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  • 25 Mar 2015 11:39 AM | Anonymous

    The following comes from the office of State Rep. David Rutigliano:

    New Haven — Julienne, Paysanne, Chiffonade: These are some of the knife cuts that Connecticut high school students had to demonstrate at the 2015, Connecticut Pro Start Invitational, Feb 27 at Gateway Community College.

    Culinary students from Wilbur Cross High School, and New Britain High School competed against one another in a wide array of cooking and kitchen tasks for trophies and accolades from local chefs.

    Dozens of audience members attended the event to cheer on the students, learn about culinary arts, and to witness Wilbur Cross winning the competition for the second straight year.

    Rep. Dave Rutigliano (R-123), Nicole Lee from Fresh Point wholesale produce company, and Tony Merchitto from Temple Grill, joined Gateway College Chefs to judge the competition.

    “I’m proud of these kids. They’ve worked hard to get here. Learning these skills, and working in a kitchen can open a lot of doorways for them,” said Rep. Rutigliano.

    The students were judged in categories ranging from knife skills to the production of three course meals, to clean-up and overall management.

    Lee repeatedly pointed out to the students’ the important of sanitizing their cutting boards and preparation areas. “I’m going to keep bringing up how important it is for you to not cross contaminate,” she told the students.

    New Britain’s meal menu included crostini with prosciutto, apricot jam and goat cheese; chicken with mustard sauce; sinful side sweet potato hash; steamed green beans with garlic; tropical ice cream parfait.

    The Wilbur Cross menu included, classic New England seafood cake; rosemary garlic lamb; rich chocolate mousse.

    Last year over $100,000 in scholarships were awarded at the Connecticut Pro Start Student Invitational. The Connecticut Restaurant Association & the Connecticut Hospitality Educational Foundation sponsored this year’s competition.

    “It’s an excellent way for the teams to showcase all their hard work and everything they have learned. The culinary world is full of talented students,” said Nicole Griffin, Executive Director of The Connecticut Restaurant Association.

    Rep. Rutigliano is currently on the board of the Connecticut Hospitality and Education Foundation.

    “My first job was in a kitchen, washing dishes,” he said. “Fortunately I was given a chance to learn cooking skills, like these kids. I hope that these kids keep up the good work and continue practicing their skills. There are always cooking jobs available,” he said.

    The Wilbur Cross team will travel to Disneyland in California to compete in the National ProStart Invitational April 18-21, 2015. 

  • 11 Mar 2015 3:12 PM | Anonymous

    It was a frigid early morning Feb. 27, but the “heat” was on, and one could hear a pin drop as the nervous but excited competitors at the Connecticut Restaurant Association-sponsored ProStart Invitational were setting up their “kitchens” in the community room at Gateway Community College in New Haven. The competition showcased the passion and dedication high school students have for the restaurant and food service business.

    ProStart, a nationwide career-building program for high school students who are interested in culinary arts as well as restaurant and food service management, is an exciting 2-year program where students study in the classroom, participate in mentored work experiences and test their skills in local and national competitions. Most importantly, ProStart students grow into the leaders the restaurant industry needs.

    New Britain High School, and defending state champions Wilbur Cross High School of New Haven, participated in the Culinary Competition, which judged the students in different categories ranging from knife skills, sanitation and safety, to the production of a three-course meal and clean-up.

    Wilbur Cross and Hillhouse High Schools of New Haven competed in the Management Competition, in which teams must come up with their own restaurant concept, menu development, restaurant design, staff organization and marketing techniques.

    “It’s an excellent way for the teams to showcase all their hard work and everything they have learned. The culinary world is full of talented students,” said Nicole Griffin, executive director of the Connecticut Restaurant Association. “Restaurants are a major industry, and we are lucky to have so many incredible restaurants in Connecticut. It all starts here, with our students learning the necessary critical skills required to enter the restaurant business and workforce,” she added.

    Wilbur Cross High School won both the culinary and management competitions and will advance to the prestigious National ProStart Invitational, the country’s premier high school competition focused on restaurant management and culinary arts, April 18-20 in Anaheim, California.

    It was impressive watching how the Wilbur Cross culinary team prepared its classic New England seafood cake, rosemary garlic lamb and rich chocolate mousse; and the New Britain High School team’s crostini with prosciutto, apricot jam and goat cheese; chicken with mustard sauce and tropical ice cream parfait, using only two butane burners with no access to running water or electricity. What a great experience for these future chefs.

    Sponsors of the competition included Gateway Community College, Subway, Falvey Linen, Max Restaurant Group, Wood-n-Tap, Fresh Point, Siegel, O’Connor, O’Donnell & Beck, Joey Garlic’s, J. Timothy’s, Oyster Club, Union League Cafe, Connecticut Distributors, Performance Food Group and Ecolab.


    The Taste of Home Cooking School: 5-7 p.m. exhibitor showcase 7 p.m. cooking school demonstration, March 12, Webster Bank Arena, 600 Main St., Bridgeport, $15 general admission and $35 VIP. The interactive event will feature live recipe and product demonstrations, where home cooks can sample food, receive gift bags and win door prizes. Taste of Home culinary specialist Amanda Wilson, a professionally trained chef, will share her best cooking tips and tricks with step-by-step demonstrations of several seasonal recipes created by home cooks across the country. The Taste of Home Cooking School is America’s largest live cooking program, inspiring more than 250,000 home cooks each year at more than 250 locations nationwide. More at

    Umpteenth Annual Corned Beef and Cabbage Dinner: 6 p.m. March 14, North Guilford Congregational Church, 159 Ledge Hill Road, Guilford, $15 and $5 for children under 10, 203-457-0581 or 203-453-6812. Family-style meal includes potatoes, carrots, rolls and dessert. Homemade mac and cheese available for vegetarians and children.


    What restaurant recipes or other recipes would you like to have? What food products are you having difficulty finding? What cooking questions do you have? Send them to me at the contact info below.

    Contact Stephen Fries, professor and coordinator of the Hospitality Management Programs at Gateway Community College, at or Dept. FC, Gateway Community College, 20 Church St., New Haven 06510. Include your full name, address and phone number. Due to volume, I might not be able to publish every request. For more, go to

  • 06 Mar 2015 11:25 AM | Anonymous

    A ctivists speaking for about 34,000 waiters, waitresses and bartenders in Connecticut say it's time to stop having a two­tiered minimum wage, for tipped workers and for everyone else. "The women who put food on your tables can't afford to put food on their own tables!" thundered Saru Jayaraman, a New York­based activist speaking at a Thursday press conference called by activists. Jayaraman founded Restaurant Opportunities Centers in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and ROC United now has chapters around the country. She said some people think waiters and waitresses make good money, but that's because they're thinking about pricey white­tablecloth restaurants. According to a book put together by the activists' coalition, tipped workers are twice as likely to rely on food stamps as the rest of the work force. The Everybody Benefits Coalition, a constellation of liberal groups and unions that united to get paid sick leave in Connecticut has a new agenda they're calling the Women's Economic Agenda, and eliminating the lower minimum wage for tipped workers is first on the list. The Connecticut Restaurant Association, a lobbying organization that represents more than 600 restaurants, opposes the bill. Nicole Griffin testified before the legislature's Labor Committee Thursday evening that no waiter or bartender makes less than the minimum wage, because if the tips don't add up to the minimum wage when added to the $5.78 base pay, the employer makes up the difference. According to a think tank that opposes increases to the minimum wage, the average pay for Connecticut servers, including wages, is $14.04 an hour. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics, the median wage, including tips, for servers in the state was $9.16 an hour. At the time, the standard minimum wage was $8.25. That wage was even lower than fast­food workers, whose mid­point in pay was $9.36 that year. New York just raised its tipped workers' minimum wage from $5 to $7.50 an hour, and Nevada, Wisconsin, Montana and all three West Coast states pay the same minimum wage for all workers. Griffin said a $3.82 raise for tipped workers would cost restaurants almost $5 when Social Security taxes, unemployment insurance are factored in. "That's a big cost," she said. A Deloitte study of table­service restaurants found profit margins tend to be between 2 and 3 percent. Griffin, who said she expects the bill to pass the committee, but did not predict its chances in the wider legislature, said she expects restaurants to either raise their prices or add a service charge, and take some of that money to payCopyright © 2015, Hartford Courant the higher wages. Taki Tanaka, general manager of West Hartford's Umi Sushi and Tapas, supports the bill, as his restaurant already pays all workers the minimum wage and then pools tips. Tanaka said the great gap between line cooks' pay – typically $60 or $72 a shift before the new system – and the servers caused resentment in the restaurant. The servers often earned $150 on weeknights and $250 on weekends, he said. When he first made the change, all but one of the dozen servers quit. But now, everyone works as a team, with servers retaining enough tips to make $20 an hour, and with kitchen staff getting enough tips to earn $15 an hour. Peter Tercyak, co­chairman of the Labor Committee, attended the activists' press conference before presiding over the public hearing. "This has been very informative as well as very moving," he said. "This is an important fight." The committee took up many bills in the Women's Economic Agenda, and one that's also popular among restaurant and retail workers is the Fair Schedules Act. San Francisco is the first place to pass an ordinance requiring employers to plan schedules in advance, and to make partial payments to workers who are sent home early because business is slow. The restaurant lobby also opposes the Connecticut bill, which has none of the exceptions that the San Francisco law contained for bad weather, employee­initiated shift changes or a last­minute need to fill in for a sick worker. Griffin said her trade group would oppose the bill even if it had exemptions. She said if it passes, restaurants will be less likely to open or expand here. The number of restaurant and hotel jobs added in Connecticut in 2014 – more than 6,000 – was by far the fastest growth rate of any sector. 

  • 05 Mar 2015 2:56 PM | Anonymous
    Testimony Before the Labor & Public Employees Committee
    March 5, 2015


    The Connecticut Restaurant Association represents over 600 restaurants and affiliated businesses across the state. Our members range from quick serve to casual to fine dining establishments. The Connecticut hospitality industry employs an estimated 145,000 people, making up 9% of our states’ workforce. Restaurants are a driving force in the state’s economy and generate tremendous tax revenue.
    The CRA opposes SB 858, AAC Employees Who Customarily and Regularly Receive Gratuities and the Minimum Fair Wage.
    Congress has for decades defined “wages” under Section 2013(m) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to include not just cash, but certain other credits and benefits that employees receive as a result of their employment, including tip income. Tip-earning employees can be among the industry’s higher-earning employees, earning a median of $12 to $17 an hour in tips, according to recent National Restaurant Association research. Employees and employers pay taxes on those tipped wages. That’s why section 203(m) of the FSLA lets employers apply a limited portion of the tip earnings employees receive because of their employment towards the employer’s obligation to pay tipped employees the minimum wage. This is called taking a “tip credit.” Employers may take a tip credit only under strict conditions.

    Connecticut law currently permits employers to pay a tipped employee a minimum cash wage of at least $5.78 an hour and take a tip credit of up to $3.37 an hour (i.e., the difference between the $9.15 minimum wage and the $5.78 cash wage.) If an employee’s tips fall below the maximum possible tip credit- $3.37 an hour under state law- the employer is responsible for making up the difference by paying any additional cash wages needed to bring the employee up to the required minimum wage. Thus, a tipped employee will never be paid below the minimum wage.

    Connecticut currently has one of the highest minimum and tipped wages in the country. Eliminating the tip credit forces restaurant operators to increase the cash wage to certain employees while at the same time virtually guaranteeing no wage increase for others.


    Myth #1: Tipped Employees are Paid a “Subminimum Wage” of $5.78 an Hour.
    FACT: There is no subminimum wage. The minimum wage for tipped employees is the exact same as the minimum wage for every other employee in Connecticut: $9.15. The employer must ensure that the tipped employee earns at least $9.15 an hour, between the employee’s tip earnings and the employer-paid cash wage. It is not legal for any employee to earn only $5.78 per hour.

    Myth #2: Customers are Subsidizing Restaurant Employees’ Wages.
    Fact: Restaurant employers invest in their businesses to provide the conditions that enable employees to earn tips. The tip credit system was created and its safeguards put in place decades ago because lawmakers recognized that tipped employees receive tips due to the jobs their employers provide for them. Tipped employees receive additional wages in the form of tips given to them by their employers’ guests. This money is NOT given to other employees. That’s why the law treats tipped and non-tipped employees differently for wage purposes.

    Myth #3: Tipped Employees Earn Poverty-Level Wages.
    Fact: Most tipped employees are far from minimum-wage earners. Server positions in restaurants provide opportunity, flexibility and, often, very competitive pay. Recent National Restaurant Association research shows that on a national level, restaurant servers earn a median hourly wage of between $16 and $22, counting both tips and employer-paid cash wages. Looking at tip income alone, entry-level servers earn a median of $12 an hour in tips, with more experienced servers earning a median of $17 an hour in tips, according to the research. NOTE: These figures represent overall averages; the hourly earnings of servers vary significantly based on the type of establishment and the average per-person check size.

    Myth #4: Employers Abuse Wage-And-Hour Rules When They Pay Tipped Employees
    Fact: Employers risk costly wage-and-hour lawsuits, significant back-pay requirements and stiff penalties if they take a tip credit without meeting all the legal requirements for doing so. There will always be a few who violate any law imposed on citizens or companies. However, most restaurant employers are not willing to break the law or jeopardize their businesses by failing to take the required steps for claiming a tip credit. The vast majority of restaurant operators follow the rules, designed as safeguards for tipped employees.

  • 16 Jan 2015 11:47 AM | Anonymous

    Brian Slattery photo


    Survivor Phelps, four decades later.

    The Rolling Stones. Black-Eyed Peas. Bob Dylan. Bruce Springsteen. Bad Brains. King Crimson. Tom Waits. Toots and the Maytals. John Lee Hooker. Wu-Tang Clan. Billy Joel.

    The list of the acts that have played Toad’s Place over the past 40 years is a snapshot of popular music, from America and beyond.

    Brian Phelps, who started at the famous York Street nightclub in 1976 and worked his way up to become manager and owner, appears to have seen just about all of them.

    He’s also seen legal fights with Yale and former business partnersshootingsreports of shootings,underage drinkingdrug busts, and police raids.

    Despite all that, Toad’s—and Phelps—are still there on York Street, even as other clubs have come and gone. With the new year, Toad’s is beginning a 40th anniversary celebration.

    Talking to Phelps, you start to understand why he and Toad’s have survived.

    Ask him about the nuts and bolts of running a club, booking acts, promoting shows, and he speaks in the short precise sentences of a man who knows his business. Ask him about his favorite shows, the people he’s met, and his voice quickens; he starts to chuckle in between his words.

    Ask him to show you around the place, and the stories all start to pour out, down to the hot tub in the green room, how it got there, and who’s been in it.

    So the story of Toad’s is, in many ways, the story of Phelps himself, and how he ended up there.

    Through A Broken Door

    In the summer of 1976 Phelps was working at a karate school above the old Cutler’s record shop — he still practices — when someone broke through the door and stole the school’s sign. Phelps had a feeling the sign hadn’t gone far. He walked around the corner and found it at Toad’s, then a year and a half old. It had opened as a restaurant and quickly became a music club.

    Phelps had a talk with Michael Spoerndle, the club’s owner, and got the thief arrested.

    “Of course I never got paid for the door,” Phelps said. But he and Spoerndle became friends, and in October he started working at Toad’s as a manager.

    “I did a lot of different jobs there to learn everything,” he said, from booking to promotion to running a venue.

    Page from Phelps’s photo album. Phelps is the man with the mustache.

    “He used to be my right-hand man,” Spoerndle told the Yale Herald in 2000. “You know, he would stand at the door and break up fights.”

    Spoerndle died in 2011 at the age of 59. Phelps started running the place as sole owner since 1995.

    “We didn’t know what we were doing at first,” he said. “But we learned as we went.”

    Taking Care Of Business—And Bands

    “Can you make money on a show? Or if not, is it worth doing because you want to do it anyway?”

    That thinking drives Phelps from show to show, as — like every great club owner — he balances the need to pay the bills, and hopefully make some profits, against the desire to run a club that plays the best music it can.

    “Sometimes it’s a no-brainer,” Phelps said, of acts that he likes and knows will pack the place. “Other times they’re just looking for big bucks and you got to be careful.”

    Running Toad’s is more expensive than it used to be. The club owns the building, but Phelps has seen property taxes double. Other costs of doing business, like insurance, have gone up, too. On the other hand, according to Phelps, between email blasts and social media, promotion is as easy as it’s ever been.

    Phelps ran through the details of changes he’s made over the years, from improved ways of scanning IDs to getting rid of glassware, off the top of his head.

    “There’s a lot of places that make mistakes,” he said.

    But he hasn’t forgotten what the business is all for.

    “You bring in the best artist you can,” he said. “and you do the best you can with them.”

    Ramones Drank Yoo-Hoo

    When Phelps talked about music, he lit up.

    “When I first came in, I didn’t know much about it,” he said. But year after year, show after show, he found his taste deepening and broadening, until he was booking acts from blues to funk, rock to reggae, jazz to hip hop, R&B to new wave.

    Getting stuck in a niche, he said, is “the road to disaster” in what is already a tough enough business.

    More important, “you can really develop a likeness toward everything,” he said. “When we’re making money, that’s even better. But I still like the music. The roar coming off the crowd sometimes is deafening. You see the smiles on people’s faces. They just become one with the sound. It’s a beautiful thing.”

    How many nights have there been like that?

    “A lot,” he said. He remembered the famous shows — Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, the Stones. “Dylan played the longest show of his career here in 1990,” he said — four sets, until 2:30 in the morning. The club was supposed to close at 2:00. “There were a ton of cops there. They were watching the show.”

    He recalled Joe Cocker vividly: “When he started singing, people just melted.” He remembered when he had B.B. King, the Kentucky HeadHunters, and Mark Isham, who had all just won Grammys, all perform in the same weekend.

    P. Funk was “a little disoriented in the early days,” but he still books them year after year, and they still pack the place.

    Fishbone “always puts on a great show,” Phelps said. Once when the group played, “a couple of the guys threw another of the guys so far up in the air, his head was up in the lights.”

    Iggy Azalea played there in August 2013. “It was a beautiful night,” Phelps said. “Nobody knew she was going to get so big, so fast.”

    Phelps got to know the musicians offstage, too. When Meat Loaf first played Toad’s in 1977 he fell off the stage and cut his leg open. When he returned years later, he was with Phelps before the show. He walked over to the spot where he’d taken his fall and rolled up his pant leg to show Phelps the scar.

    “Right here!” Meat Loaf said. “I did that right here!”

    At U2’s first show at Toad’s in 1980, “Bono got in a fight with one of the guys from Barooga,” the band U2 was opening for. “There were maybe 100 people in the place. He was chasing the guy around.”

    At the last show the Ramones ever played at Toad’s — “they started dying after that,” Phelps said — Phelps brought the group a cake. He couldn’t bring champagne to toast the group’s members because none of them drank anymore: “Their big drink was Yoo-Hoo.”

    He toasted Patti Smith with champagne between sets in 2007 when she came by Toad’s just after being inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. He raised his glass to her.

    “No one was ever more worthy,” Phelps said.

    “Even Elvis?” Smith responded. The rest of the band laughed.

    Phelps still toasts bands now, including with Deep Banana Blackout at the start of the holiday season. And Kung Fu’s latest show, on Dec. 19, sold the place out.

    Just one band has used the hot tub in the green room downstairs, however.

    Phelps brought the thing into the basement of the club — where the green room is — and then installed the walls around it. He figured the bands would enjoy it. But it turned out that no one wanted to use it. They were afraid of who might have been in it before them.

    “So far the only band that’s used it is Gwar,” Phelps said, and started laughing. “They got in there and relaxed. ‘This is nice,’ they said. You should have seen it afterward. It looked like pea soup.”

    As Phelps gets older, he said, he thinks he’ll cut back on his nighttime hours. But he has no plans to retire. Which suggests that Toad’s, 40 years old and still jumping, has plenty of years left.

  • 12 Dec 2014 12:48 PM | Anonymous

    Connecticut employers will be hit with the highest unemployment insurance tax in the country next month as the state continues to repay interest on federal loans taken out five years ago to cover jobless benefit payments, a state Department of Labor official confirmed.

    The highest-in-the-nation rate is related to Connecticut labor officials, unlike those in seven other states that have similar outstanding loans, declining to seek a waiver to exempt Connecticut from an additional 0.5 percent increase in its federal unemployment tax rate that took effect for this year's payroll period.

    The increase, called a benefit cost ratio add-on, applies to any state that has had an outstanding balance owed to the federal government for five years. Connecticut, which has a $432 million balance, now falls into that category.

    The add-on, as well as 0.3 percent interest rate increase tacked onto the outstanding balance each year, will cost employers $161 per worker when bills go out in late January. That figure is the highest of any state, said Carl Guzzardi, DOL's unemployment insurance tax director.

    The tax now amounts to 2.3 percent of the first $7,000 of each worker's income for 2015.

    If the loan were paid off, Connecticut employers would only have to pay a 0.6 percent tax, or $42 per employee.

    By declining to seek the waiver that other states sought, Connecticut will reduce its outstanding balance by about $45 million, Guzzardi said, which means employers will pay less in the end, because interest costs escalate each year.

    "Next year when we go to bill employers for interest, there will be less money to pay interest on," Guzzardi said.

    In addition, he said the state's unemployment insurance fund has started over the past year or more to take in more revenue than it pays out in benefits. He said that bodes well for making future debt payments.

    "We don't see the [$432 million] going up," he said. "It will continue to drop."

    The state hopes to pay off its outstanding balance by 2017, he added.

    House Republican Leader Themis Klarides criticized DOL's decision not to seek the waiver in a statement this week.

    "Hidden, unexpected taxes like this one compound the problem, especially for small businesses struggling to get by,'' Klarides said.

  • 10 Dec 2014 10:31 AM | Anonymous
    Tyler Anderson

    SIMSBURY undefined Connecticut celebrity chef Tyler Anderson has one more award to add to his Food Network accolades undefined Connecticut's Chef of the Year.

    "It was a great honor because the award was from my peers in the business," said Anderson, the owner and chef at Millwright's Restaurant.

    The winner of the award, given by the Connecticut Restaurant Association, is chosen by both CRA members and the general public, Anderson said.

    Anderson is known for winning the Food Network's "Chopped" and most recently appeared on Food Network's "Beat Bobby Flay." He made it to the second round of the competition, but judges chose Flay's dish over his.

    This year, CRA members nominated four chefs, including Anderson, for the Chef of the Year award undefined Renato Donzelli, of Basso Café in Norwalk; Neil Fuentes, of Jojoto Restaurant in Branford; and Jean Pierre Vuillermet, of Union League Café in New Haven.

    The public was then asked to vote on the nominees. The four chefs were honored at a Mohegan Sun banquet on Dec. 2.

    "We have a team that is extremely passionate," Anderson said. "For just a chef to win an award doesn't speak to everything else that has to go on."

    Last year, Millwright's was nominated for the CRA's Upscale Restaurant of the Year award, but lost to the Oyster Club in Mystic.

    Anderson said Millwright's menu is unique in that it is inspired by locally grown products and old New England techniques.

    "We only use things here that could have been used in Colonial times," he said, adding that foods such as pineapples or avocados are banned. "We use lemons and limes and that's are far as we go."

    Millwright's Director of Operations A.J. Aurrichio said what sets Anderson apart from other chefs is that he is true to himself. Anderson is quality driven and pays great attention to details, Aurrichio said.

    "The award speaks to the talent of the building as whole," he said. "They all take pride in what they do and it shows because of the product we put out."

  • 08 Dec 2014 11:48 AM | Anonymous

    MaryEllen Fillo

    Hartford Courantfillo​

    Among those at the CRA annual awards dinner were Bob Cooke from Max’s Oyster Bar, left, Mark Signor from Oyster Club in Mystic, Mike Moreau from Integrated Employer Solutions, CRA board memb er Dan Meiser from Oyster Club and Engine Room in Mystic, and CRA Board memb er Billy Grant from... (Brian Ambrose Photography)

    Which Hartford Restaurants Fared Well at the CT Restaurant Association Awards Dinner?

    Restaurant Bricco, Millwright's Tyler Anderson and Derek Vitale of Max's Oyster Bar in West Hartford fared well at the Connecticut Restaurant Association (CRA) Salute to Excellence Awards dinner this week at Mohegan Sun.

    Anderson was named Chef of the Year, Billy Grant's Restaurant Bricco named upscale restaurant of the year and Vitale, mixologist of the year.

    The Cialfi Family's Peppercorn's in Hartford was inducted into the 2014 Hospitality Hall of Fame, with

    State Sen. John McKinney receiving the 2014 Friend of the Industry winner. James Martin of 85 Main in Putnam was honored as the 2014 Restaurateur of the Year.

    Others receiving awards were Falvey Linen, Vendor of the Year; Lenny's Indian Head, Branford, Hospitality Hall of Fame; A Thyme To Cook, North Stonington, Caterer of the Year; Nancy Tighe, Fresh Salt, Saybrook Point Inn, Old Saybrook, Server of the Year and Dog Watch Café, Stonington, Casual Restaurant of the Year.

  • 10 Nov 2014 4:40 PM | Anonymous

    It was around 9:30 a.m. on Oct. 20 when Resa Spaziani entered a bodega on Albany Avenue accompanied by Hartford police officers, who were on a mission that morning to inspect several small storefronts suspected of illegal activity.

    The city, according to Hartford Deputy Police Chief Brian Foley, has a number of neighborhood markets that operate outside legitimate means violating liquor laws, peddling stolen goods, or even selling drugs.

    Spaziani was clad in a bulletproof vest, but she's not a cop; she's a member of the state Department of Labor's Division of Wage and Workplace Standards. The city police force asked Spaziani, and her Spanish interpreter co-worker Ariel Morales, to join their inspections because she has power they lack: the ability to shut down businesses that violate state labor laws.

    The strategy paid off. That morning Spaziani issued stop work orders on three separate bodegas undefined two on Albany Avenue and a third on Bellevue Avenue undefined for failing to pay wages and paying under the minimum wage. Each market was closed and faces thousands of dollars in fines.

    In recent years, state labor officials have ramped up efforts to crack down on unscrupulous employers that skirt labor laws by misclassifying workers as independent contractors, not reporting workers on their payroll, or failing to pay workers' compensation insurance or minimum wage, among other violations.

    Not only have the number of stop work orders increased, but inspections and fines are also up. More significantly, state labor officials have broadened their investigative scope. Traditionally, inspections were focused on the construction industry, but other businesses undefined ranging from restaurants, nail salons, small merchants, and even hospitals undefined are audited these days.

    The goal, according to Gary Pechie, head of DOL's Division of Wage and Workplace Standards, is to eradicate Connecticut's underground economy, which costs the state untold millions in uncollected tax revenue each year, and creates significant competitive advantages for businesses that break the law.

    "What's happening is that we are really starting to make an impact on this," Pechie said. "We thought our efforts were mostly going to focus on construction, but it has evolved into other areas. We've been asked to go inspect places we never thought we would."

    Efforts ramp up

    Connecticut's crackdown efforts ramped up about three years ago, when the state signed a pact with the U.S. Labor Department and Internal Revenue Service, to share resources and jointly go after unscrupulous employers. Since then, the state Department of Labor has forged other alliances with state agencies, including the Department of Revenue Services and Department of Energy & Environmental Protection, as well as local police departments and building inspectors, among others.

    Investigators have found that if an employer is breaking one law, it most likely is skirting other laws as well. That's what spurred the recent joint investigation by the labor department and Hartford Police, which eventually led to one of the three bodegas re-opening after complying with the law.

    By sharing intel and resources, Pechie said, they've been able to track and go after more law breakers.

    In 2011, for example, the state issued 245 stop work orders and levied $201,150 in fines, up significantly from the 160 stop work orders and $93,400 in fines handed out a year earlier.

    Since July, 1, 2013, the state has issued an additional 208 stop work orders and $301,600 in fines.

    Meanwhile, in the last four years the state labor department's Unemployment Insurance Tax Division has performed 8,554 audits and discovered 16,787 workers who were misclassified as independent contractors. That accounted for $244 million in gross wages that were underreported for unemployment tax insurance purposes.

    Pechie said when employers underreport their payroll or don't pay workers compensation insurance, other businesses and taxpayers are left to foot the bill if misclassified employees receive unemployment benefits or get injured on the job.

    Increasingly, employers, too, are being more vigilant about labor laws, knowing that when a competitor isn't playing by the rules, they are put at competitive disadvantage. Tips from business owners are a significant portion of the nearly 5,000 complaints the state DOL handles each year, Pechie said.

    More work to be done

    Connecticut's efforts to eviscerate the underground economy dates back about seven years, when lawmakers gave labor officials the ability to issue to stop work orders and fine companies that violate employment laws. In Connecticut, employers face a $300 fine each day they improperly classify workers as independent contractors.

    Enforcement efforts started slowly but ramped after the Great Recession, which had a dramatic impact on Connecticut's labor market.

    The downturn significantly increased the number of laid-off workers who applied for unemployment benefits, and gave some employers more incentive to cut costs by cheating the system. Originally, Spaziani said, the labor department's focus was on the construction industry, where misclassification of workers as independent contractors was widespread. Lately, the bigger issue has been employers leaving workers completely off the books, so they can avoid payroll taxes.

    That, along with tighter partnerships with local, state, and federal agencies and a greater volume of complaints from workers and employers alike, got DOL to broaden its investigations into more industries.

    Meanwhile, the state's financial woes provided added incentive to step up enforcement efforts and get more employers on the tax rolls, legal experts say. Besides battling huge budget deficits, the state's unemployment insurance fund, which is funded by employer payroll taxes, went broke in 2009 forcing the state to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal government. That money is still being repaid and has resulted in extra levies on businesses to cover interest payments.

    "Whenever the Department of Labor or Revenue Services decide they need a little extra money [increasing enforcement efforts] is sort of the low hanging fruit because people are constantly misclassifying folks," said Hartford attorney Hugh F. Murray, III.

    Murray, an employment lawyer with Murtha Cullina, said he advises his clients on a regulator basis to audit their workforce to make sure employees are properly classified.

    Construction industry still a focus

    The business community doesn't always take kindly to a tougher regulatory environment, but Don Shubert, president of the Connecticut Construction Industries Association, said the state's heightened labor law enforcement efforts are pro-business.

    When contractors cheat the system to lower costs and win project bids, it creates an unlevel playing field for companies that play by the rules.

    Shubert said he is happy with the state's added aggressiveness in recent years, but the issue of worker misclassification is far from being solved. With only four full-time employees who spend about 50 percent of their time on the issue, the state Department of Labor still doesn't have enough manpower to go after all the violators, Shubert said.

    "For a lot of contractors this is still just considered the cost of doing business," Shubert said.

    Shubert points to an example earlier this year, when the state shut down construction of the Apple Store in Westfarms Mall, after an inspection found five construction workers weren't covered by workers' compensation insurance.

    But the contractors and subcontractors undefined all from out-of-state undefined ignored the order and continued working because it would have been more costly for them to miss their deadline than pay a $1,000 fine for each day they defied the stop work order, said Pechie, the labor department official.

    "The [contractors] flat out said 'We need to finish the work and pay the fine,'" Pechie said. "It made us think maybe our penalty isn't big enough."

    The construction industry still remains an important focus for inspectors. The recession ratcheted up competition for jobs, particularly public-sector projects where contractors are chosen based on lowest competitive bids.

    Since 2009, Shubert said, there has been a race to the bottom on project bidding, which has eroded industry profits undefined putting many contractors out of business undefined and added extra incentives to shave costs.

    "You have aggressive project owners who are trying to get every job out there," Shubert said. "Many times the only way to hit that low price is to cheat."

    Dan Filomeno, owner of East Hartford drywall-interior construction contractor Acoustics Inc., said he's seen questionable bidding practices firsthand. His company, which he founded nearly 30 years ago, hoped to do work on UConn's new $32 million basketball practice facility earlier this, but their project bid came in 25 percent higher than the winning contractor.

    In February, when state investigators paid a surprise visit to the construction site in Storrs, they found many of the workers hired by subcontractors Intext Building Systems of Glastonbury and East Hartford-based J&V Construction were undocumented, being paid in cash, and weren't receiving a prevailing wage, which can cost employers as much as $65 per hour, when taxes are included.

    A stop work order was issued, and Acoustics was eventually brought in to perform some work on the facility, Filomeno said.

    "This does happen, and it's not good for anybody," Filomeno said. "There hasn't been a lot of work, so everyone just keeps lowering their numbers. There are no profit margins; you're lucky if you can cover overhead costs."

    Matt Capece, a representative of the general president of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters who investigates payroll fraud, said Connecticut's efforts to combat worker misclassification compares well to most other states, which are also ramping up their enforcement efforts.

    One thing Connecticut should improve, however, is holding general contractors more responsible for who they hire, Capece said.

    Typically, contractors are shielded from legal retribution if one of their subcontractors breaks the law, he said. "There needs to be some liability and accountability up the contractor chain," Capece said.

  • 29 Oct 2014 9:14 AM | Anonymous
    James Martin, who is the chef, owner and general manager of 85 Main in Putnam, has been named as Connecticut Restaurant Association's Restaurateur of the Year and will be honored in December, the Putnam Business Association announced Tuesday morning.

    Martin, a self-taught chef, opened the fine dining restaurant in June 2005 located at its namesake 85 Main Street in Putnam.

    The Annual Salute to Excellence Awards Dinner will be held Tuesday, December 2 at Mohegan Sun Ballroom and UConn coach Geno Auriemma will be the event's keynote speaker. Past Industry Award recipient Larry Cafero, State Representative, CT General Assembly, will be the event's Master of Ceremonies.

    Voting has also begun for the Salute to Excellence Awards Dinner for the following categories: Upscale Restaurant, Casual Restaurant, Chef, Caterer, Mixologist and Server of the Year.  Prime 85 is a finalist in the Upscale Restaurant category.

    For more information or to vote, visit

    Read more:

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