Coun­cil sus­pends Gelato’s al­co­hol per­mit

Newark Post - - FRONT PAGE - By JOSH SHAN­NON jshan­[email protected]­pub.com

Re­ject­ing owner Ryan Ger­man’s pleas for le­niency, city coun­cil voted to sus­pend Caffé Gelato’s spe­cial-use per­mit to serve al­co­hol for 30 days – a pun­ish­ment for what city of­fi­cials de­scribed as a “sys­temic prob­lem” with serv­ing al­co­hol to mi­nors.

The de­ci­sion was ap­proved by a 4-3 vote af­ter four and a half hours of de­bate at a meet­ing that be­gan Mon­day night and didn’t ad­journ

un­til 1:30 a.m. Tues­day.

The sus­pen­sion, which Ger­man claims puts his res­tau­rant at risk of go­ing out of busi­ness, is a stun­ning turn of events for the much­her­alded up­scale eatery that helped lead down­town Ne­wark’s trans­for­ma­tion into a culi­nary des­ti­na­tion over the last 15 years.

The Main Street res­tau­rant is the first to be pe­nal­ized un­der a 2016 or­di­nance meant to crack down on un­ruly bars, a de­scrip­tion that hardly fits Caffé Gelato, which is bet­ter known for its ex­pen­sive en­trees and its older, well-to-do clien­tele.

Still, coun­cil ruled that Caffé Gelato must be pun­ished for the al­co­hol vi­o­la­tions.

“It’s re­ally, re­ally hard, Ryan, but we’ve got to play by the rules. I’m will­ing to com­pro­mise a lit­tle bit, but it’s not fair to every­body else who is play­ing by the rules,” Mayor Polly Sierer said, cast­ing the de­cid­ing vote in fa­vor of the sus­pen­sion. “You’ve been a great mem­ber of our com­mu­nity, no doubt about it. I’ve wit­nessed, I’ve seen it and I’ve felt it. But the bot­tom line is, you have to play by the rules just like every­body else.”

Sierer was joined by coun­cil mem­bers Chris Hamil­ton, Mark More­head and Jen Wal­lace. Mean­while, Ja­son Lawhorn and Stu Markham voted against the 30-day sus­pen­sion, but both said they fa­vored a less-se­vere sanc­tion. Jerry Clifton also voted no be­cause he dis­agreed with the tim­ing of the sus­pen­sion.

Mon­day’s hear­ing came af­ter Caffé Gelato failed three com­pli­ance checks by the Ne­wark Po­lice Depart­ment, one in Novem­ber 2017, an­other in Jan­uary 2018 and a third in Septem­ber 2018.

NPD rou­tinely sends un­der­age co­op­er­at­ing wit­nesses into bars, ac­com­pa­nied by un­der­cover of­fi­cers. The wit­nesses can­not lie, and if asked for iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, they show their real driver’s li­cense in­di­cat­ing they are un­der 21, Sgt. Greg D’Elia ex­plained.

Each of the three times of­fi­cers checked Caffé Gelato, the un­der­age wit­ness was served al­co­hol with­out be­ing asked for iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, D’Elia said.

Ne­wark of­fi­cials award bars and restau­rants points for var­i­ous vi­o­la­tions – serv­ing mi­nors is worth six points – and af­ter an es­tab­lish­ment ac­crues 10 points, its owner is re­quired to meet with the po­lice depart­ment and plan­ning depart­ment, which can then rec­om­mend coun­cil sus­pend the busi­ness’ per­mit to sell al­co­hol for up to 30 days.

Caffé Gelato had such a meet­ing af­ter its sec­ond vi­o­la­tion ear­lier this year, and Ger­man agreed to take steps to pre­vent it from hap­pen­ing again. How­ever, af­ter the third vi­o­la­tion Sept. 21, of­fi­cials rec­om­mended the per­mit be sus­pended.

The res­tau­rant is also ac­cused of three ad­di­tional vi­o­la­tions for which it was not for­mally as­sessed points: a fire code vi­o­la­tion, a weapons of­fense in­volv­ing an off-duty em­ployee bring­ing a gun on the premises and an in­ci­dent in which a 19-year-old Caffé Gelato wait­ress was found drunk in her dorm and had to be hos­pi­tal­ized. She later told univer­sity po­lice she had been drink­ing at work and was pro­vided al­co­hol by a bar­tender there, D’Elia said.

Ger­man said the first in­stance of serv­ing a mi­nor hap­pened be­cause a new em­ployee who had not been trained on al­co­hol rules was clear­ing ta­bles, saw the un­der­age wit­ness at the bar and went over to serve him in an at­tempt to be help­ful. Since then, the res­tau­rant re­quires all its em­ploy­ees, not just servers and bar­tenders, to un­dergo al­co­hol train­ing.

Ger­man’s at­tor­ney, Wil­liam Rho­dunda Jr. blamed the sec­ond vi­o­la­tion on a “rogue em­ployee” who he called a crim­i­nal and a thief, not­ing that the un­der­cover of­fi­cers who con­ducted the com­pli­ance check saw the bar­tender steal­ing money from the res­tau­rant, and he was fired im­me­di­ately.

“That per­son’s not in­tent on card­ing peo­ple; that per­son is in­tent on steal­ing money,” Rho­dunda said.

The third in­stance was a mis­un­der­stand­ing, Ger­man said. The bar­tender carded every­one at the bar, in­clud­ing the un­der­cover cops, and then stepped away for a break. He told the server cover­ing for him that he had carded every­one, not re­al­iz­ing the un­der­cover wit­ness had just ap­proached the bar, and the server sold the wit­ness al­co­hol with­out card­ing her.

A con­trite Ger­man took re­spon­si­bil­ity for the vi­o­la­tions Mon­day night and asked coun­cil to give him an­other chance.

“I apol­o­gize sin­cerely for be­ing here tonight,” he said. “It’s cer­tainly our in­ten­tion to fol­low the law com­pletely. It’s em­bar­rass­ing we failed.”

He said he is tak­ing sev­eral steps to avoid an­other vi­o­la­tion, in­clud­ing hold­ing train­ing ses­sions ev­ery other month, pur­chas­ing a sys­tem to scan ID cards and record the cus­tomers’ date of birth, and hir­ing an­other man­ager. He also hired 21-year-old Univer­sity of Delaware stu­dents to come in unan­nounced and re­port back to him if they were carded.

Ger­man pro­posed an al­ter­na­tive pun­ish­ment – clos­ing the bar por­tion of Caffé Gelato for two weeks while al­low­ing the res­tau­rant to con­tinue to serve al­co­hol to pa­trons din­ing at ta­bles.

“The penalty you’re propos­ing tonight could quite pos­si­bly put us out of busi­ness. It’s that se­vere,” he said. “I’ve been wor­ried sick about it since the sec­ond in­stance.”

At coun­cil’s prompt­ing, he promised that he would vol­un­tar­ily sur­ren­der his al­co­hol per­mit if he has an­other un­der­age vi­o­la­tion in the next five years.

Dozens of Caffé Gelato sup­port­ers packed into coun­cil cham­bers Mon­day night, and many waited hours to serve as char­ac­ter wit­nesses, de­scrib­ing Ger­man and his res­tau­rant as pil­lars of the com­mu­nity.

“I re­ally felt as I sat here that he didn’t de­serve what he was get­ting,” Leni Markell, a long­time Ne­warker and mother of the for­mer gover­nor, said. “You re­ally have to feel more com­pas­sion for this young man. He has worked very hard.”

Jim O’Neal, a for­mer city coun­cil­man who lives in Ar­bour Park, de­scribed Caffé Gelato as a core part of down­town and asked coun­cil to con­sider the ef­fect its clo­sure could have on sur­round­ing busi­nesses.

“Look at what im­pact it would have on the com­mu­nity,” O’Neal said.

State Rep. Paul Baum­bach called the pun­ish­ment “ex­ces­sively broad and un­rea­son­ably puni­tive.”

Jack Bart­ley, pres­i­dent of the Ne­wark Sym­phony Or­ches­tra, noted the sup­port Caffé Gelato has pro­vided to his or­ga­ni­za­tion over the years.

“This is an in­sti­tu­tion,” Bart­ley said. “It’s an ex­tremely im­por­tant part of the Ne­wark com­mu­nity.”

Marc Mar­cus, as­sis­tant di­rec­tor of Friend­ship House, echoed those sen­ti­ments, adding that Caffé Gelato has al­ways been sup­port­ive of his char­ity.

“I’ve never met a more ded­i­cated, con­trolled, or­ga­nized busi­ness­man,” Mar­cus said. “If I had to bet on some­one who could make this work, it’s Ryan Ger­man.”

How­ever, coun­cil mem­bers were not swayed, ar­gu­ing that the good Ger­man has done in the com­mu­nity does not ab­solve him from his re­spon­si­bil­ity to fol­low the law.

Coun­cil did make one mi­nor con­ces­sion, agree­ing to de­lay the start of the sus­pen­sion un­til Jan. 2 in or­der to avoid af­fect­ing the hol­i­day sea­son and Caffé Gelato’s $119-per-per­son New Year’s Eve soirée.

“I don’t un­der­stand why you didn’t move heaven and earth af­ter the first vi­o­la­tion to fix this,” More­head said. “I’m not con­vinced this sit­u­a­tion has your at­ten­tion.”

He noted that even bars that draw a heavy stu­dent clien­tele have man­aged to avoid al­co­hol vi­o­la­tions.

“They’ve fig­ured out how to do this,” More­head said. “It is pos­si­ble in this town.”

Clifton noted that other bars that were caught serv­ing mi­nors re­cently took dras­tic steps to solve the prob­lem. Sea­sons Pizza vol­un­tar­ily gave up its per­mit, and MOD Pizza changed its pol­icy so that only the gen­eral man­ager is al­lowed to serve al­co­hol.

Clifton, who ar­gued that the sus­pen­sion should start im­me­di­ately, added that he be­lieves the prob­lem at Caffé Gelato is likely more wide­spread.

“Here we have three un­der­age drink­ing vi­o­la­tions,” he said. “What would lead me to be­lieve it’s not a cul­ture and there hasn’t been oth­ers?”

NE­WARK POST PHOTO BY JOSH SHAN­NON

Caffe Gelato lost its per­mit to sell al­co­hol for 30 days af­ter po­lice caught the res­tau­rant serv­ing mi­nors three sep­a­rate times.

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