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Fla. Cracks Down on ‘Coffee Windows’

February 13, 1998

MIAMI (AP) _ Jaime and Mirtha Bianchi open their Roma restaurant in Little Havana before dawn on weekdays and wait for their regulars to sidle up to the coffee window for a morning jolt of caffeine.

The sidewalk window, an institution in Latin America, is not just a place to argue politics. For the cost of a potent cup of Cuban coffee, you can find out who ran off with whose wife or husband, who died, who got burglarized, arrested or fired.

The state, however, sees the open windows as a health violation and recently began insisting that proprietors install sliding glass or screens to separate the chef and his food from the customers.

Cuban-Americans in Little Havana see this as a cultural blunder: ``This is just stupid,″ said Mrs. Bianchi, who is from Cuba.

She and her husband, who was born in Colombia to Italian parents, opened the restaurant in 1966, a few years after hundreds of thousands of Cubans fled to Miami to escape Fidel Castro’s Communist rule.

``This has to have been dreamed up by someone who has never traveled outside Florida,″ she said in Spanish.

The state Department of Business and Professional Regulation contends the coffee windows violate the health code by being open continuously.

Warnings were issued three months ago and businesses that flatly refuse to comply could face fines of up to $1,000 a day.

One coffee shop owner said it would cost him $25,000 to bring his restaurant up to code.

Doug Philips, a state spokesman, said no restaurants have been shut down over the rule, and inspections are so infrequent it could be months before any shops are fined.

Miami-Dade County is more than 55 percent Hispanic. In the heart of Little Havana almost all the signs are in Spanish.

The coffee windows in South Florida range from small, dirt-stained wood counters to elaborately tiled counters 50 feet long.

At many of them, the outrage over the crackdown flowed as freely as the thick, sweet ``cafecito″ sold for 35 cents an ounce.

``Cultural gestapo,″ said Gustavo Lorenzo.

``Are they trying to start a revolt, or what?″ asked Osvaldo Moncada.

``Dumb,″ said Esteban Lamela.

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