building was pretty bad; the right half was a mismatched brick wall, and the entrance was in the center of the storefront.  The left half of the storefront was great, all glass, nice brick and detailing.

The sole customer entrance in the middle of the property was a huge issue for me because I felt it would create serious problems with customer flow.  The most efficient customer flow path for my shaped space (rectangular-ish) was entry on one side, a straight walk forward to the POS, and then a circular path to the food/beverage pick-up plane, condiments bar, trash and then the exit; to achieve this, I’d need to move the front door to the far side of my building.  I also wanted a space filled with natural light, so I wanted to replace the mismatched brick half of the front of the building with glass, and add back in original details to keep the entirety of the facade consistent.  If it sounds like a lot of work, it’s because it was – and hopefully you can appreciate the magnitude of the check the City wrote to support this project.  There were of course conditions, but these were terms with which I was more than happy to comply (for instance a properly graded entry with a handicapped access door.  An automatic door has been a blessing all-around, everyone loves it including staff carrying plates to customers seated outside, parents with strollers etc.  These doors are not only the right thing to do, they are just plain fantastic.)

In addition, the City of Cambridge has grants available for ADA work.  I had to install two ADA compliant bathrooms, but it was more efficient for me to deploy the grant to build an ADA compliant all-access bar (if I may be permitted, the bar is stunning.)  Somewhat amazingly, Cambridge helped guide me to the realization that the grant would go much further when used for the bar, as opposed to bathrooms (the usual approach).

One final word on these types of grants: municipalities have set budgets for business development projects, and when the funds are gone, they are gone for the entire year.  So accessing these grants is competitive, and possibly a race if they are first-come-first-serve.  So perhaps I’m shooting myself in the foot by discussing these programs (should I ever want to do this again some day!)  But the way I see it, every small storefront business is someone’s dream – but also a huge risk requiring ridiculous amounts of capital, planning, sweat and pig-headedness to actualize.  The odds are somewhat against us all of us, and every little bit helps, often enormously.


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