April 29, 2008

Local Bites

• The Third Annual Eight Days of Eats event kicks off tonight at Headhouse Square Market from 7:00pm to 9:00pm. Restaurants participating in the South Street Headhouse Area festival and sponsors will be offering food and refreshments. Donations go to the Historic Trust Conservancy.

• Tinto and Rae were just named to Condé Nast Traveler’s 12th Annual Hot List. From the Condé Nast Traveler’s website: “Our team of roving epicures visited 32 countries—from Chile to the Czech Republic, Thailand to Tunisia—to track down the world's most exciting new restaurants. Hundreds of meals later, 105 made the cut.” Tinto’s Jose Garces is celebrating by introducing Sunday Brunch starting this Sunday (10:00am-3:00pm). A la carte items range from $8 to $14 and include Revuelto de Hongos (shirred eggs with porcini and royal trumpet mushrooms, parmesan espuma and truffle butter) and cocktails such as the Pamplona (celery vodka, spiced tomato, citrus and beef consommé).

• On Thursday, May 1, Chef Felix S. Maietta and Theresa Fera-Maietta (The Down Town Club) will open the much anticipated Union Gourmet Market & Cafe at 1113 Locust Street on the ground floor of the Western Union Telegraph Building. Union Gourmet aims to be a quality alternative to take-out, offering fresh-made soups, salads, sandwiches, pizzas, house-baked pastries and breads, an antipasto bar and entrees.

• There’s still time to get tickets for the Seventh Annual Philadelphia Wine Festival being held at the PA Convention Center on Saturday, May 10. Tickets are $125 for the Grand Tasting/General Admission (6:30pm-9:00pm), and $225 for the VIP Tasting/Early Entry (5:30pm-9:00pm). Tickets can be purchased online.

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April 19, 2008

Tipping Point

Voltaire said we should judge others by the questions they ask rather than by the answers they give. This post illustrates why such wisdom rings true.

On Feb. 24, someone posted a comment in the restaurant section of City Paper’s website claiming that Arbol Café was confiscating the servers’ tips. This sparked a tremendous amount of outrage directed toward Arbol Café. Dozens of people chimed in on City Paper’s site, and on other local web sites, with heated opinions on the topic. Some claimed they would boycott the restaurant. Someone even posted claiming to be the owners of Arbol Café. It generated so much controversy that the Consumerist picked up the story.

My editor at City Paper, Drew Lazor, had a radical idea: he thought it would be interesting to find out whether the allegation leveled against Arbol Café was actually true. Turns out, it was not true. You can read the results of Drew’s investigation here. Briefly, Arbol Café keeps the servers’ tips only during training, which consists of three shifts. The irony of this whole thing is that Arbol Café appears to treat its servers far better than other restaurants because it pays its servers a base salary above minimum wage and then throws the tips on top of it.

Before Drew discovered the truth, he asked me to do a legal analysis as to whether the alleged practice was legal. You can read my analysis here. In short, under Federal and PA labor law, the alleged practice would be legal if there was an agreement in place between the servers and the restaurant and if the restaurant paid the servers a base salary above minimum wage. Practically speaking, though, I don’t know if any server ever would agree to surrender all of his or her tips.

Kudos to Drew for getting to the bottom of the controversy and also to FooBooz for throwing a healthy dash of skepticism on the issue.

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April 02, 2008

An Update on Direct Wine Shipment in PA

Chateau Mouton Rothschild 2003

I wrote an article on direct wine shipment that appears in this week’s City Paper. Forgive the Madonna reference; it’s called “Over the Border Wine.”

The article explores whether it’s still illegal to have wine shipped to your door under Pennsylvania law. The reason this is an open question is because two court cases rendered Pennsylvania’s existing statutory scheme unconstitutional. And the Pennsylvania legislature has yet to clean up the mess.

Rep. Paul Costa and Sen. Jim Ferlo were kind and gracious enough to speak to me about the direct shipment bills they proposed that are currently pending in the state legislature. Tom Wark, Executive Director of the Specialty Wine Retailers Association, gave his insight on the issues raised by direct shipment legislation. Tom also writes one of the most insightful and thought-provoking wine blogs out there—Fermentation. The PLCB and the PA State Police's Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement went above and beyond in responding to my questions. Finally, special thanks to Gary Vaynerchuk, Director of Operations at Wine Library and host of Wine Library TV, for throwing in his two cents. Gary sympathizes with Pennsylvania wine drinkers. “What PA residents are going through is so sad,” Gary says. “I get over 50 emails a week from PA residents crying, including one that moved to South Jersey just because of it!”

And that’s one important piece of the puzzle that’s often overlooked—retailers. At the end of the day, what wine lovers in Pennsylvania really want is the ability to order wine from Internet retailers, not out-of-state wineries. The reason is obvious: choice. Internet retailers offer hundreds or even thousands wines from numerous wineries located all over the world. And contrary to the belief held by some well-intentioned folks in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s statutory scheme currently leaves Internet retailers out in the cold.

The case law I reference above only talks about wineries. But recently a federal court in Texas held that in-state and out-of-state retailers have to be treated equally as well. In PA, however, there is only one in-state retailer—the PLCB. And the PLCB doesn’t deliver wines to peoples’ doors. That is, at least not yet. If Rep. Costa’s bill passes as is—which would allow the PLCB to deliver wine to your door—they may have no choice but to let Gary and other Internet wine retailers do the same.

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