Takin’ care of business

If you think red tape is part of the deal in run­ning a busi­ness in Phil­adelphia, you’re prob­ably right. But a city agency is on hand to help you cut that ugly tape.


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.


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.”


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.


“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.


Phone: 215-743-4647

Web site:


E-mail: pican­hab­razili­an­grill@hot­mail.com

In­side tip: Picanha is a Por­tuguese word that means “top sir­loin,” ac­cord­ing to own­er Am­ab­il­is Silva.


You can reach at jloftus@bsmphilly.com.

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