Feeling ripped off after $55 margaritas on Ocean Drive? Miami Beach wants to help

Miami Beach wants to regulate sidewalk cafe operators who don’t advertise prices or try to trick customers into ordering expensive food and drinks.
Miami Beach wants to regulate sidewalk cafe operators who don’t advertise prices or try to trick customers into ordering expensive food and drinks. cmguerrero@elnuevoherald.com

Miami Beach wants to crack down on restaurants that use deceptive sales tactics to lure unsuspecting tourists to cafe tables and then hit them with exorbitant bills.

A few Ocean Drive restaurants have developed a reputation for angering customers who feel ripped off by pushy servers and menu-hawkers who don’t always provide prices for drink or food specials. In some cases, menus don’t even include prices — a problem highlighted by the Miami Herald in December that ignited a conversation at City Hall.

Customers take to online restaurant review sites to document their frustrations over being seated at a cafe for a “special” or “two-for-one,” orally advertised by a server, that ends up being way more alcohol — and money — than the customer anticipated. Think of a $55 oversized margarita with Coronas upside down in it. Or a meal special with an unadvertised price that far exceeds the regular menu’s price range.

City Commissioner Mark Samuelian is proposing an ordinance that would empower the city to revoke restaurants’ permits for sidewalk cafe tables if they don’t clearly advertise prices and display the city’s consumer protection laws on tabletop information cards. The city manager could even have the ability to strip away violators’ business licenses.

“We have many, many good sidewalk cafe operators, but some bad apples are causing problems and it needs to stop,” he said during Wednesday’s commission meeting.

But some wrinkles still need to be ironed out.

A discussion among commissioners Wednesday indicated all elected officials want to aggressively attack the problem, but they want to tweak the ordinance and study the costs of requiring sidewalk cafes to have information cards on tables. Members of the business community want those cards, which are proposed to display the city’s rules and provide the number for the code compliance department, to have positive messaging that doesn’t scare off visitors.

“The message ought to be a tourist-friendly message,” said Commissioner John Elizabeth Alemán. “It needs to be a positive, welcoming, upbeat message.”

Her concerns were echoed by Ceci Velasco, excutive director of the Ocean Drive Association, who emphasized that the whole strip of business owners will benefit when the “bad operators” are addressed. She said a tweaked ordinance will give the association a tool to help businesses police themselves.

“We want to collaborate with the city to give us something to enforce,” she said. “That is what we really need.”

Under the initial proposed ordinance, restaurants would be required to display prices on their menus for all food, drinks and specials at all sidewalk cafe tables. Each table would be required to display a card that advises patrons of this requirement and advertises the phone number for the city’s code compliance department.

The additional requirements would be conditions for maintaining a permit from the city to operate sidewalk cafes. If an owner violated the regulations, the city could revoke the sidewalk table permit or even the business’ license, which would shut it down.

Another fine point elected officials want to address: the table tent. What if it blows away, or diners put it on the ground to make room on the table?

While agreeing on the general principle of the ordinance, commissioners agreed to hash out the details in a subcommittee and vote on the ordinance in the coming months.

“I just think we need to fine-tune it,” said Commissioner Michael Góngora.

Joey Flechas: 305-376-3602, @joeflech

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