You've found the perfect spot for your next (or first) pizzeria; you even have the funds to rent it. Yet the landlord isn't overly eager to let you have the space.

You're dumbfounded and frustrated, surprised that he doesn't see the promise of generating income off that otherwise empty hole in his building.

Such a situation is not unique, say real estate experts. Landlords are picky for myriad reasons: most good, some bad. But regardless of why, business owners should not expect an easy time acquiring good space, even when it appears to be the right fit.

"You've got to be ready to compete for good sites," said Marty Kotis, president of Kotis Properties in Greensboro, N.C. "If somebody else wants it, you'll have to sell the landlord on the fact that your business is the best choice and that you will be the best tenant."

Sometimes getting the space boils down to being the landlord's best friend, said Peter Cooperstein.

What's Important

Landing a good rental spot often comes down to making the landlord like you and your business.

Having a great product helps, as does having a solid business plan with clear numbers and expectations.

In every area, the prospective renter should be professional, organized and patient, as deals sometimes stall.

As president of eight-unit Amici's East Coast Pizza, he's endured the frustration of seeing lock-cinch lease deals fall through because a property owner played favorites.

"You agree on a letter of intent, both parties sign it and then things come out of nowhere," said Cooperstein, whose company is based in Redwood Shores, Calif. "We've had it happen where a friend calls and wants the space and he gets it. The big message is that you don't have a done deal until the lease is signed."

Impressing the landlord goes far beyond mere ability to pay for the spot or even being the right fit for the location. Quite simply, sometimes it's about making him like you.

"You're actually selling yourself to the landlord," said Wayne Bridgeford, vice president Grubb & Ellis in Atlanta. "It's a lot like a job interview; you've got to impress him."

Nothing talks like food

It might not be an old saying, but it may well be a real estate truism: The quickest way to a landlord's mind is through his stomach. Pros like Bridgeford and Kotis say property owners want businesses that sell quality products. Convincing them your pizza is good, therefore, can be highly influential.

"There's no question that if they like your product, there's a better chance they'll rent space to you," said Kotis. "So ask him, 'Why don't you come try my food?' If you want to build a relationship, that's a great way to do that. And if you really want to go overboard, have them to your house for dinner."

Kotis said the food for thought tactic has worked on him many times, especially when the operator is already in business elsewhere. "If I believe they've got good food and know what they're doing in their existing restaurant, then they're going to be successful in my space. If I go over and they don't know what they're doing, they're likely not going to make it in my space."
Having multiple units allows Cooperstein to give tastes and tours to prospective landlords. They can see the business is doing well and get a feel for how it might affect their properties.

"They can see that our stores are nice places and will complement their properties, and they see the traffic draw Amici's brings," he said. "Now that we're a better-known quantity, we have lessors approaching us or they have agents trying to sell us into their properties."

Bridgeford said an early acid test for prospective tenants is professionalism. His firm gets lots of calls from people who want to put restaurants in their properties, but that they lack a firm business plan for doing it.

"You can't convince me you're very serious if you don't have all the costs laid out on the front end," he said. "You have to convince the landlord you know what you're getting yourself into. If you come to a landlord without a business plan -- particularly if you're a new operator -- your credibility is going to be diminished, shot."

He said what catches his eye is a business plan complete with concrete renderings of the physical operation: seating, counters, cooking equipment -- all in a nicely bound package.

"You've got to present yourself as a businessperson to get his attention," he said. "If he knows you don't know what you're doing, he's probably not going to do business with you."

More impressive than projected numbers, said Cooperstein, are actual numbers. Landlords listen more closely to the pitch when they see what a real business is generating. He said not being fully prepared with financials one time nearly cost Amici's a sought-after slot.

"We thought that was just a formality that could be easily taken care of, but then they rejected us after we'd spent a lot of time working on the lease," he said. "We ran in to a real conservative company that took that very seriously. Still, we were able to salvage it by paying a lot extra on the security deposit."

Though a slick presentation package is nice, Kotis said he doesn't demand it. "I want them to have financial statements and tax returns to show their worth. I also want them to be sure they know exactly what they want: square feet; the length of the lease; the type of facility changes we might have to make. The clearer you are in knowing your requirements, the easier it is for the landlord to know whether he can meet those requirements."

The velvet hammer

Just because the landlord decides who ultimately gets in, Cooperstein said that doesn't mean the renter should feel completely at his mercy. Sometimes landlords -- especially those not working with a broker -- can drag their heels on closing the deal. His business might not be suffering during the delay, but yours could be. Therefore, operators should be proactive and keep the ball in the landlord's court.

"There will always be delays, so expect the process to move slowly sometimes," he said. "But as much as possible, don't be at fault on your end. Have all your paperwork ready and in their hands."

And if the situation stalls?

"Don't be afraid to pursue the landlord and say, 'Hey, I haven't heard from you in a couple of days. How's the lease coming?'" Cooperstein said. "Sometimes they need to be reminded, and sometimes that just shows in a professional way that you're ready to get it done and open for business."

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