Juan Muchotrigo made enormous sacrifices for his job. During the sixteen years he worked at East Coast Fisheries restaurant, the 39-year-old wrecked three serious relationships with girlfriends who demanded he spend more time with them and less time at work. He punched the clock instead of using vacation time to visit his family in Peru, whom he hadn't seen since immigrating to Miami in 1984. (The family, however, received a sizable cut of his paycheck.) The man with callused hands spent sixteen-hour days attending to fillet-hungry diners, often pulling double duty as a chef, sautéing snapper and tossing slabs of grouper into vats of machine-gun-crackling oil. He washed dishes, bused tables, and kept customers smiling. And of course he endured the ultimate sacrifice: always smelling like fish, even on those rare occasions when he took a day off.
"Some people would say to me: You work too much.' But I loved every minute, because that place was love -- it was my family," recalls Muchotrigo, referring to the city's first commercially successful fish market, which opened in 1933. Miami businessman Max Swartz saw promise in the rusty-brown building along the Miami River at 40 SW N. River Dr., built in 1924 and rumored to have housed a bordello in its early years. Swartz's fish-packing business prospered, even through the Great Depression, with wholesale customers up and down the East Coast. In 1979 a restaurant was added to the operation, which continued to thrive despite the intrusion of expressway overpasses and a slew of construction projects that hid it from view.
"None of that stopped people. We always had a crowd," says Muchotrigo, now a manager at Garcia's Seafood Grille, a few blocks up the river. "Once Andy Garcia came in, and Alex Penelas ate there a lot. It's a shame what's happened. It's a tragedy for everyone, not just because it was home for me."
The tragedy occurred last year, when the City of Miami shut down the business. Many East Coast Fisheries employees were not surprised. Most knew the business had racked up more than 30 code violations since 1995, including failure to meet minimum fire, plumbing, and structural standards, and frequently operating at nearly twice its permitted capacity.
On May 24, 2000, Miami police officers accompanied code-enforcement officials into East Coast Fisheries at 2:00 p.m., just after the lunch rush, recalls Muchotrigo. Only two people were dining at the time. Muchotrigo approached the officers and asked if he could quietly ask the customers to leave without making a scene. The cops warned Muchotrigo that he'd be arrested if he interfered with the closing. "I backed off," he says. "I didn't want to be arrested. The idea that I would be arrested there after all I'd done -- it was just unbelievable that it was happening."
In less than an hour, Miami's longest-running riverfront business became another casualty on a civic battlefield littered with historic landmarks. It should have been headline news, especially when local politicians were touting a new baseball stadium as the catalyst for a revitalized downtown. But East Coast Fisheries expired without a peep.
Historian Paul George was leading a boat tour up the Miami River last summer when he noticed the place had closed. He called the Miami Herald, but the paper never wrote a story. Other media outlets, including New Times, remained unaware or unconcerned. "Somebody should have said something," George complains. "It was one of the few elements of old Miami you could relate to. But the last owner was meddlesome, and the prices had risen steeply. They were pretty unreasonable, actually."
In 1978 Max Swartz formally handed over the business to his son David, who soon created the restaurant, even though he always thought of himself as a fishmonger, not a restaurateur. When David died of cancer in February 1995, his brother Peter took the reins. That's when problems with Miami bureaucrats began. From 1995 to 1999, city records show, East Coast Fisheries did not renew its operational license or certificate of use but continued in business anyway (both are offenses for which Swartz could have been arrested). In 1996, 1997, and 1999, code inspectors posted violation warnings on the eatery's front door -- scarlet letters in the restaurant industry. Still business continued as usual. But when a wheelchair-bound customer complained last year about lack of access to a third-floor bathroom, inspectors finally lost their patience.
According to Downtown Neighborhood Enhancement Team administrator Patricia Castro, each time Peter Swartz was cited for a code violation, he was given three months to comply. He never did. By the time the restaurant was finally shuttered, he owed the city more than $120,000 in fines. In July of last year, after the city had placed a lien on the property, Swartz and his attorney Ira Silver (neither of whom would comment for this story) negotiated a settlement of $20,000, which Swartz paid. Today the waterfront building, its parking lot, and associated parcels are for sale. Asking price: $12.8 million.
Another attorney, Andrew Nierenberg, represented the Swartz family from 1996 to 1999, when most of the violations occurred. He also acted as Peter Swartz's private lawyer when the businessman filed for personal bankruptcy in the late Nineties, something Nierenberg explains was unrelated to East Coast Fisheries' downfall. "The restaurant had a history of code violations going back forever," says Nierenberg. "When David owned it, it had a lot of problems too. It was an old building. It's not as if there were terrible health and safety problems that would have posed immediate risks. There was a new kitchen and dishwashing equipment. Most of the code violations were canceled by the hearing boards because we were making efforts to renovate."
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Indeed city records indicate Swartz hired an architect and engineer to bring his business into compliance, but at the same time he also began erecting an elaborate open-air bar and dining area on the parking lot. It attracted hundreds of customers. Swartz's cash register may have been ringing, but the new addition, built without proper permits, cost him in more code violations.
Isabel Pelaez was an East Coast Fisheries waitress for 39 of her 57 years. She now works with Juan Muchotrigo at Garcia's Seafood Grille and also blames Peter Swartz for failing to keep his family's business afloat. "There was a big difference between David and Peter," says Pelaez while serving a late-lunch crowd at Garcia's. "David paid attention to customers. He cared and kept the building up. I told Juan it was all going to go down in five years after Peter showed us how he wanted things run."
Pelaez wipes her hands on a grease-streaked apron. "I loved that place," she continues. "It was my home, my family. I met my husband there. Customers from all over the world still write me letters. It hurts my heart to go past and look at the building all dark and quiet."
Muchotrigo says he urged Swartz on numerous occasions to repair the building's defects, but to no avail. "His bottom line was money, and making repairs wasn't going to make money," Muchotrigo laments. "The employees who'd been there for so long -- like Isabel -- literally cried because the inside was falling apart. I would have paid my life savings if it would have rescued that place."