Its opening imminent, D Boca N Boca was named one of Atlanta magazine’s most anticipated restaurants of the year—specifically, the year 2020. Inspired by owner Helio Bernal’s family ties to Veracruz and the Yucatan peninsula, D Boca was set to start serving Mexican cuisine in Summerhill in May 2020. That turned out to be an inauspicious time. But even in nonpandemic eras, restaurant openings are often beset by delays that can stretch into months, even years.
Bernal knows how unpredictable the food and drink industry can be: He was raised in it. His father, who emigrated from Mexico in the early 1980s, ran a food-distribution center in Chicago for two decades. They relocated the family business to Atlanta in 2000. Bernal remembers traveling to Atlanta as a child, napping between boxes of dried goods in the back of his dad’s truck. “I grew up in the business—from being a kid driving a forklift, knocking pallets over and causing thousands of dollars of damage, to sweeping the warehouse, to driving trucks,” he says.
In 2017, Bernal launched a food truck called the Real Mexican Vittles, then added four more vehicles to his fleet within a year, serving tacos and tamales at breweries around the metro. The trucks would be the engine that kept Bernal’s business moving—and solvent—on the tortuous route toward his first brick-and-mortar. Bernal had been daydreaming about opening a taqueria when, in 2018, he drove past an empty storefront on Georgia Avenue. A few months later, he signed a lease, hired a contractor, and delivered his design plans to the City of Atlanta. “It’s 2019, and life is good,” he remembers thinking, as he dumped his life’s savings into renovating the 1,800-square-foot space. What could go wrong?
The long and winding road
March 2019: Bernal signs the lease for a space at 39 Georgia Avenue. Having sat empty for several years, the building needs a total renovation, plus a kitchen and a bar.
August 2019: Contractor hired. “If this was a movie, this is where everything goes downhill,” Bernal says.
October 2019: Design plans delivered to the city for approval. Building-permit expediter secured to make sure the paperwork process runs smoothly.
November 2019: Permit approved.
January 2020: Ground broken on the new space.
March 2020: [oh shit]
April–June 2020: Construction paused on DBNB. No one knows what’s going on.
June 3, 2020: Bernal spends his 30th birthday in isolation with Covid.
July 2020: The pandemic ongoing, DBNB’s landlord suspends rent collection for the rest of the year. Bernal continues the build-out.
November 2020: Bernal starts designing the space and orders furniture from Mexico.
January 2021: Starts paying rent on the space.
March 2021: Furniture and decor arrive from Mexico.
April 2021: The kitchen isn’t passing something called a light test because the hood vents aren’t up to code. A lot of things aren’t up to code?
May 2021: Gathers grandmother’s handwritten recipes, starts designing the menu.
July 2021: New contractor hired.
August 2021: New contractor removes the old 18-inch duct from the hood vent and installs a new, 24-inch one—for $94,500. “I think I fainted here,” Bernal says.
August 2021: Gathers the other grandmother’s handwritten recipes.
September 2021: Contractor asks Atlanta Gas Light to install a gas meter.
November 2021: Gas meter still uninstalled, Bernal calls to see what the holdup is. Contractor forgot to specify which suite. “So, this whole time—two, three months of waiting—is just because he didn’t put an ‘A,’” Bernal says. “Are you kidding me?”
December 2021: Gas meter installed. An inspector visits and tells Bernal he needs to paint the gas lines on the outside of the building yellow.
December 2021: Contractor paints the gas lines yellow—on the inside of the building.
January 2022: Somewhere along the way, hot and cold water lines were inverted, so there’s no hot water. The kitchen also isn’t passing a “balloon test,” and the fire-suppression system must be reinstalled.
January 2022: Bernal’s expenses officially double what he’d budgeted for the build-out.
February 8, 2022: Balloon test passed. “Everything’s golden and the inspector signs off. I’m like, I just want to get open,” Bernal says. “He’s like, I just want to get out of this building. Do you know how many times I’ve been here?”
February 24, 2022: Health inspector is scheduled to visit but doesn’t.
February 28, 2022: Health inspector approves permit.
March 2022: Bernal realizes some of the furniture he bought a year ago has gone missing?
March 14, 2022: The City of Atlanta grants a certificate of occupancy—meaning the space is finally move-in ready—but Bernal decides to delay the opening until he gets his liquor license. “I’ve been at a standstill for two and a half years,” he says. “I think an extra week is gonna be okay.”
April (?) 2022: Bernal nears the finish line—sort of: “Because once we finish this, we’ve got to start cranking food out. That’ll be another roller coaster.”
D Boca N Boca is set to open this summer—stay tuned for more info.
This article appears in our May 2022 issue.