Former Students Say South Beach Bartending School Drink Academy Is a Scam

Emmi Weiner, a rosy-cheeked, cheerful, 25-year-old redhead, says she knew something was wrong immediately after stepping into Mokai, the trendy South Beach nightclub. After forking over $395 and spending two days studying recipes for mojitos and martinis at the Drink Academy, she was supposed to take a test to qualify as a bartender.

But just as she and three other students took their seats in the club's central ring of black banquettes — and before she even answered her first question or poured her first drink — her iPhone began buzzing. She looked at it perplexedly. It was an email from the bartending school's owner, Derek Fonseca, congratulating her on passing the course. "We would like to be the first to officially welcome you into 'the biz,'?" it read.

"That was when I realized I should've checked into these guys more," she says.

Weiner is one of dozens of aspiring bartenders who claim they have shelled out thousands of dollars to 43-year-old Fonseca for courses that were short, unproductive, and followed by little to no help finding full-time employment. A two-year-old petition on Change.org accusing him of running an unlicensed bartending school and "scamming" students out of money is signed by dozens of mostly angry people. Moreover, Fonseca and his school were banned from Mokai, where classes have long been held, about three months ago for failure to pay rent, according to management company Icon Hospitality.

Florida's education department even contends Fonseca breached a 2014 court order to operate only licensed facilities. "Mr. Fonseca violated the agreement," department spokeswoman Alix Miller wrote in an email. "The commission is in the process of enforcing the agreement."

Fonseca, who contends his schools "wrote the book on bartending," agreed to a preliminary interview but then didn't show up for a follow-up meeting on Lincoln Road. He says he has educated many students and found jobs for most.

"Anybody, anybody who comes into the Drink Academy has 200 percent job placement," he contended. "I give them leads, I help them put a resumé together, we take pictures of them behind the bar." Sometime after Weiner took the class and test, he says, the school was closed to the general public. "We're only working with hand-selected individuals," Fonseca adds. He didn't respond to an emailed list of nine questions or a dozen calls.

The case is a problem for the scores of licensed bartending schools in Florida, including three in Miami-Dade County. While they attempt to give would-be barkeeps important knowledge and experience, others offer little of value. And the state has limited power to stop those lacking licenses.

In Florida, for-profit postsecondary schools are required to be licensed by the Commission for Independent Education, an arm of the state's education department. The department can't file criminal charges but can refer cases to the state attorney.

"The department of education every year holds me to these audits and these guidelines, but they don't enforce the law," Elite Bartending School owner Austin Gagnon says. "There's no regulation."

Fonseca, whose Facebook profile shows a stocky, dark-haired man holding drinks and grinning ear-to-ear in nightclubs, says he's a "lifelong bartender" who moved to Miami in 2000. He soon opened his first outfit, called South Beach Bartending School, on Washington Avenue. In 2008, he shuttered that company to open the Drink Academy, which listed its address as 235 23rd St., the same as the nightclub Mokai. The club's manager, Ivan Ibanez, says he was suspicious of Fonseca from the start. "It was a bad look for us," Ibanez says.

Over the years, Fonseca says, he's helped arrange "thousands of jobs" for his schools' graduates at places like Hard Rock Café, Jazid, and Mansion, which late last year became Icon. "I've done Ultra and the [MTV] Video Music Awards," Fonseca says. "I pretty much have a key to the city."

But public records, online comments, and interviews indicate things began to unravel in 2012, when the Florida Department of Education filed a complaint in Broward County against Fonseca's South Beach Staffing & Enterprises LLC. Investigators alleged he had been operating a bartending school without a license since 2007. In a June 2014 agreement, Fonseca didn't admit any wrongdoing but agreed to operate in a licensed location, according to court records.

Over the years. Austin Gagnon has emerged as one of Fonseca's chief critics. Gagnon is a 33-year-old upstate New York native who sports close-cropped hair and a pair of thick-framed Ray-Ban glasses. At the age of 19, he spent one summer working at a friend's bar in Troy, New York, before decamping for Miami and earning a psychology degree at Barry University. But a side job bartending at the Clevelander on Ocean Drive "opened up a lot of doors for other things," he says.

He opened Elite Bartending School in South Beach in 2008. It grew quickly and now has three other locations, including Fort Lauderdale, the Keys, and Fort Myers. He says he estimates about 3,000 students have passed through his program, which is annually certified by the state's education department. He pays the state about $4,000 per year for the ability to issue 500 certificates.

He contends he's been complaining to the state about Fonseca for nearly a decade. Gagnon's words are not driven by any sense of competition, he claims. "He gives [graduates] a worthless piece of paper, tells them he's going to help them get a job, then — poof — disappears," Gagnon says. "He knows what he's doing, and he gives our industry a bad name."

The Change.org petition signed by 72 people sends the same message. It claims Fonseca has been "scamming people for years, and it's time for the State of Florida's Department of Education to arrest and shut him down!"

One of those who signed was Marina Zecic, who about two decades ago moved to Miami from the former Yugoslavia. Though mainly a real-estate agent, she says she began dabbling in bartending to make up for the real-estate market's regular lulls. She says she saw an ad for Fonseca's bartending school on Craigslist about seven or eight years ago. "It just sounded too good to be true," she says. "He was listing the places that were mission impossible to get into: Versace's house, Eden Roc Miami Beach, Hard Rock Café. Then he did not want to give me a job assignment unless I paid for it."

She says she tried to convince him that she would pay after she arranged work, but Fonseca refused to budge. Zecic eventually walked away. "He shouldn't be allowed to post ads on a thing like Craigslist," she says.

Weiner eventually reached a similar conclusion, but only after almost completely draining her bank account to take Fonseca's course.

She graduated from the University of Missouri in 2012 and thought bartending could help cover the bills, grad school, and maybe a trip to Europe. "All the normal dreams of a 24-year-old who has yet to figure everything out," she says.

Late last year while she was browsing Craigslist for potential jobs, an ad from the Drink Academy stuck out: "Have fun. Enjoy your job. Get paid to party." It promised gigs at South Beach's top nightclubs, including Mokai, Set, and the recently opened Icon.

Things at Fonseca's bartending school didn't seem right from the beginning, she says. She allegedly paid $100 in cash to hold her spot and then $295 more for the promise of dozens of hours of training over ten days. According to a screen grab of the school's website, which has since been taken down, there were supposed to be lessons covering wine varietals, bartenders' legal responsibilities, and mixology. Weiner says her class lasted only three days, and on exam day, she learned she had passed via text message before she even finished the test.

Still, she polished off the written part of the exam in 45 minutes and then moved on to a practical part that included taking lengthy orders and pouring shots. "I passed them both just about perfectly," she says. But in the days that followed, none of Fonseca's promises seemed to pan out. Weiner received no certificate and was never called back to build a resumé. No job lead database materialized. A few days later, he emailed her a sample resumé and a spreadsheet of bars and clubs. But the leads seemed to be months out of date. "He said he would send an updated list but never did," she contends.

When Weiner called Miami Beach Police, she was told there was nothing they could do — she had signed a contract with Fonseca that had technically been fulfilled.

Fonseca says Weiner's claim that he didn't offer a full course is dead wrong. "It's possible she may have just missed [some classes]. We have so many people scheduled for classes we can't keep track," he says.

Weiner says she was naive and has since moved to Budapest, Hungary, and found work at an event management company. "I'll still do bartending jobs," she said, "but I'll never do another bartending school."

Three months ago, Fonseca's school was locked out of Mokai for nonpayment of rent, according to Jay Ponz of Icon Hospitality, which manages Mokai. "We were renting it out to him, but I'm not quite sure what he was doing with the space,"Ponz says. "He was past due a few months, so we terminated his rent."

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