Council suspends Gelato’s alcohol permit
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?”
Caffe Gelato lost its permit to sell alcohol for 30 days after police caught the restaurant serving minors three separate times.