Chef Tony Liu has made a career opening Asian fusion restaurants, including several in the Hamptons in New York and another inside the Trump International Beach Resort in Sunny Isles Beach. But opening a restaurant on Fort Lauderdale’s signature commercial strip, Las Olas Boulevard, proved to be a challenge unlike any he has experienced.
According to a federal lawsuit filed by Liu and his business partner, Antonio Asta, the city of Fort Lauderdale’s chief mechanical inspector, Robert Gonzalez, made it his mission to stop the restaurant from opening. Gonzalez issued a so-called “red-flag” notice in April, ordering the restaurant to address its use of kitchen hoods above its hibachi tables. He said the hoods weren’t certified.
But Liu and Asta say the notice was bogus — and that racism toward Liu was a motivating factor.
The lawsuit says Gonzalez made anti-Asian comments about Liu, a native of China, including the repeated use of a racial slur. When the owners were preparing for the restaurant to open, the lawsuit claims, Gonzalez showed up at the site and said: “No ch--- from New York is going to tell me how to do my business.”
“I am in charge here,” Gonzalez also said during the visit, according to the suit. “We do things different from what you get away with in New York. I know all about how these Chinese guys do things.”
The complaint accuses Gonzalez of making other racist remarks about Liu during the permitting process. On one occasion, he allegedly asked about Liu: “Does that Chinaman believes [sic] he knows more than me?”
The lawsuit, which was first filed in May and amended in September, says Gonzalez sometimes spoke in a “mocking pseudo-Chinese manner” and once “slanted his eyes” when talking about Liu.
In an Oct. 3 answer to the amended complaint, Gonzalez denied making any of the racist statements and denied that racial bias affected the permitting process.
Gonzalez’s attorney, Natalia Timmons, told the Miami Herald in a statement that Gonzalez “denies all allegations in the complaint and looks forward to successfully defending the action.”
Gonzalez submitted a letter of resignation to the city on June 5, less than two weeks after the lawsuit was filed, according to documents reviewed by the Herald. City representatives declined to comment on Gonzalez’s employment status or the reason for his departure.
The red-flag notice that Gonzalez issued was ultimately withdrawn. After he issued it, the owners say they contacted Owens Corning, which made the kitchen hoods, and learned Gonzalez had provided false information to the company to convince it to write a letter saying the hoods weren’t certified.
“Gonzalez issued the red flag after knowing and seeing documentation that the subject kitchen equipment was stamped as being certified for its intended purpose by the equipment manufacturer, a well-known and established company in the industry,” the owners said in their complaint.
The restaurant also hired an expert to confirm the hoods were certified, according to the complaint, and the city’s building official visited the premises to see for himself. The violation was withdrawn, the complaint says, and the restaurant received the remaining permits it needed to open.
When Asta went to Fort Lauderdale City Hall to obtain the restaurant’s occupational license, he claims in the lawsuit, Gonzalez approached him and spoke in a mock Chinese accent, saying: “Your boss should go back to China Town. We don’t need ch**** here.”
Even after the restaurant opened in May 2018, Liu and Asta say Gonzalez’s campaign against them continued. According to the complaint, Gonzalez went into the city’s computer system and canceled the restaurant’s mechanical approval without citing any specific issues.
The owners say they found out Gonzalez had taken that step only after their architect visited City Hall and overheard Gonzalez “bragging that he canceled an approval for the Red Door.”
In response, the owners enlisted an engineer, an architect, and a fire expert to conduct an inspection of the premises in June 2018.
That same day, according to the complaint, Asta flew to Fort Lauderdale to meet with Gonzalez and other city officials to discuss why the restaurant’s mechanical permit had been pulled. But Asta says he was told upon arrival that the meeting had been canceled.
City officials also canceled a rescheduled meeting, the owners claim.
The city of Fort Lauderdale has moved to toss the claims against it, arguing that Liu and Asta have failed to show that their business was harmed by Gonzalez’s actions. The restaurant opened in May 2018, the month after Gonzalez issued his red-flag notice and has stayed open ever since.
In a statement to the Herald, Fort Lauderdale City Attorney Alain E. Boileau said the city “is confident that the baseless claims against the city will be rejected and dismissed.”
The city has also said in court filings that Gonzalez’s decisions could have been appealed — either to the Broward County Board of Rules and Appeals, the Florida Building Commission, or an appellate court — and that Gonzalez was not Fort Lauderdale’s final shot-caller on building permits.
But the restaurateurs say they believed otherwise. Gonzalez was the “final decision maker and policy maker” on mechanical-permitting matters, they said in their complaint — and he presented himself as such.
“When the Plaintiffs objected to Gonzalez’s red tagging the kitchen hood, Gonzalez emphatically explained his rules: what Gonzalez decided to do was the law, the policy, and the process for the City if the Plaintiffs ever expected to do business in Fort Lauderdale,” the complaint says.
Liu, Asta, and their company, 625 Fusion LLC, are seeking $5 million in damages from Gonzalez and the city for violations of their equal-protection rights, among other claims. They say they had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars responding to Gonzalez’s apparent concerns and were limited in their ability to market the restaurant’s opening after Gonzalez pulled his approval.
The lead attorney representing the owners, former Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi, told the Herald in a statement that Liu and Asta wanted to boost the economy in Fort Lauderdale with “new jobs and delicious food.” Instead, Pizzi said, “Their lives were turned into a nightmare by an out of control local bureaucrat who was given uncontrolled power to make their lives a living hell and almost close their business.”
Liu and Asta’s legal team also includes Ben Kuehne, who often represents elected officials in South Florida.
The case is playing out in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida in Fort Lauderdale. Judge Roy K. Altman has scheduled a mediation hearing for next April, though the parties are continuing to submit briefs on the city’s motion to dismiss the suit.