Saturday, December 22, 2012

Broward County Debates Food Trucks: Restaurant Owner Wants Them Banned!

Joey Scuotto, a commissioner with a restaurant down the street from City Hall, has said he wants an outright ban on gourmet food trucks citywide.

"We have so many restaurants struggling to stay afloat in Sunrise," he told the Sun Sentinel. "I see it as a disadvantage to the businesses that the food trucks come in here."

Talk of a ban has sparked an outcry from local food truck owners and onlookers irked by what they call an attempt to stamp out competition.

Some argue a ban on food trucks would be downright illegal.

"The government is not allowed to make protectionist laws that protect one business over another," said Justin Pearson, executive director of the Institute for Justice, Florida Chapter. "That's unconstitutional."

On Dec. 6, Pearson sent commissioners a letter saying the civil liberties law firm has already filed suits challenging laws in Hialeah, Chicago and El Paso, Texas that restrict vendors from operating within a certain distance of their brick-and-mortar competitors.

A Sunrise resident came to City Hall on Tuesday to admonish Scuotto for using his office to try to stifle competition.

"Let the little guy have a chance," said the woman, who declined to give her name. "I think they should be allowed to flourish."

With a red face and raised voice, Scuotto told the woman the city already has a ban on food trucks and he "can't wait" until Jan. 8, when city officials are expected to debate the issue.

City spokeswoman Christine Pfeffer, however, said Sunrise doesn't have a true ban on food trucks. "We have a ban on outdoor sales," she said.

Pfeffer said a Sunrise business wanting to host a food truck event would be required to apply for a special permit.

Rolling restaurants have visited Sunrise during the past two years, but none have been cited because city officials found out after the fact, Pfeffer said.

"Unless you catch someone, you can't cite them," she said.

Robb Muise, a food truck operator from Oakland Park, says he is keeping a close eye on what happens in Sunrise. He plans to get a group of food truck operators to attend the upcoming commission meeting to protest an all-out ban.

Ryan Olesky, a Fort Lauderdale resident who tends bar at a downtown Hollywood restaurant, emailed the Sun Sentinel to accuse Scuotto of being un-American.

"Just another example of a lawmaker doing something for personal gain," he wrote.

Even the Greater Sunrise Chamber of Commerce opposes a ban on food truck events in Sunrise, says executive director Mike Jacobs.

Citing South Florida's thriving food truck industry, Jacobs said Sunrise would be missing out if it banned them altogether.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

South Beach Bar Girls Trial Ends In Convictions

As if he saw it coming, a federal judge warned he would not tolerate any outburst while the verdicts were read for four men accused of directing a bunch of “bar girls” to seduce and swindle customers at Russian-style clubs in South Beach.
But as soon as the Miami jury found three of the defendants guilty— and the judge ordered them immediately into custody Thursday — the mothers, wives and daughters started wailing.

U.S. District Judge Robert Scola called in federal marshals to escort the defendants out, while court security officers tried to control the situation.

“Let me hug my mom,” Albert Takhalov told one of the security officers, who tried to separate the mother, who wouldn’t let go.

And so the trial of the so-called B-girls came to a tearful end. The jury convicted Takhalov, Stanislav Pavlenko and Isaac Feldman of conspiring to fleece hundreds of thousands of dollars from dozens of male patrons by racking up bogus bills for champagne, vodka and caviar on their credit cards at the defendants’ seven Miami Beach clubs.

A fourth defendant, Siavash Zargari, who did business with Takhalov at a Washington Avenue lounge, was acquitted. “I feel good,” the South Beach resident said outside the courtroom with his attorney, Bruce Fleisher. “Justice is right.”

The jury reached its unanimous guilty verdicts on a variety of conspiracy, wire fraud and money-laundering charges after deliberating for five days following an 11-week trial that zigged and zagged with tales about Miami Beach’s underground bar scene. The panel also issued acquittals on numerous wire fraud offenses involving credit transactions, and cleared Takhalov of bribing a U.S. immigration official to bring the bar girls from Eastern Europe.

Still, Scola ordered the three convicted men into custody until their sentencings because he found that they gave testimony that “I don’t believe was honest.’’

The 12-person jury heard testimony from an admitted Russian mobster who organized the Miami Beach club racket; a few bar girls who lured male customers from swank hotels like the Delano to the private bars; a former Fox TV weatherman who was taken for $43,000 over two nights; and an undercover Miami Beach police officer who posed as a dirty cop and worked as a bouncer for the clubs while recording the illicit activity.

The puppet master behind the scam: Alec “Oleg” Simchuk, 46, a Russian native and naturalized U.S. citizen who testified in October about his partners and associates.

Simchuk, an admitted Russian mafioso who pleaded guilty before trial, testified that he modeled the South Beach clubs after his former bars in Latvia and Estonia. He said he illegally brought many of the same young women who had worked for him there to South Florida.

The undercover officer, Luis King, was caught on his own tape describing “American black girls” as “pigs, pigs, pigs, pigs” in a late-night chat with a bar girl at the Steel Toast lounge. The sensational evidence may not have been relevant, but it worried prosecutors Richard Gregorie and Michael Thakur because of its potential impact on the racially mixed jury.

The four defendants took the witness stand to fight the fraud charges, which is highly unusual during a trial. It backfired for all but Zargari. His testimony ended up serving two purposes, as he deftly demonstrated his innocence while blaming Takhalov for contaminating their lounge, Tangia Club, with bar girls and credit-card fraud.

“I was scammed by Takhalov and set up by the FBI,” he said after his acquittal.

In 2010, Miami Beach police and the FBI launched an undercover investigation into the “B-girl” network after customers complained to their credit card companies about the outlandish bar tabs.

Last year, a total of 18 defendants were charged in the fraud conspiracy. Twelve defendants, mostly women, have since pleaded guilty. Almost all have already served short prison sentences.

Standing trial since October: Pavlenko, 41, Takhalov, 31, Zargari, 48, and Feldman, 51, who live in the Aventura, Sunny Isles Beach and Miami Beach areas.

Pavlenko’s lawyer, Roderick Vereen, said he would seek a new trial, alleging that the weatherman lied during his testimony.

Takhalov’s attorney, Albert Levin, said he was “disappointed” in the jury’s verdicts. “Although my client was acquitted on most of the charges, we couldn’t call this a victory.’’

Feldman’s attorney, Myles Malman, expressed the same sentiment, saying his client was a “good and decent man” who was a minority investor in one of Simchuk’s clubs, Stars Lounge. “He was tricked into an investment by a con man whose testimony was one of the most unbelievable I have heard in my 40 years of practicing law,” Malman said.

The three defendants found guilty now face up to 20 years each in prison, though the punishment is likely to be substantially less because of the relatively small losses incurred by their nearly 90 victims. The losses came to between $400,000 and $1 million, with most of the profits going to Simchuk and the other investors and 20 percent to the bar girls.

A fifth defendant, Kristina Takhalov, who worked as a bartender, pleaded guilty during the trial to a few wire-fraud charges.

On Thursday, she was red-faced from crying after the guilty verdicts were read for Albert Takhalov, her husband.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Florida Stone Crab Shortage; Expect Higher Prices

Despite rocketing prices for stone-crab claws, many Florida Keys commercial fishermen have nearly given up on the season only 2 months old.

"We may see record prices but also record pain," said Gary Graves, general manager of Keys Fisheries in Marathon. "Prices don't mean anything if you can't catch anything."
Harvests since shortly after the season opening Oct. 15 have been "as bad as I can remember during my 45 years in the business," Graves said. "It's just bleak."
Keys Fisheries, one of the state's leading wholesalers for stone crabs, has laid off half of its production staff, maybe 20 people, Graves said.

"We hate to do it to our people but we're probably not finished," he said. "Right now, a big day for us is 1,000 pounds [of claws]. It should be around 15,000 pounds. We're doing nothing."

Keys Fisheries has raised its dockside prices paid to fishermen several times to encourage fishermen to keep their traps in the water.

Graves said it costs a fisherman about $1,200 in fuel, labor and other expenses to make a day's trip. The fish house's current prices are $9 per pound for medium-size claws and $17 per pound for the coveted jumbos.
"Our wholesale sales prices are higher than that and retail is through the roof," Graves said. "But we can't fill the orders we have."

A Marathon community group recently canceled the organization's annual stone crab feast for members because no claws were to be found.

The season runs until May 15.

Last season, Monroe County produced about 1.1 million pounds of legal-size claws, accounting for a large portion of Florida's total 2.67 million-pound harvest worth an estimated $23.6 million to the commercial fleet.
About 1,000 people statewide are licensed to fish traps for stone crabs. Only the claws are kept. Historically, stone-crab harvests have topped three million pounds of claws.

"The last two years were good and the recruitment looked normal," Graves said. "The first round of trap pulling was fine but it went downhill from there — like falling off a cliff."
Fishermen and researchers are baffled.

"Blame it on global warming, blame it on BP [Deepwater Horizon oil spill], blame it on Mother Nature," Graves said.
"Everybody's got an idea but nobody can say why. It's probably a combination of a bunch of things."

News reports from stone-crab fleets farther up the Florida Gulf Coast suggest an octopus population explosion. Crabs are a favorite food of octopus, which are smart enough to get into traps.

"We've seen more octopus in the 6- to 8-pound range, which is abnormal," Graves said. State experts have suggested warm winters may have triggered the octopus boom.
"Things could turn around," Graves said, "but realistically the chances of it happening this season are slim."

Friday, December 14, 2012

Seafood Fraud: Is That Dover Sole You Are Eating?

There's a good chance that the white tuna sashimi or the Dover Sole served up at your favorite Manhattan chinese restaurant joint isn't from England at all.

In fact, 94% of the fish labeled as white tuna in New York turned out to be escolar, a type of snake mackerel with a toxin linked to digestive problems, according to an investigation by conservation and advocacy group Oceana.

DNA tests of 142 seafood samples taken from New York grocery stores, restaurants and sushi venues showed that 39% were mislabeled as different species, according to Oceana.

Earlier Oceana tests showed a 31% fraud rate in Miami, 48% in Boston and 55% in Los Angeles.

Out of 81 retail outlets probed in New York -- which included shops in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island, Commack, Scarsdale, Hudson and Edgewater, N.J. -- 58 featured improperly tagged items, the group said.

Small markets had a 40% fraud rate, it said, while 12% of items purchased at national chains were mislabeled. Each of the 16 sushi bars targeted served fish that didn’t match its menu description.

Seafood purported to be red snapper turned out to be tilapia, white bass, ocean perch and even tilefish, which sits on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's do-not-eat list for pregnant and nursing women because of its high mercury content.

The U.S. currently imports more than 90% of its seafood.

"With an increasingly complex and obscure seafood supply chain, plus lagging federal oversight and inspection of rising seafood imports, it is difficult to identify who along the supply chain perpetrates the fraud," according to the Oceana report.

In October, celebrity chefs such as Mario Batali, Rick Bayless and Thomas Keller joined 500 other restaurant owners on an Oceana petition to stop seafood fraud.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Labor Rebellion: Fast-Food Workers, Inspired By Walmart Strikers, Demand Higher Wages

Last month, workers at hundreds of Walmart locations nationwide staged protests—many on Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year—demanding the retail giant pay higher wages.

Walmart downplayed the rare show of rebellion, saying it involved only a fraction of its 1.6 million U.S. employees. But the protests, which garnered a slew of media attention, both shed light on a pressing issue and represented one of the most significant labor actions against the big-box store in its history.

The protests also inspired another group of low-wage workers to stage their own. Last week, about 200 fast-food workers in New York City walked out of their workplaces—chains affected included Burger King, Wendy's and McDonald's—to demand a "living wage" of $15 an hour and an end to the practice of keeping workers on part-time hours to avoid giving them benefits or overtime. The employees also want to form a union for the city's estimated 50,000 fast-food workers to negotiate pay and benefits.

One protester was fired but reinstated after community leaders, including New York City council members, persuaded the management at the Fulton Mall Wendy's in Brooklyn to take her back.

Jonathan Westin, organizing director of the nonprofit New York Communities for Change and one of the organizers of the latest protests, said the Black Friday strikes at Walmart inspired the fast-food protesters to put aside their fears of losing their jobs. "Workers saw that you could step out and be courageous and take on your bosses," Westin said. The group had been talking to fast-food workers since the summer about working conditions and unionizing, but last week was the first major demonstration.

Most fast-food employees, he noted, work part time and are paid minimum wage ($7.25 an hour), so they don't make enough money to support their families. "Many have to rely on public assistance," Westin said. "The taxpayers are fronting the bill for what these multibillion corporations are refusing to pay in wages and benefits."

The Walmart and fast-food protests are remarkable because low-wage employees are often the most vulnerable and easily replaced in the workforce, and so they rarely publicly complain about working conditions. Angela Cornell, director of the Labor Law Clinic at Cornell University Law School, said it's unusual to see such workers striking, especially when the unemployment rate is still high.

"These workers are under an enormous amount of financial strain right now," Cornell said. "Wages have been stagnant … while everything else is going up for them. It's been going on for so long now that ... they're willing to take the risk, because the situation is increasingly intolerable."

Their frustration might also be bubbling up from longer-term economic changes in the country. The U.S. workforce's average salary used to rise at almost exactly the same rate as its productivity, which meant the more we produced, the better we were paid. That link began to break in the 1980s, and now, though U.S. workers are more productive than ever, wages have been stagnant for years. A study from the National Employment Law Project notes that the minimum wage is worth 30 percent less than in 1968. Meanwhile, corporate profits are at record highs.

"They are long overdue for improvements in wages," Cornell said. The issue has become more pressing since the recession, as nearly 60 percent of all jobs created since 2008 have paid hourly wages of $13.83 or less.

The economic argument for these low wages is that people like cheap hamburgers, pizza and other fast food, and that higher wages would mean higher prices that could put franchises—most independently owned—out of business. And, because the jobs require minimal education, owners don't need to pay more to fill the jobs.

But at a crowded rally organized by unions and community groups in New York's busy Times Square on Thursday, mayoral hopefuls Bill de Blasio, New York City's public advocate, and Bill Thompson repudiated that line of thinking. They threw their support behind the effort for higher wages for fast-food workers and other low-income New Yorkers, saying such employees should unionize and demand a "living wage." De Blasio said New York has become "a tale of two cities," with the city's poor workers increasingly living far away from Manhattan's elite, unable to live in the city where they work in essential jobs.
"You can't raise a family on minimum wage," Pamela Flood, a Burger King worker with three children, said onstage at the rally. "With food and diapers, my paycheck is gone after two days. We need a change."

Many labor experts, however, see an uphill battle to forming a fast-food workers union. Not only are these employees regarded as replaceable, but also the franchises are operated by a patchwork of owners and employee turnover is high.
"It's very difficult to do," said Professor Gary Chaisen, a labor expert at Clark University. "They're extremely vulnerable. They're hesitant to join unions, because they're worried about losing their jobs."

That fear is rational, because U.S. law allows managers to fire employees if their work stoppages affect the company's bottom line. But it is also illegal for employers to discourage workers from seeking to unionize by threatening them with consequences.

Monica Bielski Boris, a labor expert and assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said perhaps fast-food workers would have better luck organizing into a nontraditional union, like the "hiring hall" model used in the construction industry. Businesses looking to hire must go to the hiring hall to find workers and negotiate certain wages and benefits in advance.

Felicito Tapia, a deli worker at a Hot & Crusty bakery on 14th Street who attended the rally, said he attempted to form a union at his store last spring, mainly to get paid sick days and a higher wage. "With $7.25, you can't do anything. That salary is nothing," Tapia said, while holding a sign demanding a $15 hourly wage for fast-food workers.

Tapia has worked at different Hot & Crusty locations for 10 years, but he has never been able to take off a holiday, including Christmas, which is something he would want to negotiate if he ever successfully unionizes.

Tapia's unionizing efforts failed, but workers at another Hot & Crusty location on the Upper East Side succeeded after temporarily shutting down their store in protest. The workers there signed a union contract at the end of October that guarantees them paid sick days and holidays—a benefit the vast majority of food workers in New York City do not have.