Don't Drink on an Empty Stomach -- Or Else!

The big Bud Light clock, ringed in orange neon, was marking 10:00 p.m. at the Rinconcito de Noche cafeteria in Little Havana one night last month when the jukebox stopped. Owner Linda Huerta, who was on her way out of the kitchen with two plates of food, knew right away the silence was ominous. When she stepped into the dining area, Miami police officers greeted her. Moments later they closed down the cafeteria and charged her with violating the terms of her beer and wine license. The $500 violation: A middle-aged woman was drinking a beer without eating food at the same time.

In Miami the holder of a 2COP state liquor license (for consumption on premises), which Huerta has, can legally serve only beer and wine "and only with food," explains Juan Gonzalez, the City of Miami's acting zoning administrator. (The Florida Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco, which issues liquor licenses, doesn't care whether a 2COP holder serves food, but state law allows municipalities to add amendments such as Miami's.)

Many cafeteria owners in Little Havana are confused about just how much food must accompany just how many bottles of beer. The city's no-beer-without-food rule has not only perplexed Linda Huerta, it has also cost her dearly -- since December she has accumulated $2000 in fines. She says she cannot afford to pay and is planning to contest the citations this week with the help of a lawyer.

Originally from Chihuahua, Mexico, Huerta left Los Angeles a year and a half ago to be close to her daughter (who moved to Miami to be with her boyfriend) and soon opened Rinconcito de Noche on SW Eighth Avenue. She was relieved to get out of L.A., where she still owns a Mexican restaurant, but now laments the move -- she would have endured that city's traffic and crime had she foreseen the costly hassles that awaited her in Little Havana.

In the past month alone, police officers on routine patrols known as "bar checks" have issued beer-without-food citations to three other Little Havana cafeterias, according to Pablo Canton, administrator of Miami's East Little Havana Neighborhood Enhancement Team. "The city doesn't want any more bars in Little Havana, and we don't want any restaurants to turn into bars," Canton declares. "[Cafeteria owners] have a license to operate a restaurant, not a bar." The fines are "just a little $500 reminder" of that, he adds with a smile.

Though the cafeteria crackdown is not his number-one priority, Canton explains, it is on his agenda of actions aimed at creating a climate that will lure new retail businesses to the area. He says he is also encouraging police to step up arrests of crack dealers and people drinking alcohol in public, and he is working on a plan to deploy durable trash bins along sidewalks.

Canton concedes, however, that higher-quality retail businesses have been slow in coming to Little Havana. "We still have a lot of dollar stores," he observes. "Then again, we have a lot of record stores and jewelry stores. And of course, now cigar stores are the hot item." But restaurants that are threatening to become full-fledged bars are simply not an option, he insists: "Nobody likes to have a bar next to a laundry or a barber shop."

By the time Linda Huerta's neon Bud Light clock hit 11:00 p.m., the officers who had closed her place were issuing a $500 citation at Los Arcos Floridianos, a cafeteria on SW Twelfth Avenue, for the same offense -- beer without food. In a police report of the incident, an officer "observed twenty patrons drinking beer (Heineken, Corona, Budweiser) without food as stipulated." (The officer also issued several citations to waitresses for mingling with customers, but that's another story.)

"That is not true!" explodes owner Miguel Reyes, who moved from Cuba to Miami in 1972 and has operated the place for seven years. "What the hell is going on? Why are they doing this?" he yells irately over his car phone. "I am a U-S-of-A citizen. I don't sell drugs there, I don't have prostitution there. What are they doing? I have a wife and two kids to take care of!"

The citations for beer without food have also vexed Patty Martinez, a Honduran waitress who works for Reyes. "You can't survive just selling sandwiches or cafecitos," she says from behind the cafeteria's counter. Above her a sign hangs from the ceiling, handwritten in Spanish: Warning: It is prohibited to use weapons or drugs in this place -- by order of the police. Another reads, Not paying your check is a crime -- by order of the police.

Standing next to Martinez is the Los Arcos Floridianos cook, who would identify herself only as "La Argentina." She says the beer-and-wine license is so ambiguous it is impossible to understand. "You can come in here and have a sandwich and then drink five beers, and that's okay," she shouts over singer Ana Gabriel blaring from a jukebox. "But if you just want to come in here and have one beer, that's illegal! They should give us a book that says exactly what you can and can't do."

A few minutes later 66-year-old Rigoberto Samper takes the counter seat closest to the front door and orders a beer. La Argentina puts a plate with a cup of soup and some French fries on the counter in front of him, even though he didn't order it. After a few swigs of beer, Samper thanks her for the food but confesses that he already ate.

Samper, a retired general contractor from Hialeah who still runs a small real estate business, avoids cafeterias that insist he order food with his beer, and he denounces Miami's food requirement: "It's completely absurd. I always have two or three beers before I eat, even at home. On any part of the planet you go -- Europe or wherever -- you can go into a place, sit down, and have a beer." He recalls his own bar-restaurant, Matanzas, which he operated on Flagler Street in the 1960s, where serving liquor without food was not a problem. As he reminisces, his complimentary soup and fries get colder.

Figueredo Eraclio, who operates the Colonial Supermarket Cafeteria (and the Colonial Supermarket) on SW Second Street, knows the sting of a $500 beer-without-food citation, though he has not received one lately. He and his wife have owned the place, which is popular among Mexican and Central American construction workers, since moving to Miami from Los Angeles eleven years ago.

Sporting a baseball cap and apron, the 71-year-old stands behind his brown vinyl counter and recalls the day seven months ago when police did fine him. It was nothing as bad as the Castro government's confiscation of his parents' grocery store after the Cuban revolution, but oppressive nonetheless, he proclaims. A policeman arrived just before closing time, Eraclio relates, and found a customer with nothing in front of him on the counter but a nearly empty bottle of beer. "He had just eaten and was finishing his beer," Eraclio insists. "How would [the police] know if he had eaten or not? It's absurd!"

Eraclio paid the $500 fine after contesting it and losing. But since then he has made sure that at each seat along the counter, right next to the napkin holders, there are ham-and-cheese sandwiches, perpetually about to be eaten by a beer drinker but never consumed.

NET administrator Pablo Canton warns that he will not be fooled by any phony food orders, and says that cold cups of soup and stale, crumbling sandwiches will not ward off fines. The crackdown on cafeterias will continue, he vows: "We'll probably hit some again this weekend.


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