State hunts bogus grouper

More than a dozen Tampa Bay area restaurants have been subpoenaed.

Published November 22, 2006

The Florida Attorney General's Office has subpoenaed records from more than a dozen Tampa Bay area restaurants as part of an investigation into the sale of fake grouper.

Investigators are seeking purchase orders, vendor invoices and a list of wholesale providers from chain restaurants such as Hooters and the Winghouse, as well as independent operators such as the Fourth Street Shrimp Store in St. Petersburg.

The attorney general's investigation began after a St. Petersburg Times story on Aug. 6 disclosed that six of 11 area restaurants in a random survey advertised grouper but served something else. One Palm Harbor restaurant charged $23.95 for "champagne braised black grouper" that was actually tilapia.

Fish from several restaurants have been tested in the attorney general's investigation.

"I am not at liberty to say how many restaurants were tested or discuss the results," said JoAnn Carrin, a spokeswoman for the attorney general. "I can say that the fact that these businesses were subpoenaed does not imply guilt."

Carrin said that the investigation is continuing and that the state had conducted its own DNA testing.

According to a subpoena issued to the Fourth Street Shrimp Store on Nov. 16, "The general purpose and scope of this investigation extends to the possible unfair and deceptive trade practices."

The documents in question concern "customer orders for menu items relating to 'grouper' during the period September 3, 2006, through October 13, 2006."

Vicki Loges of the Fourth Street Shrimp Store said she was not aware that any of her restaurant's products were tested.

"The Shrimp Store has never purchased anything but grouper," she said. "We buy our grouper from one supplier and it is certified as grouper."

Chuck Riley, purchasing director for the Hooters chain, said three of his company's restaurants were tested and then subpoenaed.

"They told us that they pulled samples from three of our stores and all three said that they were not grouper," he said. "We don't know what is going on. We get our grouper from Thailand and it is certified by the government there as grouper. If it isn't, we are going to have re-think what we put on the menu."

Larry Jackson, owner of the Casual Clam on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street N in St. Petersburg, said his records were subpoenaed and he will hand-deliver them to state officials today.

"We want to cooperate any way we can," Jackson said. "The invoice says grouper, the box says grouper; we thought we were buying grouper."

According to some industry insiders, fish substitution is so prevalent in Florida that it may be unstoppable.

In May, a federal grand jury indicted a Panama City seafood wholesaler on charges of importing 1-million pounds of frozen Asian catfish for as little as $1.52 a pound, then passing it off as grouper, which can wholesale for four times as much.

That same month, the Times purchased grouper meals from 11 restaurants around the bay area.

Therion International, an animal DNA testing service in Saratoga, N.Y., determined that five of the restaurant samples were fakes. They included an Asian catfish called basa, tilapia and European hake. A sixth fish could not be identified, except that it was not of the grouper genus.

Last month in California, the National Fisheries Institute, the nation's largest seafood trade association, approved a new policy requiring all members to sign a pledge that they will not substitute seafood products, a move unprecedented in the industry.

Bob Jones, president of the Southeastern Fisheries Association, said the Times article was discussed in length at the conference.

"Those kind of things go all through the industry, from St. Pete to Kalamazoo to Sacramento to Portland," Jones said.

Jones said the Florida Restaurant Association distributed a flier about grouper substitution at a recent food show in Tampa.

The story "was a catalyst for a lot of players in the game and they are sure covering their fannies."

Times staff writers Stephen Nohlgren and Melanie Ave contributed to this report. Terry Tomalin can be reached at tomalin@sptimes.com or at 727-893-8808.


The Florida Office of the Attorney General has subpoenaed records from the following businesses:

Casual Cracker Inc.
d.b.a.* Casual Clam
1304 26th Ave. N,
St. Petersburg

Daniel Wesner
d.b.a. Fish Tales Seafood House
1500 Second St. S, St. Petersburg

Ker Inc.
d.b.a. WingHouse I, and WingHouse III
7491 Ulmerton Road, Largo

Seminole Family
Restaurant Inc.
d.b.a. Seminole Family
6864 Seminole Blvd., Seminole

4th Street Shrimp Store Inc.
d.b.a. Fourth Street Shrimp Store
1006 Fourth Street N,
St. Petersburg

Hometown Restaurants Inc.
d.b.a. Sunshine City Grill
1934 Hawaii Ave. NE,
St. Petersburg

Winghouse IV Inc.
d.b.a. Ker’s Winghouse
7491 Ulmerton Road,
Suite B, Largo

WingHouse of Lakeland LLC
d.b.a. Winghouse of Lakeland
c/o: Fowler, White, Boggs & Banker
501 E Kennedy Blvd., Suite 1700, Tampa

Sunset Again Inc.
d.b.a. Woody’s Waterfront Café
420 55th Ave., St. Pete Beach

AQA, Inc.
d.b.a. Coquina Blue
1840 SW 22nd St., 4th Floor, Miami

Hooters of Clearwater Inc.
d.b.a. Hooters
107 Hampton Road, Suite 200, Clearwater

Hooters of South Tampa Inc.
d.b.a. Hooters of South Tampa
107 Hampton Road, Suite 200, Clearwater

Hooters II Inc.
d.b.a. Hooters
107 Hampton Road, Suite 200, Clearwater

Veterans Iguana, Inc.
d.b.a. Green Iguana Bar & Grill
1710 East Seventh Ave., Suite 100, Tampa

La Teresita, Inc.
d.b.a. La Teresita Cafeteria
3318 W Woodlawn Ave., Tampa

Shady Leaf Corp.
d.b.a. Oaks Bar & Grill
505 129th Ave. E,
Madeira Beach

*doing business as