This particular blog page, “How to Start a Bar” is now ending. As of today, April 11, 2016, we have finally received our full bar license. It has taken quite a bit of time but it is finally completed. The next blog on this website will be “How to Run a Bar.”
Suppose you were retired and you were living in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico for about 6 years. Then suppose that you were tired of your jobs of sitting at a computer and running several websites of your own and designing websites for other people.
What would be the most illogical alternative?
One I can think of is to open a bar/restaurant.
This is a chronicle of the process we went through to do this. To begin with, Mordidas is small. It has only 7 tables and it is capable of being run by one person, although the reviews, in that case, would probably read something like, “Good food, great drinks, great prices, pleasant atmosphere but the cook/bartender/waiter had a bad attitude and was very slow.”
I told Sarah, my partner, that I wanted to buy some wooden tables like they have in the cantinas you see on the back roads around town. This was an innocent and delicate enough of a feeler, I thought, since she had told me when we moved down here 6 years ago that the only thing she definitely would not go for was opening a restaurant.
I’m not sure when or where the idea solidified but I came up with a name, Mordidas | Bar Raro, in late May, 2012, and I immediately built a website for it. Sarah says that the idea coalesced when we went up to Toronto and back to Pennsylvania on separate trips in early May.
I immediately spent two months looking for the “perfect” location. Lots of places are for rent here but there was only one that I really loved. That one was the penthouse suite on the Marsol Hotel down on Los Muertos Beach. This is quite a run-down hotel, probably the second or third built in Vallarta and it was run by a man who was fairly friendly but who also makes his living as a loan shark. I went back and forth with him on my proposal for weeks until he finally nixed it because I did not offer enough for the place. That was a reasonable response from him and a fortuitous one for me since it eventually led me to a much smaller scale project with no rent involved (because it is in a building that I own). Imagine having a loan shark as a landlord (no offense, Jorge).
I have a 3 story building in a back colonia, Buenos Aires, on the old road from Vallarta to Guadalajara. I use the top and bottom floors for a garden and living spaces and I am constructing Mordidas on the second floor because it has a nice balcony and was originally set up better for a restaurant than the other floors (it has new plumbing and electrical wiring). It was designed to be our main living area.
Even though the construction on the location was not even near completed we began doing test marketing with our menu by holding inexpensive theme nights (see the events listings here). My concept was to have different specials each night and the foods that I like best are mariscos and BBQ. I am a firm believer is selling what you like, not what you think others like and I am heavily criticized for this attitude by those here who think that their way of standard business practice applies to everyone. About this time those who do not like me here in Vallarta began quite a concentrated attack on me and my ideas. I won’t go much into it but since I also run a public forum here, I have made enemies by exposing some local sleazeballs and cons, the type you run into in any tourist town. I am also not an American Patriot (duh… why would I move to another country if I were?). I’m an “expatriot.”
These attacks, of course, increased my resolve and I hired an expediter to assist with navigating the bureaucracy here. He really seemed to know where to go to get things done. Unfortunately, he did not seem to know “when” as we finished most of the paperwork right as the newly elected city government came into office. We had to start over because the new mayor fired almost everyone who knew anything in the old government. The city government changes here every 3 years.
One of the Catch-22 problems we encountered was Sarah changing her regular FM3 to a working FM3. To do this you need an RFC number (tax number) but to get an RFC number you need to have a working FM3. This took 6 visits to immigration to resolve. Finally, on the last visit an officer came out from the back offices and just said, “OK” and issued the working FM3. I guess they were tired of seeing the same face over and over again.
We encountered only one problem in the paperwork to this point. We needed a petition signed by our neighbors saying that they did not object to having a bar in the neighborhood. This was actually easy and the neighbors were very friendly about it. The problem occurred when we needed to get the signature of the colonia president attesting that the signatures were appropriate and valid. She kept putting us off and avoiding us. She did this for 2 weeks until one of our neighbors told us that she was telling people that she would not sign off on the petition because she “knew” that we were opening a whore house, not a bar. This was almost too bizarre to take seriously but it was reality so we went over her head to city hall and had her boss come here and make her sign the petition. This was not difficult to do because we obviously (at least to the boss from city hall) were not opening a whore house. Later we found out that this colonia president was the mother of the man (describing himself as “cartel”) who finagled our river-front concession away from us for a taco stand. Theoretically, each property on a river has first rights to a concession on the river bank. Somehow, he stole ours. Angela, the colonia president, was voted out in the next election.
At this time we also began major renovations on the building, turning a kitchen/living room/bedroom into a restaurant. We increased the size of the kitchen, added counter work space, tore down the front door and made it larger, built a cement bar, put in new doors and windows, converted our bathroom/shower into a mens/womens bathroom and added all sorts of refinements that are necessary here to be a public building. And we started buying equipment and fixtures necessary for the business. The place was a construction zone (noise, workers, dust, etc) for over a month.
Finally we finished most of the construction and were at the final steps in the bureaucracy. Our expediter said that he needed us to go with him to city hall to sign some stuff but he never contacted us about when. We waited a week and then went looking for him. He had disappeared. Finally someone suggested that we call his ex girlfriend and she said that he had been deported. Of all the problems I tried to anticipate, this was never on my list. My first response was to laugh. Then, of course, I cried.
Fortunately he had left instructions with his girl friend as he was being taken away on how to find our paperwork. She gave us what she could find but we were lost in the process so I hired another expediter to continue the effort.
We passed our inspection by the health department here (Ecologia).
Just as the new expediter started working on this project, city hall closed down for the holidays only this year it closed a week early and is opening next week, in mid January.
We have passed all inspections successfully and at our final step, approval by Urban Planning, our application is rejected. The claim is that our restaurant/bar is not appropriate for the neighborhood. We are told we need to meet with the head of Urban Planning to discuss this.
We had a new bar built inside the restaurant (I keep changing design ideas).
Setting up a meeting with the head of Urban Planning seems to be more difficult than we had anticipated. First he was sick, then busy and then it is Semana Santa when the government is closed for 2 weeks for the big spring holiday. During this period a new bar/restaurant, El Atorón (I think that this is translated as “The Traffic Jam”), has opened a block from our location on the same street. The owner of this bar must have more “pull” than we do. jaja
We had some more ironwork done inside the restaurant and we bought a new commercial stove and grill.
March 31, 2013
We have decided to have the first Vallarta Oyster Festival on March 31 while we were waiting to open. This would have been a party similar to our previous parties. 3 days before this was to happen the Health Department declared that all oyster sales in the Banderas Bay were to be halted due to “red Tide.” This is kind of funny, of course, in a “we’re getting tired of setbacks kind of way.” The Health Department then lifted the oyster ban for Bucerias (only) because of the annual Bucerias Oyster Festival. I guess that they have more pull than we do. jaja
This effort is turning into some kind of black comedy.
April 8, 2013
The Semana Santa holidays are now over and we have asked a friend with some influence in the government to speak on our behave to Urban Planning. He is beginning to work on this today (April 8).
Found a great new source for fresh oysters.
April 28, 2013
No word, yet, on our permits so we hosted the “1st Annual Vallarta Oyster Fest” on this Sunday. In my typical manner of believing that everything will go wrong (in this case that no one would show up), things went wrong but in the opposite direction to my anxieties. Too many people showed up and we ran out of oysters half way into the event. We had fun, disappointed quite a few wanna-be customers, satisfied some early bird customers and made some money. And reglamentos did not bust us for this “soft” opening. We had 3 large garbage bags full of oyster shells.
This week we had some more iron work done (decorative railings on our balcony) and we bought more tables, chairs and bar stools. We painted part of the inside and outside of the restaurant “Primavera” yellow. I love the color. It matches the flowers of the large primavera tree directly across the street.
May 3, 2013
We finally have all of our permits and buenas vistas in order and the whole mess is now given to the Vallarta equivalent of a city council for approval or rejection. 8 of the 15 members must vote for us to get our alcohol permit/restaurant license. We will know soon. Up until this point we have had to pay only one 3000 peso mordida to keep this process moving.
This is the third time we have had to do most of the requirements for this permit. The first time we made the mistake of doing it for the old city administration right before an election. The second time we did it while the new administration had no idea of how it wanted things done and now, the third time, we have had to complete the new set of requirements on the new forms for new bureaucrats. We’re getting pretty good at the process. lol
July 1, 2013
It was only wishful thinking that we had everything in order….
The bomberos (civil proteccion) came by last week and very anti-gringo inspector put a stop to our permit process. When we had started this application, we were given a sheet from the bomberos that listed about 20 things we needed to have installed to be safely open to the public. We did all of these things, gladly.
The inspector that came this week had 3 pages of things we needed to do to be “safe.” He was blind and did not see our smoke alarm, even tho we pointed it out to him (and he still marked it as a violation). He said that our fire extinguisher had to be 1.5 meters high instead of the 1 meter we had it at (the joke here is that the day after the inspection we went to a benefit dinner for the bomberos and it was held in a dining hall where the fire extinguishers were on the floor). Makes you wonder…
He found 8 things that were “violations.” Only one I would agree with, but I’m prejudiced.
I don’t know where we are now. The inspector was mad at us because he said that he had come by 7 times and we were not “open.” Duh. We don’t have a license yet…. And he left a note that he was here only once, the day before we called and he showed up for this inspection. I am not impressed with the bomberos here. Maybe we did not offer enough of a bribe? Actually we did not offer any bribe and that might have been the real reason.
July 3, 2013
We had started this project so innocently, over a year ago. We had decided to attempt to open a restaurant without offering any bribes of any sort. This worked and we moved along quite quickly while the PRI party was in power here but they were defeated in the last city elections and the new party presented many new problems. The whole playing field changed with this election and new rules were written and new expectations were put on the table.
We will keep on with this effort but the future looks almost hopeless. We’ve met with two overt bigoted reactions so far (the bombero inspector and our colonia president). Not surprising, of course, because there are bigots everywhere, but a tad disappointing. This is probably not disappointing but, rather, very frustrating. Generally, most of our interactions with the government have been straight forward. But the after taste of the experiences with the bigoted or incompetent bureaucrats overshadows the good experiences in the memory.
I guess we’ll wait and see what “tomorrow” brings.
July 4, 2013
Went to the bomberos’ main office today to see about signing up for the two safety classes that we were cited for not having attended. The woman in charge kind of smiled and said, “There are no classes. All you have to do is go to either UMA (the new government building) or to an office in Pitillal and pay 150 pesos for each class” (a translation, of course). Everyone we met at the bombero station was very friendly.
We are scheduled for a re-inspection next Monday. I hope the inspector has a very open mind or does not read this blog. lol
July 8, 2013
We were inspected by a second bombero today and passed without this “inspector” even looking directly at most of the “violations.” He took our word for the fixed items. His trained eye could see that we had spent the weekend correcting those violations. Maybe he saw the paint and calluses on my hands and the rings around my eyes. I had corrected the missing items on the very long list. He was a very nice guy. We now have all of the inspections completed that are necessary to get the license.
July 11, 2013
We head down to the bomberos office with high hopes. We pay the required fees in Pitillal and go back to the office and the secretary tells us to come back tomorrow for the final permit because the jefe is not there to sign it. She says to call first to make sure it is ready.
July 12, 2013
We call the bombero office to see if it is ok to pick up the permit and are told that the jefe will not sign it because he has added things to the inspection list and we need to do those things first. You have to remember that this list is 4-5 times larger than the list that we started out with under the previous administration. AND NOW they have added special requirements just for us.
I’m starting to get paranoid. I talk to a friend who gets business licenses for people all of the time and she says that we are being messed with, that the bomberos never require a buena vista (official clearance) from obras publicas (clearance from the public works office). That has nothing to do with the normal bombero inspection. She says that they never ask for an architect’s inspection of an already legally existing building (the building was completed about 5 years ago and was inspected at that time).
The following is an email I received from a person who has a business getting business licenses for people. I wrote her this: “…it is almost like someone is against us doing this. They keep adding shit to things that were supposedly already ok.”
“Someone IS doing that Rick. I have processed hundreds of business licenses and have never heard of:
- Bomberos asking about campana?
- A vobo from Obras Publicas. They are public works aka fixing streets, landslides, street lights etc. what???
- Architect to certify. What the fuck?
Maybe you’re in a weird area or something but it does seem totally weird to me.”
To add insult to injury, the inspector who this time rejected our permit said, at the end of the rejection, “If you need any assistance with any of these things we now require, please ask. We are here to serve.” lol
July 16, 2013
Well, today I found out what the head Bombero / Proteccion Civil inspector meant by “If you need any assistance….” He is asking for a BIG bribe.
So much for my support of the bomberos here in Vallarta. What an asshole.
I guess I will now find out what happens to someone who makes public information like this.
July 17, 2013
What a difference a night makes. I admit that I might have gone a tad overboard last night in my postings on facebook, VallartaScene and Gary’s Southside Forum but things have changed dramatically.
I woke up to phone call saying that the demand for mordida was non-existent and that all I needed was an architect’s report and that an architect would be over in an hour. He came, inspected the place and left. The only thing he thought might be a problem was the extra support I had installed for an overhang on the balcony. In the US this would have been considered a plus. He said that he it is considered a fault here in Mexico because no one ever does anything like that unless the overhang was falling down (which it wasn’t). Oh, well. lol One of those cultural differences I have to learn… I tend to overbuild. Custom here seems to build just enough.
Then I received a phone call from a friend saying that the head of the bomberos wanted to meet with me to discuss the mordida demand. Two hours later the jefe showed up with his assistants (all in full dress uniforms) and he basically wanted to know all of the details of this situation so that things could be cleaned up at the firehouse. We talked for about half an hour. He seems like a very honorable man.
Then I got another phone call saying that I would probably have the license by next week. I’ll not put too much weight on that call until something really happens because, god knows, I’ve been through this before.
July 18, 2013
A big mistake has been made.
The phone call that I had received saying that the bombero inspector wanted a bribe was wrong. No bribe was asked for. I feel like shit.
My friend Pedro, a local business man who has been helping with the permit process, had talked to the inspector and then he reported to another mutual friend who wants to be known only as “a Canadian,” the results of that talk for translation to me. Pedro had told him that the inspector “wanted a lot” and that we would wait him out to see “how much he really wanted.” My Canadian friend interpreted “wanted much” and “how much he really wanted” as being about money. It wasn’t, apparently. It was about “much work.” Our previous bad experiences (see the earlier posts in this blog) had colored our view of the government here and put negative expectations on any opposition.
I had gone on a rampage via the internet and slandered a very fine group of people here, the bomberos.
Now I have to live with this very unfortunate mistake.
August 1, 2013
We have resolved our differences with the Bomberos and they have given their approval. Now we are on to the next level of this effort. We had to write a letter to them apologizing for the misinterpretation that they were requesting a mordida, which, of course, apparently, they were not.
August 7, 2013
Had lunch with the involved parties last Wednesday and the best estimate of an opening date is mid-September. I would love to open on Independence day, Dia de la Independencia, here, September 16. Mark you calendars….
Changed the name of Mordidas to Café Mordida.
August 28, 2013
Sarah completed a 3-day safety, first aid and fire-fighting course presented by the Vallarta bomberos. This course is now a requirement for getting the bomberos to ok a bar.
September 2, 2013
Today our competed application was presented to the Vallarta city council. This is the final official step. We need 7 out of 12 votes in order to be granted our license.
October 23, 2013
Some good news, some bad news…
After sitting around for a while wondering why noting is happening with our license application, we asked our expeditor to lo0k into the situation. She arranged for one of the city regidors (city councilmen) to come over to Mordidas to explain to us what is happening.
He came over today and explained that no new liquor licenses are being issued by the city and that, in fact, they are trying to cancel out many that were granted in the last days of the previous administration. There is, apparently, a feeling in this government against the overabundance of alcohol and its use and sale. He said he would look into getting us a provisional license and would let us know next Monday if that is possible.
If what he says is true, this extreme delay is not some anti-gringo expression as it is applicable to everyone. He also laughed at our bar name, Mordidas, and thought it was funny. We have been told by many that it is the name that is our hangup. From his response, I don’t think so.
Today we received notification that our bar permit has been granted and that we can open immediately. We will not have the paperwork until Monday so reglamentos has been notified not to hassle us.
This has been a long, hard road. whoooopie!!!
November 25, 2013
Well, the permit never materialized but we were still informed that we could operate without interference.
A new requirement was added onto the permit process requiring us to block off some doors.
December 17, 2013
We now have our “provisional” alcohol permit in our hands. This is a temporary permit that needs to be renewed every month. Traditionally it is issued to businesses that have completed all the requirements for a license while the city council works on a decision. It costs about 1200 pesos a month.
Almost a month ago, on November 22, 2013, we were told that our bar/restaurant license would be granted the following Monday. It wasn’t but we were given a free pass (kind of like in Monopoly) with reglamento, the business police, so that we could open.
Yesterday, December 17, on the last full moon of the year, we became finally completely legal, at least with a provisional license. It has been a long struggle, if you can call two old people like Sarah and I stumbling around the bureaucracy here and relying almost totally upon the help of friends as a “struggle.” Mostly it was a frustrating “wait.”
We filled out more forms than you can imagine and spanned two city administrations in this quest.
I want to thank more than I know how the people who helped us: Pedro Pulido of SEPEPSA, Jae Palscé of NU, Dean Regehr, a friend, and Chris Lawson, gone but certainly not forgotten.
The moral support we received from friends on the VallartaScene Forum, on Facebook and in the ‘hood kept us from going totally insane although many might argue that even by just beginning this effort in the first place, we were already insane.
From what I understand, the new city government of Puerto Vallarta had not issued any new alcohol permits since it came into office last fall. Apparently we are the first.
January 17, 2014
We renewed our provisional alcohol license today. In the month that we have been open we have done ok. Not great, but we expect to struggle for a year or so before this project works. Until today we have been open only on Saturdays and Sundays. Today we add Fridays.
We are in the middle of construction of a back room/bodega/prep room and we still do not have a permanent bartender/waitress. When we find the right person we will open 7 days a week.
August 23, 2014
Haven’t written much here because I’ve been busy running a restaurant/bar. We have completed our first “high season” and have survived. Actually, Mordidas has done quite well and we are taking a little break during these mid-summer days. I tried closing the bar for a month for a vacation at the beginning of August but got bored and reopened it in a couple of weeks. Until mid-September we are open again only on weekends with a very limited menu. We have a totally new menu beginning with our next high season. Until the grand reopening we are serving only botanas, raw oysters and occasional experimental dishes. We took advantage of the break to work on the infrastructure and decor. Looking forward to the new season….
September 23 2015
Tonight is the fall equinox and I feel like writing. It’s hard for me to believe that it’s been a year since I made any entries here.
To catch up, we are still on the temporary provisional license. And we are now entering our third city administration so we had to redo all of the paperwork and inspections for the license application. I think this is the 4th time. We’re getting pretty good at it. The “new” Colonia president has also refused to sign our neighborhood petition (all of the neighbors have to approve of us running a bar here – and they did) so we again went over his head to city hall and had him made irrelevant. Seems like the people in city hall have little respect for some of the little bigots running the colonias. I’m not naming names here. We needed to complete the application process before the last city hall meeting of the outgoing administration and we did, but the meeting encountered a large protest from unhappy citizens and nothing seems to have been accomplished, so we will probably have to do all of this again for the new administration.
We had a very busy year and often times had to turn people away because of a lack of tables. Some nights I felt like I was running a marathon. We’ve hired a real bartender (He used to work at Sama, a gay bar on Olas Altos) and he is spectacular in the mixing department. We’re also in the process of hiring a waitress.
Our staple dishes this last year were BBQ ribs, lasagna and Oysters. We have been open 4 days a week, Thursday to Sunday. On every other Wednesday we also host the Vallartascene Forum meet & greet. On Tuesday evenings we run an art class, nude figure drawing.
At the beginning of August we closed (until the beginning of October) for renovations and expansion. We had to make some modifications to the building by taking out a stairway to the third floor (the powers that be thought that we might be running a bordello there, still). We have also expanded the kitchen and bar areas and are adding a pizza oven. The kitchen is now twice the size it was before. We have added another refrigerator, a new freezer, a new dishwasher and a clothes washer for napkins, table cloths, etc.
When we first opened I did not put a sign outside because I didn’t want much business while we were learning the ropes. Then we became too busy to make one. Maybe I’ll get one done this season. We reopen for the new season on October 3 and I’m getting excited. Being on vacation is a lot of work.
October 3, 2015
We had planned to open today but we’ve postponed the opening until Wednesday, October 7, with a VallartaScene Forum meetup. The delay is because the new pizza oven has not yet arrived (it’s been “in transit” for 3 weeks). The metal worker has also not showed up to build the new back wall on the kitchen extension.
Oh, well. We can open without a back wall and an oven…
December 17, 2015
Today we were visited by a regidor (city councilman) who said that we would soon be receiving our full alcohol license.
Business has been very good, with 3-4 times the amount of last season and we have part time help in the bar and waitressing.
The kitchen modifications are completed and we have installed the pizza oven and are adding pizza to the menu.
February 9, 2016
Today our official city business license arrived! I guess that we are real now. We are told that this license is not issued unless it is certain that the alcohol license will be granted. The alcohol license is supposedly sitting on the mayor’s desk waiting to be signed.
(This license cost about 2000 pesos)
It has to be renewed yearly.
April 11, 2016
Today our alcohol license was signed and given to us. I guess that we are more real now.
(This license cost about 72,000 pesos)
It has to be renewed yearly (at a much lower cost).