Pipe Dreams and PG&E

Local restaurant owners are losing money and business because PG&E can take as long as it likes to provide new gas service.

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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