By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
Through the plate glass window, Oliver Bangera could see three heads looking at his restaurant. After a moment, they moved on.
“It’s the sign again,” he said. “Last week, a Japanese couple came in and thought we were serving sushi.”
The sign for his restaurant, “Khushi,” was originally underlined by another smaller block of text that said, “Indian Street Food.”
But after struggling with the City of Bellevue over height requirements for the sign, the explanatory text ended up being only two inches tall.
“You couldn’t even read it from the sidewalk,” said Bangera, who opened a successful restaurant in Seattle seven years ago.
In fact, it was his experience in Seattle, where he said he received ongoing help from the city, that had led him to expect a similar experience in Bellevue.
But he found what appeared to him a series of ongoing challenges—epitomized by the sign. In the end, he simply took down the description of the fare.
Moreover, Bangera said he is not alone. He said he has spoken to many small business owners in Bellevue, along with restaurant owners, who say they’ve encountered similar problems—which Bangera sums up as a feeling that the city doesn’t care if he is there.
In a response to the issues raised by Bangera, the city’s Development Services staff said, “The City of Bellevue aims to deliver exceptional customer service and an understandable and predictable permitting process. We value the feedback we receive from our customers and stakeholders as it allows us to better adapt our services to meet the needs of the community.”
Still, city officials say the location is particularly challenging.
While Bangera’s story reflects the experience of only a single restaurateur and cannot be taken to mirror the experience of every, or perhaps even most, small businesses in Bellevue, his interactions with the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce seem to highlight some of the growing pains of the city.
Anxiety in the build-out stage
Joe Fain, the president and CEO of the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce, for his part, said he had spoken to multiple restaurateurs in Bellevue in advance of his conversation with the Northwest Asian Weekly.
He said restaurant owners that were farther along the process of development, as compared with those that were just starting out and were concerned with the kinds of issues that Bangera faced, such as permitting and inspections, gave rave reviews to the city.
“If you’re operational and your engagement is around public safety, taxation, and ongoing regulations, there are a lot of positive feelings,” he said. “But in the early stage, the build-out and inspection stage, there is a lot of angst. This is one of the primary aims of the chamber’s work with the city—to focus on this area.”
Growth boom adds to city’s challenges
Fain has tried to assist Bangera through many of his problems—and admits there is room for improvement. Still, he said, the massive boom of development in Bellevue, with “very sophisticated actors” coming in, and the record number of developments being put up, has exhausted city staff, who nevertheless have the best intentions.
The “high velocity” of growth has slowed issues such as Bangera’s coming down the pipeline, he said.
“The thing that is most exciting to see about Bellevue city leaders, from the city manager to elected officials, is that they have this attitude, which is, ‘Help me do this better.’ They are willing to rethink the way they do things,” said Fain.
Fain admits though, that from Bangera’s perspective, the struggle has been a “hardship.”
Oliver Bangera came to the United States in 1991 and attended Washington State University, where he said the university did everything it could to accommodate him. Because, in India, it takes 15 years to get an undergraduate degree, Bangera was lacking the single extra year he would need to qualify for graduate school here, where it takes 16 years for a bachelor’s degree.
At first, school officials allowed him to take a single year of undergraduate studies to prepare him for graduate school. But he did so well that after a semester, they allowed him to go straight into the master’s program in Political Science. He was so enthused by the encouragement and sense of welcome that he got, that he ran for student body president of the graduate school—and won.
“The percentage of Indian students there was tiny, but even the grocery store clerk would ask me, ‘How’s the campaign going?’”
When he opened a restaurant in Pioneer Square, seven years ago, he felt the same warmth and welcome.
“The City of Seattle wanted to make sure I was okay,” he said, while sitting in his Bellevue restaurant, sipping Chai, a brown Indian tea. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t even know whom to ask questions.”
It started when he discovered that Seattle had recently changed its building codes so that it was no longer permissible to have a fire escape through the kitchen.
“That of course makes sense,” said Bangera, who has a fine rounded down mustache of salt and pepper hair that adds a gentleness and fastidiousness to his face. “Since most fires start in the kitchen.”
But the building he had chosen and was about to lease was a landmark building and it was not possible to make the kind of modifications necessary.
Fortunately, a neighborhood association had approached him and told him about the city’s restaurant liaison, a staff member whose job was designed to help restaurant owners in such situations as this.
Bangera met with her and explained the situation.
One week later, through her intervention, city officials met with Bangera and grandfathered in the prior coding requirements, allowing him to sign the lease and open what has now become an award-winning restaurant.
Before that restaurant opening, Bangera had assumed, because there was a standard gas meter in the basement of the restaurant, that it would be hooked up. Dismayed, with only a few weeks before opening, and having already made the announcement about the opening, he discovered there was no working gas line.
In a panic, he called the head of the Alliance for Pioneer Square, who had first encouraged him to open up a restaurant in the neighborhood.
“She knew someone at [Puget Sound Energy] and made a call and they came and repaired it the same day,” said Bangera.
So, coming to Bellevue, he no doubt had similar expectations. In 2019, he leased the old California Pizza Kitchen building, which had gone out of business. In India, where he had grown up poor, although to a very hardworking father who owned an auto repair shop, Bangera and his sisters ate mostly street food. It was all they could afford.
But in India, street food was also eaten by many office workers, who did not have the time for long meals. Besides, it was healthy, filling, and you could choose meat or vegetarian options.
So Bangera chose the location also because it was in the midst of a forest of high rises.
“At 11:00 or 11:30, the office workers would come down to the streets and I would be able to offer them this food,” he said.
But a few months later, the pandemic hit. Suddenly, all the office workers he had counted on were working from home.
That made it even more essential—a matter of pure survival, actually—for him to reach any remaining workers or pedestrians or anyone in the vicinity.
That was where his woes began.
The first letter of his sign, “K,” was written larger than the rest. It was a bare six inches taller than allowed. And with the lettering underneath that said, “Indian Street Food,” it was determined too large by the City of Bellevue, he said.
Bangera couldn’t understand it. Standing out on the street outside his restaurant, he asked this reporter to look at the enormous signs on the sides of buildings.
“You see,” he said. “Those are permissible.”
But when he raised the same question with the city, he was told it was because they weren’t at street level, he said.
He then pointed out that Macy’s had a street level sign that was gigantic.
“And what about McDonald’s? Their ‘M’ is a lot bigger than six inches,” he told the city officials.
But they told him these were exceptions, and he would still have to abide by the six-inch rule, he said.
So today, the pink glowing sign of his restaurant is so small, you can barely read it from the street. And worse, there is no indication of what the exotic and unique fare is inside.
During the interview, a couple in masks roamed inside.
Bangera stopped and looked up and said warmly, “Welcome! Welcome!”
A learning experience
Fain worked with Bangera on the sign.
“The sign was problematic, I reviewed the code, and the sign he had constructed was not within the code,” said Fain. “And then, the question was, ‘What was the process or possibility of getting a variance?’”
But Bangera contrasted his experience working with the City of Seattle when he was allowed to grandfather in a code exception.
Fain agreed with Bangera that the City of Bellevue could learn from Seattle in several areas.
“He has a fair point there and the thing that heartens me is I think the City of Bellevue also believes he has a fair point,” said Fain. “The question is, ‘How do you create a customer service environment where you ensure public and consumer safety and at the same time prioritize the success of the business owner? The experience of Seattle should be applauded. And I know that Bellevue would look at that and say, ‘How can that be replicated?’”
Bangera thinks it boils down to his not having enough resources.
“I don’t have time to be bitter,” he said. “Life is too short. But if I were a big company like McDonald’s, I would have my own legal team that could fight this, and I would win.”
Another instance came when the city required that he provide a drawing of existing plumbing.
“Those documents are supposed to be stored with the city,” said Bangera.
But when he asked for assistance, he said the city told him he would have to provide them himself.
So he reluctantly hired a licensed plumber who painstakingly reproduced the original drawings.
But when he submitted these, Bangera said he was told they were insufficient and he would need to hire a mechanical engineering company, which he did, costing him double what he had already paid the plumber.
Fain said in working with Bangera to try to resolve this issue, he worked with some excellent and well-intentioned people in the city, but unfortunately the results were not as desired.
Getting permits for such a commercial space in Bellevue, a fast-growing city, compared to getting permits for a landmark building in Seattle, which had its growth boom a decade ago, also involve different processes.
Still, Fain said, the City of Bellevue would be the first to admit they are trying to do better with issues of the kind raised by Bangera.
Even as the city has tried to hire more permit reviewers, planners, and other related staff, the tight hiring market has slowed the growth in capacity.
Still, he said, the chamber has backed modest increases in city revenues, including fees for land use code amendments, in this year’s budget. These will help the city increase its ability to alleviate issues such as Bangera’s.
“We are working with the city to have the city increase capacity in permitting and inspections,” he said.
Bangera said he has lost a half-million dollars due to what he feels is neglect from the city when he needed help the most, and also due to property taxes he had to pay during the further devastation of COVID-19.
Needing to attract customers to his restaurant, Bangera resorted to stunts such as leaving the lights on all night. “At least they’ll know we’re here,” he said.
He’s had a string of Bollywood celebrities. He is also planning to bring comedians, an open mike night, and other musical entertainment.
On the day of the interview, there was a sign on the street, a stand-up fold-out sandwich board that was about the height of a child, that said, “Indian Street Food.” But with parked cars and standing buses along the block, it was only visible from up close.
“We’ve started to go to office buildings and hand out fliers,” he said, half in despair and excitement.
Yet it seemed to be working, at least somewhat. By 11:30, orders “to go” were starting to come in. By noon, the restaurant was starting to fill up.
His newest plan is to put in outdoor seating.
“We’ve got to do something else to let people know what’s going on here,” he said.
But a familiar foreboding has crept again into his feelings about dealing with the city.
When he asked about regulations, he said he was told simply that he would have to commission an architect to submit drawings—there was no inspector who could come down and explain codes to him.
“All of this expenditure eats away at my ability to survive,” he said.
“This is a good example of one of the places where there is room for improvement. Whether it’s local land-use codes or state and federal regulations, the government must put forth clear conditions for success and have a permitting or application processes that is easy to understand and uniformly applied,” said Fain.
Bangera wants to be clear that not all his experiences have been negative. His landlord allowed him to begin paying his lease after he opened, rather than during the height of the pandemic.
“Both Joe Fain and Lynne Robinson, the mayor of Bellevue, have been encouraging and supportive, and I’m hopeful that things can get better as Bellevue grows,” he said.
But, in the end, Bangera’s feelings of abandonment spurred him in another direction.
Despite his experiences in Bellevue, he has decided to open a third restaurant, and is in discussions to open two more—all in Seattle.
He still thinks Bellevue favors titans at the expense of the small fry.
“Supporting big business is good, but you have to support small business, too,” he said.
After his second cup of Chai, he waxed philosophical.
“The soul of a city is determined by how it treats the weakest and the least powerful, not how it treats the most powerful and the richest,” he said, emotionally. “Small businesses are the heart and soul of a community—they determine its vibrancy.”
Mahlon can be reached at email@example.com.