When first-time restaurateur Jack Stewart set his sights on a vacant Telegraph Avenue storefront for his new cafe, the fact that the space needed a new gas meter and a larger gas line seemed like mere technicalities. After assuming the lease on the former cabinet shop, Stewart first contacted Pacific Gas & Electric in November 2007 to begin what he was told would be a ninety-day installation process. The actual time frame turned out to be three times as long — a delay that cost Stewart roughly $24,000 in wasted rent and tens of thousands more in lost revenues, threatening his business before it ever even opened.
Once PG&E gave Stewart an application number, he understandably focused on other things. With his twenty-plus years of experience cooking in upscale restaurants such as Rose Pistola and Aqua in San Francisco, he had conceptualized his joint as a contemporary but unpretentious breakfast-and-lunch spot. The menu would reflect the Southern and Southwestern dishes he ate growing up in Texas, as well as what he ate during his backpacking travels through Vietnam. It would be called Aunt Mary's Cafe after a relative who shared his passion for cooking.
It was Stewart's plumber who first tipped him off that things might not go as smoothly as planned. By January, "My plumber said, 'Um, did you ever contact PG&E because they take a really long time,'" Stewart recalled. "So he was already giving me a heads-up. He said, 'The first thing you need to do is call PG&E.'"
So Stewart contacted PG&E again. And again. And again. He was assigned one project manager, then another. An official arrived to survey the site. Questions were asked, forms were filled out, and repeated calls were made. Still, weeks passed.
By June, Stewart had long surpassed his target opening date of February 2008, and still no installations had been made. As the weeks mounted, anxiety and frustration set in. In addition to calling his PG&E project manager, he contacted a supervisor and regional director with the utility; the California Public Utilities Commission; the California Restaurant Association; and even his Oakland City councilwoman, Jane Brunner.
No one, it seemed, could help Stewart escape what turned out to be a nine-month bureaucratic gridlock with the utility. All the while, he continued to pay the $4,000-per-month rent on his non-functioning restaurant while failing to draw any income from his investment.
"I was getting real worried that I was just going to run out of money and never get to open my store," he said on a recent weekday morning at the cafe, which eventually opened in September after installations were made in late August. A lanky middle-age man with graying hair, Stewart was still fraught with residual anxiety from the experience. "I mean, this is everything. I emptied out my savings to do this; I had nothing. My house is up for mortgage."
Even now, Stewart is unclear about whether he could have done anything differently. During one conversation with PG&E, an official mentioned to him that PG&E was not required to supply new service within any time frame. It turns out that PG&E is not required to provide its customers with new pipelines or meter installations on any kind of timeframe. "There is no maximum time that I'm aware of," said PG&E spokesman Tamar Sarkissian.
And indeed, according to Christopher Chow of the California Public Utilities Commission, there is no regulatory limit restricting the maximum amount of time PG&E can take in fulfilling applications for new pipelines or gas meters. Assessing the terms and conditions of services specified in the PG&E Tariff Book, Chow noted, "None provide a maximum wait time for a new service or a new level of service."
This lack of standards raises questions for Stewart and other restaurant owners who have found themselves caught in this bureaucratic gridlock. "I was kind of shocked at this," Stewart recalled. "You mean there's no authority over them to require them to provide gas in any timely fashion?"
For restaurateur Rick Mitchell, the delay in installing a new gas meter for his latest restaurant venture, the Franklin Square Wine Bar in Oakland's Uptown district, lasted more than a year. "We called PG&E nine months before we opened, we got it in nine months after we opened," he said. "All together, it took about eighteen months from dissipation date to completion of project date to get a new meter in."
Fortunately, Mitchell devised a way to avoid delaying his wine bar's November 2007 opening. "There was another meter on the other side of the building. We worked out a deal with the landlord to run the gas over there and use another unit's gas meter," he said. "It was a quick fix with the long-term solution being we would pay to put in a new meter for this other unit."
When PG&E workers did arrive to his business, Mitchell assumed they had arrived to install a new meter. Instead, they came to remove the alternative meter he had been using. "Somebody called me and told me there were people — PG&E — digging around my gas meter," Mitchell recalled. "I came out, I was like, 'Hey, what's going on?' They were like, 'We got this work order.' And the work order was actually to remove our gas meter, the one that we were using." It was the exact opposite service of what Mitchell had applied for.
There's one major similarity in Mitchell and Stewart's accounts: In the middle of their dealings with PG&E, both business owners were told that their information had been lost, which resulted in further delays. When Stewart was assigned a new project manager, he was told that the application he had given to his previous project manager had not been saved, which meant that Stewart had to repeat the process again. In Mitchell's case, his project manager e-mailed him and other business developers to say that all data corresponding to their projects had been lost.
Mitchell and Stewart are under the impression that the problems with PG&E are due to general disorganization. "They're intensely disorganized," Mitchell said of the utility, while acknowledging that there nonetheless are effective employees within the company. "Most businesses latch onto that one person they know is good and keep their cell phone numbers."
Stewart said, "My impression is that they were grossly understaffed." He doesn't blame any specific PG&E employee for his setbacks. "For the most part, they were sympathetic — if ineffectual."
Told about the two restaurateurs' experience, Sarkissian of PG&E said, "We are disappointed that these customers did not get hooked up as quickly as we would have liked. But now new programs are in place, and customers can expect more timely connection service."
Among the new programs that Sarkissian touted is the utility's new customer service center at 877-743-7782. According to Sarkissian, this number, which was implemented in October 2007, should be the direct line people call for new services. "We aim to work with our customers and we ask them to call this new customer service center," says Sarkissian. "This is sort of a new thing we have out there that we encourage people to contact if they want to apply or if they have problems specific to these kinds of situations."
Yet Stewart said this was the exact number that he called when he originally applied for the installations in November 2007.
Mindy Spatt of TURN, The Utility Reform Network, offers an alternative solution for customers who find themselves in Stewart's situation: "The big suggestion I would say is, the sticky wheel gets the grease in this case. Consumers need to advocate for themselves with PG&E and with PUC. If they're dissatisfied with PG&E, to file a complaint with the PUC, and they can do so through our web site."
Another solution for prospective business owners is to confirm the level of gas service ahead of time. When Amin Soleimani picked out a storefront for O My Dawg, a gourmet hot-dog-and-fries joint that opened in August 2008, he was surprised to discover that the space was not hooked up to any gas pipeline. It had never occurred to him since his restaurant is located in Jack London Square, a busy business area.
"I had assumed the building had gas when I signed the lease," Soleimani says. "When I inquired with PG&E in terms of how much it will take and how much it will cost, it basically would be four to six months." In short, it was too much time and too much money on too short of notice.
The delay Soleimani was told to expect is drastically longer than PG&E's targeted wait times. "For new gas pipelines, we aim for about three to four months," says Sarkissian, "but we always have to take into consideration the complexity of the projects and of course the customer's goal as well." As for the targeted time for meters? "For commercial meters with services already extended to the facility, we strive to finish in two months if everything is ready to go."
Still, these times are only internally imposed time frames within PG&E, not governed by any outside organizations.
Instead of waiting around, Soleimani made the shrewd decision to run his kitchen entirely on electricity. However, most restaurants don't have this choice, since it's more difficult to maintain cooking temperatures using an electric kitchen. O My Dawg, however, primarily serves links and fries, so the alternative solution suited his limited menu. "I grill them on an electric grill, so I keep it the same constant temperature. It takes a little longer to heat up in the beginning, but it's finished sooner," Soleimani said.
In the future, he hopes to convert his kitchen to alternative energy sources. But in the meanwhile, he'll stick to dealing with PG&E for the electricity. As Soleimani noted, "PG&E has a monopoly. Who else are you going to get electricity from, right?"
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