Et tu, News Café? An Ocean Drive classic succumbs to the 2-for-1 game

Ocean Drive

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Et tu, News Café? An Ocean Drive classic succumbs to the 2-for-1 game:

Meanwhile, Commissioners expected to pass legislation prohibiting “specials” boards and “hawking”

Update: City Commisioners voted this week to outlaw the "specials" boards.

As Miami Beach leaders ramp up their efforts to get rid of what are often misleading “specials” advertised by some Ocean Drive businesses to lure people in, an old standby has succumbed. News Café, an Ocean Drive classic since 1988, changed its management this spring and since then has been advertising the 2 for 1 specials that have become almost cliché on the street.
 
Observers say the 2X1 signs started appearing immediately after the change, jolting long-time fans who knew the spot that, at one point, was the place to see and be seen and didn’t have to use “gimmicks” to bring people in. The café was a favorite of Gianni Versace’s who lived not far away on Ocean Drive.
 
Those “specials” signs are the target of an ordinance that will be before the City Commission Wednesday for a final reading and vote. If passed – which is virtually certain based on its support at first reading – the legislation would allow one menu board per 50 feet of sidewalk café frontage and prohibit the specials boards. It’s part of a larger effort to eliminate deceptive, bait and switch practices. 
 
Another ordinance up for first reading would require café operators on Ocean Drive from 5th to 15th Streets to sign a Code of Conduct which includes prohibitions on soliciting passersby verbally or with handbills unless a pedestrian asks for information about the café’s offerings first. The practice known as “hawking” has been upheld as free speech in recent court rulings, however, because sidewalk cafés are on public right of ways, the City can control activities there through the sidewalk café permitting process which is how both ordinances would be enforced.
 
According to a memo from City Manager Jimmy Morales regarding the specials board ordinance, “The City has previously authorized the use of specials boards at sidewalk cafes, which has caused certain sidewalk cafe operators to utilize these specials board(s) in a deceptive manner in order to entice patrons to dine at the business establishment’s sidewalk cafe under false or misleading pretenses.”
 
Ordinance sponsor Commissioner Mark Samuelian said, “It’s an issue that we’ve had in this community for way too long.”
 
“The signage is not clear and can be misleading, it’s aesthetically not pleasing, and anything that slows down pedestrian traffic is a problem,” he said, noting the boards clog the narrow pedestrian walkways and slow things down as visitors stop to read the signs.
 
The recommendation came out of the Mayor’s Panel on Ocean Drive’s Safety, Security and Infrastructure Subcommittee. John Deutzman, co-founder of the Miami Beach Crime Prevention and Awareness Group and a member of the subcommittee, has long targeted the signs as false advertising. Before he retired, Deutzman spent 30 years in the TV news business, 15 as an investigative reporter which included consumer fraud investigations.
 
The signs, he said, are “blatant false advertising and consumer fraud. You can’t advertise a bargain that’s not a bargain or a bargain if you don’t get the bargain.”
 
“The City’s done what it can regarding tightening up and making the pricing and certain things very clear but that’s not what the scam is about,” Deutzman said. “The scam is about luring people in with bait which either comes verbally or from the signs and then switching what they thought they were going to get into something else and there’s the fraud.”
 
While false advertising is the domain of the Florida Attorney General and the Federal Trade Commission, Deutzman said, the legislation being considered this week is one step within the City’s purview to eliminate what he calls the bait.


News Café and the “2X1”

This reporter, admittedly, does not dine on Ocean Drive much but recent Facebook posts lamenting the impact of the management change at News Café piqued my curiosity. 
 
A deep dive into recent online reviews shows there has been a significant change in perception since the beginning of June. On Yelp, there have been 35 reviews since June 1. Of those, 13 are one-star and 11 are two-star reviews. There are only 11 reviews in the three-, four-, and five-star categories. Complaints range from slow service, “mediocre” food, an automatic gratuity on checks, a greater emphasis on “happy hour” promotions, and misleading prices.
 
Carl H., a Miami Beach resident, wrote on July 4th: "We are long-time customers at the News Café. It’s been our go-to breakfast spot for decades, but they are under new management and the menu and feel of this South Beach institution is diminished… There’s less food and more Happy Hour promotion, making the historic News Café more similar to all of the other Ocean Drive mediocrity."
 
Reviews on Trip Advisor are a little more evenly spread with 7 one-star reviews and 2 two-star reviews since June 1. There is a total of 9 in the three-, four-, and five-star categories.
 
Marlon629 from San Francisco titled his review “False Advertising”: "My experience was horrible, the waiter flags you down tell you they have drink specials buy one get one free, but what they don’t tell you is that the drinks are $35…"
 
Google reviews are decidedly different. Over the past month: 72 are five-star, 34 are four-star, 10 are three-star, 15 are two-star, and 22 are one-star.  Six days ago, Local Guide Justin Gunnink who wrote “Still my favorite little place in Miami” in 2013 added this: "I need to edit my review. This year they changed owners and they have DOUBLED THEIR PRICES. Not joking. A draft beer was $8 last year and it’s it [sic] $16 this year… I’m actually really devastated right now because this was my haven in Miami Beach…”
 
So… I decided to check it out for myself. 
 
First, a note:  With regard to ownership, Mark Soyka who is the original owner told me earlier this year after rumors of a sale that he had simply changed management and that he still owned the café. The BTR (Miami Beach business license) lists him as the owner. I reached out to Soyka via text and left a message for Sasha Soyka at the business number listed on the BTR. They did not respond to a request for comment.
 
My visit took place this past Sunday, July 14. There was one promotional sign on one side of the café in the middle of the block but not on the 8th and Ocean corner. A walk up and down the street from 5th to 12th showed that most restaurants with larger frontage had signs on both ends, which you could take as two chances to lure people in or more transparency. This writer takes neither position. It’s just an observation.
 
I brought along a friend, because if you’re going to try out a 2X1 promotion, you need a plus one. We were not handed any further information on the specials along with our regular menu, though in the walk around looking at other restaurants, there were menus on the tables but no “specials” sheets to go with them either even when the restaurant advertised 2X1 specials on a board. 
 
When we sat down, I asked about a breakfast menu. The restaurant’s website continues to advertise 24-hour breakfast (but it also shows a menu from 2013). Our server said the restaurant had been sold and the new owners did not want to serve breakfast 24 hours. 
[Hmmm. Okay. Maybe a misunderstanding on the ownership thing?]
 
Inquiring how the 2X1 promotion worked, I asked if I could order a drink and my friend could get one free. Our server said it was actually “two drinks per person” and only if we ordered two of the same drink.
[So, I didn’t really need that plus one?]
 
“We can’t drink two drinks so we’ll just order food,” I responded.
[My friend looks at me like “Speak for yourself, you lightweight.”]
 
“Well, maybe I can push it through,” our server offered. “If you order the same drink, I can try to push it through. We’re not really supposed to but I’ll try. Don’t tell anyone, though.
[Yeah. About that…]
 
We order two glasses of wine and food from the appetizer menu. 
[When the order arrives, we agree – to our amazement – it was a generous pour – and, later, that the food “wasn’t horrible” except for the odd placement of cocktail sauce instead of salsa on the plate with the chicken tacos. But I digress...]
 
When the check arrives, the server did, in fact, remove the second drink so we paid $12 for two glasses of wine.
 
Curious if that was the way the 2-for-1 worked everywhere (two drinks per person), we randomly stopped at other cafés and were told “Absolutely, you can order one drink and your friend can get a free drink.” That response, by the way, was also the response at Ocean’s Ten, which several people off the record said were the new managers of News Café. Ocean’s Ten is located on the corner (and mid-block) at 10th and Ocean Drive. They have live bands and dancers every night.
 
On its website, the News Café bills itself as “a quaint sidewalk café, restaurant and bar.” An inquiry into the City turned up a new application by News Café to be allowed to have "entertainment without dancing." Asked if that type of an application could be approved at the staff level without Planning Board or Historic Preservation Board approval, City Chief of Planning and Zoning Michael Belush wrote in an email, “Yes, if the occupancy load is below 200 and the entertainment is contained completely on the interior with doors closed.” City spokeswoman Melissa Berthier said no application had been filed with the Planning Board or HPB at this time. 
 
While the News Café website advertises “Happier Happy Hours: 2-4-1 Monday-Friday 4-7 pm” and “Late Night Happy Hour Sunday thru Thursday 10PM-12 AM” with “Half Price Drinks. (Exclusions apply)”, observers say the 2X1 specials are now commonplace at the restaurant at any hour. My visit was on a Sunday afternoon, outside of the happy hour schedule noted on the website.
 
The fine print on the 2X1 specials board reads “During our happy hour, our cocktails are 2X1 per check.” I asked several people in the restaurant business if “per check” could mean “per person” and each said “NO!”

[Article continues below photos.]


 
The News Café specials board on July 14, 2019

 
The "fine print" on the News Café specials board


That said, the sign specifically excludes beer and wine and our server did offer us a free glass of wine. The answers we were given may point to another common complaint about Ocean Drive businesses – the need for better training. In any event, the answers were confusing and did not match what we believed to be advertised with regard to how the 2X1 worked (per check versus per person).
 
[Below is a sampling of specials boards on Ocean Drive. Kudos to Havana 1957 which clearly states pricing alongside pictures of drinks and actual ounces on its display board. All of these would be prohibited if the specials board ordinance passes second reading on Wednesday.]
 

The “Specials” Board Ordinance 

Deutzman said, “As a person who used to live in South Florida in the 90s and knew how hard it was to even get a seat at the News Café and how iconic the News Café is, for them to stoop to this carnival gimmick game is frightening to me.”
 
I asked Samuelien, the ordinance sponsor, about my experience. “I’m not familiar with the circumstances around that one business,” he said, but added “We are making progress. We are committed to making more progress. My bottom line is, enough is enough.”
 
“We think that this is going to be a step as part of our overall umbrella to help with / eliminate bait and switch.”
 
Samuelian acknowledged there may be other ways around the issue such as making a 2 for 1 offer verbally at a table but he said the problem “doesn’t lend itself to one silver bullet. It takes a multi-prong approach.” He noted updated requirements for menu pricing and an increased emphasis on enforcement. “I never expect that one change is going to be that one final solution but I see it as a basket of good ideas that, in combination, I think we’re actually addressing the problem.” He pointed out that some businesses that used to engage in bad behavior are no longer doing so or are gone.
 
Don’t expect Deutzman to mince words with regard to the proliferation of the signs on Ocean Drive when the item is heard. “The City cannot be partners with fraudsters. Period. There’s no excuse even if they have to eliminate every café table. We can’t be partners with these people.”
 
The Sidewalk Café Code of Conduct ordinance is sponsored by Mayor Dan Gelber. It requires an affidavit contractually binding sidewalk café permit holders on Ocean Drive between 5th and 15th Streets to display or disclose actual prices for food and drink menu items adjacent to the menu items and in a font at least as large as the name of the menu item; disclose automatic gratuities; and agree to annual training for managers and employees with refresher courses each year.
 
In addition, the Code of Conduct prohibits solicitation of pedestrians or the distribution of any commercial handbills “on the sidewalk abutting the sidewalk café permit area or on the right of way within 20 feet of the outer perimeter of the sidewalk café permit area... unless the pedestrian first affirmatively communicates a desire to receive information about the sidewalk café’s food, beverages, products, or services.” In addition, holding or displaying commercial handbills “in such a way that impedes, hinders, delays, or obstructs any pedestrian’s gait or path of travel” would be prohibited. 
 
The Commission will hear the specials board item at approximately 10:20 am. It includes a public hearing. Details are here. While the Code of Conduct is specific to areas of Ocean Drive, the specials board ordinance is Citywide with a one-year exemption for sidewalk cafés located north of 63rd Street.

The Code of Conduct and prohibition on solicitation item details are here.


Update: On July 17, Commissioners passed the prohibition on the 2X1 signs which will not longer be allowed after July 26. The Code of Conduct legislation passed on first reading.
 
Havana 1957 specials board with disclosure on drinks, ounces, and price

 
 
 
 
 
 

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