Amabilis Silva was having problems arranging for city inspections of her Castor Avenue restaurant. She was calling city offices and not getting any joy. She also was trying to arrange for recycling of the eatery’s cooking oil, and not having much luck with that either.
Then, she met Manuel Martin, who told her he was from the city and he had stopped by the Picanha Brazilian Grill to ask her if she needed any help. Martin also speaks Silva’s native language, Portuguese, which was a huge plus for her.
Martin, a business services manager for the city’s Office of Business Services, made some calls. The inspectors showed up. Martin also helped Silva find someone to recycle Picanha’s used oil.
Sometimes, business people who are immigrants and don’t speak English well or just feel more comfortable speaking their native languages are discouraged or feel intimidated dealing the with city.
“She saw me as a middleman,” Martin said of Silva. “I became her friend in city government.”
Her dealings with the city moved more easily and quickly after Martin got involved, Silva said.
Which is, more or less, the point of what Martin and everybody else who works at the Office of Business Services does, or tries to do, said the agency’s director Kevin Dow.
PRESCRIPTION FOR RELIEF
The office’s very existence sort of bows to the reality that dealing with the city’s regulations and agencies can be a royal pain, especially if you’re just starting out and don’t know a thing about what you need to do to operate legally.
But, untangling red tape and helping business people navigate city government isn’t the office’s only goal. The ultimate agenda, Dow said, is to create jobs in Philadelphia. Helping establish businesses is a way to increase employment.
Martin and Dow said what they do is analogous to a concierge service at a good hotel.
They want to create an environment that helps businesses locate and operate in the city. To do that, they’ll aid business people in finding locations, with financing and with advice based on their knowledge of what is likely to do well and where.
“We won’t tell you where to locate,” Martin said. “You come to us with a list of properties where you want to locate.”
Then, he said, he will be able to tell an entrepreneur where he or she will have no zoning code restrictions or other issues that might either help or hinder a specific business.
Martin specializes in a few business corridors. He’s familiar with Cottman Avenue, Castor Avenue, Ninth Street and Washington Avenue and Bustleton Avenue. And, because he speaks Portuguese, he also tries to help businesses that have Portuguese owners.
The office lets business owners know about the various taxes, permits and licenses they’ll need to secure and what they’ll have to pay.
“We don’t do it for them,” Martin said, “but we tell them how.”
DO YOUR HOMEWORK
Anyone who has ever attended a neighborhood organization at which a business owner is pleading for support on a zoning issue and tells people he had no idea of the regulations he needed to observe, would get the idea that some entrepreneurs learn what they needed to do after they needed to do it.
“We are here to educate the unaware,” Dow said, “so they can be better equipped to take that unknown factor out of” operating a business.
Martin said he and his colleagues deal directly with local business and civic organizations to make sure they’ll have no issues with the new business.
“We deal directly with them,” Martin said. “That’s the intellectual capital we bring to the table.”
Money — enough of it to realistically get started — is another issue the office addresses, Dow said.
“We ask them about their financing,” Martin said, “and walk them through the process of obtaining capital.”
Again, the office doesn’t do the work of getting enough money to launch a business as it shows where the financing can be found from commercial, non-profit or government sources.
The office also will let entrepreneurs know about any incentives the city might provide, like job-creation tax credits, storefront-improvement grants and breaks on licenses and permit fees.
“This is a great time to locate in Philly,” Dow said.
Under new regulations, a business that pulls in less than $50,000 annually will see very low city taxes.
ARE YOU READY?
“People have big dreams,” Martin said. “Sometimes, their big dreams get ahead of abilities.”
That’s why entrepreneurs, especially those just starting out, can use some good advice.
The rotten economy, Dow said, has prompted some people to restart their careers and consider starting their own businesses.
“We’re seeing more and more of that the last few years,” Dow said.
Some of the people who use the office’s services, Martin and Dow said, have no money but they do have skill sets.
“We can direct them to technical assistance, business planning, accounting, business modeling,” Martin said.
They stress preparation, Martin said.
And if the people with the big dreams haven’t prepared, they’re told that.
“The real deal is that they’re not ready,” Dow said. “We have that conversation. … We tell them what to do to get ready … We show the direction.”
And there are other considerations, Dow said. Should an entrepreneur who wants to locate in Philadelphia start a business from scratch, buy an existing business or buy a franchise?
Buying a business has fewer risks, Dow said.
“It’s proven successful already,” he said. “It’s already been operating so the risk of failure is lower.”
If the office knows of an opportunity, that will be passed on to the entrepreneur.
“We won’t do it for you, but we’ll tell you what you might do,” he said.
The office also recommends networking by becoming part of business associations — neighborhood based or ethnically based — or contacting small business development centers at Temple and Drexel universities or the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.
The Office of Business Services is part of the city’s Commerce Department and has been in operation about three years, Dow said.
There are 13 employees in the office and they’ve consulted with about 5,000 business people a year, Dow said.
The real challenge is getting information about the office’s services to the city’s business community, Dow said.
To do that, the office has a Web site and also uses social media. Some old-fashioned door-to-door work is employed, too.
For example, Martin was simply going around to local businesses to see if anyone needed any help when he met Silva in the fall. ••
The office, on the 12th floor of 1515 Arch St., is open during regular business hours. The phone number is 215-683-2100. The Web site is www.phila.gov/business
Picanha Brazilian Grill
6501 Castor Ave.
Inside tip: Picanha is a Portuguese word that means “top sirloin,” according to owner Amabilis Silva.