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Sellers get rush of L&I orders

Crackdown is talk of Italian Market.

Dan Lam helps a customer (left)outside his Italian Market variety store. He said inspectors had told him to make sure curbside displays could be rolled away. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Dan Lam helps a customer (left)outside his Italian Market variety store. He said inspectors had told him to make sure curbside displays could be rolled away. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)Read more

You have to break some eggs to make an omelet, goes the old expression.

If that is so, a yearlong campaign by the city Department of Licenses and Inspections to enforce business regulations has turned into a scramble.

Stores and restaurants - many out of compliance for decades - have been ordered to get up to code or face fines or closure. Sandwich emporiums Geno's and John's Roast Pork learned that permits were needed for their outdoor seating, which had been unregulated since Whiz was new.

L&I's crackdown has drawn begrudging praise even among those visited - though maybe not "cupcake lady" Kate Carrara, whose food truck was seized last month after she was parked illegally in a restricted zone.

L&I Commissioner Fran Burns called the new focus, which she described as "education-driven," part of an "evolution" in the department.

When Burns was appointed in July 2008, "one of the things that we saw was a department that had been complaint-driven," she said. "We need to be proactive."

Last summer, L&I began sending leaflets to businesses, giving 45 days' notice before one of the department's 28 business-compliance inspectors shows up at every doorstep on a block, Burns said.

"Our job is not to single people out but to make sure they're playing on the same playing field," she said in an interview.

The campaign has gone smoothly, Burns said, pointing to rising compliance.

But in South Philadelphia, it has not gone over quietly.

Along the sidewalks of the Italian Market, where business has been transacted pretty much the same way for nearly a century, it has been a hot topic.

Nick Schmanek, an aide to City Councilman Frank DiCicco, said calls to the office had risen about 25 percent, many from constituents confused about regulations.

Sonny D'Angelo's butcher shop was ordered to obtain a restaurant license, even though it is not a restaurant, because he is "preparing food" when he grinds his sausages. Spice Corner was shut down for five months over licenses that its owner acknowledged had lapsed. Schmanek said he had argued to L&I that keeping Spice Corner open would allow the owner to generate revenue to pay off fines and costs.

Burns said representatives of L&I and the Streets and Health Departments were about to meet to formulate new regulations for Italian Market food vendors.

"It's not necessarily bad to do this," Schmanek said of L&I's vigilance. "Sometimes, though, they start checking for one thing and they find more" violations.

Around the time L&I called on the cheesesteak shops about the seating, Health Department inspectors cited Joey Vento, who owns Geno's, for wearing "excessive" jewelry at his grill. The citation was dropped after a reinspection, said Al Weiss, Vento's lawyer, who noted that Vento still sports his heavy gold neck chain and bracelet.

Joe Lichtman, who has sold clothing and other merchandise from his storefront on Ninth Street south of Washington Avenue since the 1950s, said he had been warned a "couple of times" not to place merchandise by the curb. L&I wants to keep the sidewalks clear.

But "the more you put out, the more you sell," he said. One day last week, the curb was clear.

Dan Lam, whose family operates a variety store at Ninth and Kimball Streets, said inspectors had warned him about keeping the sidewalk clear. The solution, he said he had been told, was to make sure any displays at the curb had wheels so they could be moved into the store at the end of the day.

Councilman James F. Kenney said he had heard that an inspector threatened to cite C&D Appliances on Eighth Street for selling refrigerators off the sidewalk, even after workers protested that they were simply lifting them from a truck and moving them inside the store. "It's not like it's little stuff we can just carry in right away," co-owner Carl Arrigale said.

Kenney said he believed the inspector had not used proper judgment. Such problems arise because of "each individual inspector and their view of the world or this neighborhood," he said.

Kenney said South Philadelphians might be "apt to complain more" than people in other parts of the city. "I don't think they're totally unjustified," he said. "It's not just [directed at] just L&I. People naturally don't like the government. . . . There's got to be a better way of treating customers, even when they're wrong."

Some Italian Market merchants, especially younger ones, said they believed the L&I moves were positive.

Emilio Mignucci, 43, an owner of Di Bruno Bros., a family-run grocery, acknowledged that L&I was enforcing things that hadn't been enforced. "Those of us who look at it from a younger person's perspective would say, 'If we follow the rules and adhere to them, it's only going to help our business in the long run,' " he said.

And then there's the cupcake lady, whose situation, while not a South Philadelphia issue, cast L&I as a carbo-phobic ogre.

Burns said Carrara had not been unfairly targeted and simply had gotten caught selling in a prohibited zone in University City after several warnings; an L&I worker seized her truck and drove it away.

Mindful of the image, Burns said L&I was considering using "another authority" - perhaps the police or Philadelphia Parking Authority - to impound or boot trucks that violate the law.

"I thought they would give me a fine," said Carrara, now parked in a sanctioned spot at 16th Street and JFK Boulevard. "I didn't think they would take the truck." Contending that the regulations were confusing, she said, "I guess I know they were gunning for me, but I didn't know what to do to fix it."