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Cleaning up Miami Beach

Cleaning up Miami Beach

That tourist sipping a $55 mojito on Ocean Drive? He may actually be a secret shopper

July 10th, 2019 by The Miami Herald in Features

Miami Beach may send secret shoppers to identify sidewalk cafe operators who don't advertise prices or try to trick customers into ordering expensive food and drinks. (C.M. GUERRERO/Miami Herald/TNS)

Marissa Lopes and her friend Erin Sayago had just arrived in Miami Beach on vacation from Toronto when they were hustled into an Ocean Drive cafe by fast-talking waiters.

 

The waiters offered them two drinks for the price of one, so the women ordered two mojitos and a small bowl of guacamole and chips.

"They said it was a deal," Sayago said.

But before they knew what had hit them, the Canadians were slapped with a bill for over $60. It seemed like a lot of money for a single cocktail, since the second one was supposed to be free, and a serving of guacamole.

"I was surprised when I checked my bank account," Lopes said recently as she and Sayago walked down Ocean Drive. "We learned a lesson."

But the lesson—to be wary of sidewalk cafes—isn't one Miami Beach wants its visitors to have to learn. Last year, the City Commission imposed new rules on the popular outdoor establishments, which operate on public property, requiring them to include prices for all food, drinks and specials on their menus. In order to obtain a permit to operate a sidewalk cafe, businesses have to submit a sample menu to the city.

While Miami Beach's code enforcement agency has cited some restaurants for menu infractions, other misleading sales tactics are harder to catch. Review sites such as Yelp are filled with dozens of complaints about sidewalk cafes with warnings such as "It was a huge scam!" and "Do NOT COME HERE!!"

That's why Miami Beach plans to start sending secret shoppers to dine at cafes in the South Beach entertainment district. The secret shoppers, who will be part-time city employees, will report unscrupulous business practices to code enforcement and police.

Last month, the City Commission's finance committee approved $25,000 in funding to pay for a secret shopper pilot program focused on sidewalk cafes along Ocean Drive, Collins Avenue and Washington Avenue.

"Our goal is to make sure that all Miami Beach customers are having the best experience possible and unfortunately we have had some problems with bad apples with these deceptive business practices," said Commissioner Mark Samuelian, who sponsored the proposal.

John Deutzman, a member of an Ocean Drive advisory panel convened by Mayor Dan Gelber, said he has documented more than 100 recent complaints on Yelp in which diners claim they were misled at an Ocean Drive cafe.

"A lot of people feel they're getting tricked," he said. "The only way to really detect this is with a covert, undercover operation."

The proposal, which still has to be approved by the full commission, is part of a broader effort to improve Ocean Drive.

The future of the iconic street, which is one of Miami Beach's best-known tourist attractions, has been the subject of intense debate and study in recent years. City officials and resident panels have proposed a variety of measures including adding more security cameras and implementing more aggressive enforcement of nuisance crimes such as drinking in public. One bold idea—rolling back alcohol sales from 5 a.m. to 2 a.m.—was rejected by voters in 2017.

Ceci Velasco, executive director of the Ocean Drive Business Association, said she thinks the street has come a long way in recent years. "I think there's an overall improvement," she said. "The menus, the sanitation, the ambient level music, all of those different components, this is all part of a greater focus on elevating the district."

Velasco said the association supports the idea of a secret shopper program and had previously considered starting something similar, but didn't have the resources. However, Velasco said she wants Miami Beach to apply the program citywide rather than just targeting businesses along Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue.

Although commissioners have only allocated funding for undercover shoppers to patrol the entertainment district, they said they would consider additional funding to expand the pilot to Lincoln Road and Espanola Way. If the secret shoppers are successful, Samuelian said, the program could eventually be implemented citywide. Miami Beach already has six part-time employees who pose as customers to secretly evaluate trolleys, parking garages and other city services.

Tourists walking down Ocean Drive at lunchtime recently said they thought employing secret shoppers was a good idea.

"I think that would work," said Lorena Delgado, 24, who was visiting from Austin. She'd arrived the night before and dined on Ocean Drive with a friend only to end up with a $105 tab for two plates of pasta and two drinks that were supposed to be a two-for-one deal.

The secret shoppers aren't the only plan to protect visitors from unscrupulous business practices. Last month, the City Commission passed an ordinance banning the use of specials boards at sidewalk cafes, which city officials say lure tourists with offers of two-for-one drink specials and other promotions. The ordinance has to pass a second vote this month before it can be implemented.

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