John Kuch, a beer deli owner in Crescentville, received a letter about a week ago from the city's Department of Licenses and Inspections advising him that he would need a new food license to continue operating the same way. He'd have to request an "eligibility inspection" by Thursday, and an inspector would visit by March 31.
The letter, which followed a City Council bill passed in December aimed at ending so-called nuisance stop-and-go outlets and signed into law by Mayor Kenney, seemed simple enough. Kuch has the requisite 30 seats for customers and an accessible toilet for a Large Establishment license.
But the letter said nothing about whether L&I eventually would order Kuch to remove his bullet-resistant interior window. City Councilwoman Cindy Bass had wanted such windows gone — she called them "an indignity." But beer deli owners, many Asian American, said they need the windows for safety. A Council committee then amended the bill and instructed L&I to issue regulations by Jan. 1, 2021, for "the use or removal of any physical barrier" in places that sell food and alcohol.
"Everybody is just feeling nervous right now, because we don't know what L&I is going to do to us," Kuch, 48, said Saturday of beer deli owners like him.
Kuch said that around October, his deli was shot eight times after a gunman fired at another man outside. One bullet smashed through the glass front door; another went through a window, then was stopped by the interior bullet-resistant window.
"Thanks to the plexiglass, or the employee would have been killed," Kuch, a native of Cambodia who lives in Crescentville, said in an interview last month. "It stopped a bullet."
The issue loomed large Monday for Kuch when he attended a meeting of the Philly Neighborhood Small Business Council at the Saigon Maxim restaurant on Washington Avenue in South Philadelphia. City Councilman David Oh, State Rep. Todd Stephens (R., Montgomery) and others spoke about the bullet-resistant windows among topics affecting small businesses.
Stephens has emerged as an ally for the city merchants. The former Montgomery County prosecutor said in a January interview that the bullet-resistant window issue is "very personal" for him because some Philadelphia beer deli owners are his constituents and because no business owner "should be forced to choose between living and making a living."
As an assistant district attorney, Stephens prosecuted the seven defendants charged in the 2009 murder of Robert Chae, 58, a Philadelphia beauty-supply store owner who was suffocated during a robbery at his Montgomery Township home.
On Friday, Stephens introduced legislation in Harrisburg that could circumvent Bass' efforts to tear down the deli windows. If passed, it would let employers implement workplace-violence-prevention policies and safeguards — including installing bullet-resistant windows.
Steve Miskin, spokesman for the state House Republicans, did not respond to an email Monday asking whether Stephens' bill would have enough support to pass the House.
At Monday's small-business meeting, Stephens said that when he heard about Bass' bill last year, he thought it was "never going to happen. Who in their right mind would tell employers they can't use bulletproof safety glass?"
His state bill, he said, "is a no-brainer. This is common sense. People need to be able to protect themselves and their employees."
Meanwhile, Bill Chow, whose wife, Michelle Tran, runs the Wayne Junction Deli in Logan, told the elected officials at the meeting that his wife did not receive the L&I letter. Oh suggested that Chow call the city's 311 information line, which was one of the ways the letter advised merchants to sign up for an eligibility inspection.
The letter advises food business owners that if they want to obtain a Large Establishment license — and, by implication, sell alcohol — they need to pass the inspection.
Sae "Rich" Kim, 46, who owns the Broad Deli on Broad Street in North Philadelphia, did not attend the meeting, but said Saturday that he remains concerned that L&I still might order large food establishments in higher-crime neighborhoods to remove bullet-resistant windows.
"Everything is a question mark right now," he said. "It just seems like we're being pushed back against the wall and there's no resolution here. At the end of the day, all we want to do is provide for our family and live the American dream. It just feels like we're being harassed and targeted."
Any potential restrictions on the thick-plastic barrier windows would not affect takeouts or other small food establishments because Bass' bill only targeted businesses with 30 seats or more. But some business owners fear that if beer deli owners are told to remove their windows, other businesses could be ordered to do so.
About 3:15 p.m. Jan. 21, a gunman was able to crawl through a rectangular opening between the counter and the partial safety-glass barrier at the Tasty Donuts shop in Frankford to get to the employees' side. While on the other side, the gunman shot a female employee, 38, in her back, injuring her.
Before crawling back through the opening, the gunman stole a bucket that contained about $500 and fled with an accomplice, the shop owner said. Surveillance video inside the store captured images of the two men. Police have arrested the alleged gunman, but are still searching for his accomplice.
The shop owner, a 59-year-old man who had come to the United States as a refugee from Cambodia, said in an interview at his shop four days after the shooting that the injured woman was recuperating.
The owner, who was not present during the robbery and who asked not to be identified for safety reasons, said that after the shooting he closed his shop for a couple of days and had the bullet-resistant safety glass replaced. Before, the glass did not reach the ceiling; now, it does. Before, there was an extended rectangular opening above the counter; now, there are just two small openings in the glass at the counter for money and food to be exchanged.
"I just thought it was safe around here," the owner said.