A black tarp hangs over what used to be the Burger & Beer Joint in South Beach as well as a dark cloud over why it closed.
Three months after a gay night club opened on the second floor of the country’s first Burger & Beer Joint, the Boca Raton-based franchise has revoked the local restaurant’s right to use the name, menu and concept.
The locals say they are being targeted for leasing the upstairs to a longtime South Beach gay club promoter, and they point to a letter they were sent shortly after The Mix bar and lounge opened, which states the club “could have a substantial negative impact” on Burger & Beer Joint’s reputation.
“It’s outright discrimination,” said Carlos Ekneiro, one of three partners who own the South Beach restaurant, which is now operating without a name and concept. “How can they say because they’re doing gay events that it’s hurting their brand?”
The national company, B&B Franchise Group, says the restaurant at 1766 Bay Rd. is hiding behind a gay-rights issue and has a long history of flouting corporate rules, including the fact they opened any bar without first getting approval.
An attorney for B&B Franchise said Ekneiro and his two partners, fellow Venezuelan investors, never went through the proper approval process to open the club on the second floor, where the restaurant also has its kitchen.
B&B Franchise also canceled their agreements with Ekneiro and his partners at two other Burger & Beer Joint restaurants, one at Dolphin Mall, the other at CityPlace in West Palm Beach. The company said Ekneiro’s group transferred ownership at the Dolphins Mall location without going through the proper process and was serving items off the menu in West Palm Beach.
“Variance of any kind is injurious to the brand — no matter what kind of bar is opened. It’s not something that would have been approved,” B&B’s attorney Charles Forlidas said. “We know it’s South Beach. We welcome the gay community.... It’s the fact they brought in a third party.”
Tony Ferro, a longtime South Beach club promoter, said Ekneiro approached him about opening The Mix and that he later met with a B&B corporate representative.
“They knew what we were doing. It had to be approved with them, which they did. They were OK with the whole concept,” Ferro said. “We don’t sell their food. We don’t brand ourselves together with B&B at all. I don’t see how they would associate us with them.”
Ferro said he had no idea why his bar would cost the restaurant its franchise. “When they told me, I was mind boggled,” he said. “The only thing I can think of was we’ve had a drag queen at the door. I’m really not sure.”
The after-hours club had a separate entrance and operated as an upstairs, 2,000-square-foot “speakeasy,” Ferro said, after Burger & Beer Joint had closed for the night.
Ferro said he’s never before felt discriminated against because he’s gay.
“It was chilling. In 2017, we shouldn’t be experiencing this. Especially in South Beach,” he said. “Gay dollars made B&B. We’ve been there since the beginning.”
A flier touting “South Beach’s New Gay Hotspot,” sharing the restaurant’s address, was referenced in a letter the franchise sent Ekneiro’s attorney in early November, within weeks of The Mix opening on Oct. 27. The letter says the nightclub is an “unapproved use” that “could have a substantial negative impact on B&B and the associations made by consumers or the general public with the B&B System.”
B&B’s attorney points to the other stripped franchises, specifically the one in West Palm Beach, “and it did not have a gay bar in it,” Forlidas said. Proof there is no discrimination, he says, is that the group still runs two other franchises, one in Mary Brickell Village and another in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
“If you operate well, we don’t have anything to say about it,” Forlidas said. “If they haven’t filed a lawsuit it’s because they don’t have any grounds to sue us.”
Ekneiro said the company has been using a host of “made up” reasons to cancel their franchise agreements, and that when they referenced the gay club, they went too far.
His South Beach restaurant reopened without a name Monday, as will his Dolphin Mall location on Wednesday. He says he is considering opening both with a new name: Freedom Burger or Liberty Burger.