S. Florida restaurants not paying state fines, & some open with expired food service license

Restaurants pay up after Watchdog investigation

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - The Florida Department of Business and Professional Registration issues more than a million licenses across the state for dozens of industries. A Consumer Watchdog investigation found one industry that's keeping its doors open even though their license is expired.

The state inspects and licenses restaurants to keep you safe, but we uncovered a list of businesses that found a way to keep serving you food even though the restaurant hasn't paid the state fines for its dirty kitchen. When the fine goes unpaid, or a payment plan is not setup, the state will not allow the restaurant to renew its license to serve food. We found the restaurants can still operate, but it's a secret many restaurants don't want you to know.

"You need to turn that off right now," said an employee at Tortilleria Gallo De Oro (1302 Lake Avenue, Lake Worth) when the Consumer Watchdog showed up with the camera rolling.

Restaurant after restaurant, shut out the Watchdog.

An employee at Original Italian Pizza (3731 FAU Blvd, Boca Raton) said, "Shoo!" as he motioned with his hands for us to leave.

"Why won't you show us if you have nothing to hide? Why won't you show us?" we asked as the owner of Boca Pita Express(7158 Beracasa Way, Boca Raton) locked his restaurant door and refused to show us his license that he denied was expired.

Our investigation uncovered a loophole in a system meant to protect the public. Restaurants are fined when they don't fix a food safety issue, but often those fines go unpaid with little consequence.

"Why haven't you paid the state fine?" we asked.

"I'm talking to them. I don't want to talk to you," said Boca Pita Express owner Eli Amsanem

Boca Pita Express owes the most money in our area, $4,080. It hasn't paid the bill in 10 months.

The state said it turns fines that are more than 60 days old into a collection agency. If the fine still doesn't get paid, the restaurant can't renew its food service license.

"You are operating your business right now without a current food license," we said.

"I have it," Amsanem insisted.

"It's delinquent," we replied.

"I show you. Don't go in. Don't go in," Amsanem said as he locked the door.

With us locked outside, Amsanem ripped the license off the wall and flashed it through the window. He refused to show us the expiration date up close. He also didn't want to see the state's database up close that shows the restaurants' license is expired.

"You disagree with what the state is showing?" we asked.

"I disagree," Amsanem said.

"Then let's see it," we said.

"No, I don't want to show you," he explained.

At Tortilleria Gallo de Oro in Lake Worth we were also shown the door while trying to get answers on their $1200 unpaid fine, and expired license that hung on the wall.

"I'm calling the police," an employee shouted.

D'Angelo Trattoria Pizzeria (9 SE 7 Avenue) in Delray Beach was warned in January about it's expired license, after not paying a $1280 fine. A month later, the problem wasn't fixed.

"This is the first time this has been brought to our attention. Up until today when we met you we didn't know any of this," said Michelle Scaramellino. She's part of the new management team that recently took over the pizzeria.

"How can something like this continue to be a problem since October and you have no idea?" we questioned.

"Like I said we've had some issues with staff. A few of the people are no longer working here," said Scaramellino.

A worker at Original Italian Pizza in Boca Raton talked with us until we showed him our findings.

"It's delinquent," we said showing the restaurant employee the expired license.

"So we're good then? That's what you are here for? It's going to be taken care of," the employee said as he walked away and another told us to "shoo."

We uncovered these restaurants, their overdue fines and expired licenses through a series of public records requests.

"How hard is it for the public to figure out what's going on with a restaurant?" we asked Palm Beach State College Hospitality Department Chair Danny Fontenot.

"It's really hard unless they're listening to someone like you," Fontenot said.

Fontenot teaches culinary and hospitality at Palm Beach State College.

He thinks a grading system  would put the heat on restaurants to comply with the law.

"The public likes it when they can see A, B or C on the restaurant door," said Fontenot.

Until then, the Consumer Watchdog will uncover what's really cooking in area restaurants.

The owner of Boca Pita Express came back out of his restaurant, and approached us as we were leaving, to tell us he would pay the fine.

"Why are you deciding to take action now," we asked the owner of Boca Pita Express.

"Because you came to remind me that my license was revoked," Amsanem said.

Since our investigation began, and we began asking questions, several restaurants (Boca Pita Express, D'Angelo Trattoria Pizzeria, Tortilleria Gallo de Oro and several others) paid off their fines. The state collected more than $9,000 in just the last few weeks.

The state declined

an interview, but told us even if a restaurant's license is expired, the employees are still trained to serve you safe food. The state also feels a grading system gives an incomplete picture about a restaurant's inspection history.

Statement from the Department of Business & Professional Registration:
Generally speaking, upon the finding that an establishment is operating with a delinquent license, the department will issue a violation to help ensure that the establishment comes into compliance with the licensing requirements. As with any high priority violation, the department takes the violation seriously and will work with the establishment to ensure they have the information necessary to come into compliance with the law.

It’s important to note that the department’s goal is compliance and to not be punitive. As such, the department is also bound by the administrative law process including an individual’s right to due process. When an establishment does not come into compliance after 60 days past the renewal date, the department will file an Administrative Complaint and once the Administrative Complaint is processed, the payment process is as follows: The department includes a cover letter with payment instructions with every clerked final order. If a fine becomes 30 days past due, the department will send a payment reminder. A second and final payment reminder is sent if the fine becomes 60 days past due. After the 60 day mark, the licensee is no longer able to renew their license until a payment arrangement has been made with the department’s compliance office and a payment is received by the department. If all preceding steps fail to take place, the department will ultimately turn the outstanding fines over to one of the state contracted collection agencies.
 

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Restaurants who owe money to the state

Name Address City Owed 2/10/14 Payment Plan 2/10/14 Payment plan 3/10/14
CHEESESTEAK FACTORY 682 SW BAYSHORE BLVD PORT ST LUCIE 800 Yes Yes
DEE DEE'S CONCH RIB & CRAB SHACK 540  W ATLANTIC AVE DELRAY BEACH 200 No No
FRIENDLY CAFE 385 RARDIN AVE PAHOKEE 560 Yes Yes
FRIENDLY CAFE 385 RARDIN AVE PAHOKEE 1100 Yes Yes
MR B & ME TOO 6935 VIA BELLINI LAKE WORTH 400 No No - sent to collections
NATE'S BBQ RIB SHACK 1704 W 13 ST RIVIERA BEACH 160 No No
ORANGE LEAF FROZEN YOGURT 2111 SE FEDERAL HWY STE 122 STUART 160 No No
ORIGINAL ITALIAN PIZZA 3731 FAU BLVD BOCA RATON 800 No No
ORIGINAL ITALIAN PIZZA 3731 FAU BLVD BOCA RATON 1200 No No
RED TAPAS BAR & GRILLE 11701 LAKE VICTORIA GARDENS #3102 PALM BEACH GARDENS 400 No No
TASTEE EXPRESS 5 10058 SPANISH ISLES BLVD BOCA RATON 400 Yes Yes
TASTEE EXPRESS 6 10058 SPANISH ISLES BLVD BOCA RATON 160 No

No

Restaurants who took action since the Consumer Watchdog began asking questions

Name Address City Owed 2/10/14 Paid 2/10/14 Paid 3/10/14
D'ANGELO TRATTORIA PIZZERIA 9 SE 7 AVE DELRAY BEACH 1280 No paid
GIVENESS CARIBBEAN RESTAURANT 1459 S CONGRESS AVE DELRAY BEACH 800 No Payment plan
LANDING STRIP CAFE 2800 NW 20 TRL OKEECHOBEE 1350 No Payment plan
TORTILLERIA GALLO DE ORO 1302 LAKE AVE LAKE WORTH 1200 No paid
YOGEN FRUZ 6000 GLADES RD STE 1161B BOCA RATON 400 No paid
BOCA PITA EXPRESS 7158 BERACASA WAY BOCA RATON 4080 No paid

Data courtesy: Florida Department of Business & Professional Registration

To see what inspectors found at your favorite restaurant, search our database

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