Restaurant in watering-down sweep is mostly cleared

Posted: November 13, 2013

GLOUCESTER TWP. A bottle of top-shelf booze that perhaps sat on the shelf of a Camden County restaurant too long caused headaches for the owners, who were accused of cheating customers.

State officials alleged this year that Villari's Lakeside Restaurant & Bar in Gloucester Township was among 29 businesses caught watering down drinks or substituting cheaper booze while charging customers for premium liquor.

State officials have since documented that there was no evidence of such tampering at the family-run Villari's, which hosts happy hours at the indoor lounge and outside tiki bar, serves Italian cuisine in the restaurant, and offers catering services.

"Absolutely not," said Nick Abbate, who has owned Villari's for about 13 years with his brother, Joe.

"I thought it was really off the wall," Abbate said of the charges, made public in May. "My brother and I scratched our heads for months."

In October, the Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control amended the complaint against Villari's, concluding tests done on four bottles of confiscated liquor showed no proof that the alcohol had been "adulterated or contaminated." A bottle of rum, however, was low in alcohol content. The bar was fined $2,000 for that.

The bottle in question was Bacardi Gold, a Puerto Rican rum marketed for a combination of blended spices, tropical fruits, and a subtle taste of oak.

Not many customers order it, Abbate said. Maybe a handful, since the bottle was first opened two or three years ago, he said.

Most customers want vodka drinks, Abbate said. He said there is no expiration date on spirits. Less popular brands, he said, are around longer, including some premium rums.

"Old Italian ladies use the rum for their cakes," he said. "Not a lot of customers order it."

In March, Abbate said, officials took four samples during a spot check for the statewide investigation called "Operation Swill." In all, 63 bars and restaurants were targeted as agents field-tested 150 drinks. Abbate said he was later told some of the businesses were investigated because of customer complaints, but Villari's, he was told, was randomly selected.

In May, the Attorney General's Office announced the allegations against 29 businesses after a morning raid that confiscated thousands of liquor bottles, including four from Villari's.

The attorney general at the time, Jeffrey S. Chiesa, held a highly publicized news conference, saying, "This alleged scheme is a dishonest ruse to increase profits, and it is a slap in the face to the consumer."

State officials said in May their yearlong investigation uncovered bars that mixed dirty water in cocktails and used rubbing alcohol and food coloring in "premium" drinks. Officials would not specify which bars were responsible for the most egregious practices.

In August, the Briad Restaurant Group of Livingston, a franchisee of TGI Friday's, agreed to pay $500,000 after allegedly serving cheaper alcohol at eight locations where customers paid for premium brands. Of the 29 restaurants targeted in the May raid, 13 were TGI Friday's in North and Central New Jersey. Charges were not brought against five of the Friday's for lack of evidence, state officials said at the time.

Officials for the Attorney General's Office did not respond to requests for comment Monday.

Abbate said that after breaking a seal on a bottle, the longer it sits, the more vulnerable it is to alcohol evaporation. He said he understood why the rum might have tested light for alcohol. He is less understanding of why state authorities suggested far worse with broad allegations against all of the bars, which he said shocked his regular customers and called the bar's reputation into question.

"That was unfair," Abbate said. "I followed good business practices. I didn't start out yesterday. I've been in this business more than 25 years."

He said the bar had no history of other violations.

"As far as I am concerned, this issue is done," Abbate said. "I have many loyal customers who know our family and know we would never do that. It's not worth it. It would damage the business and our reputation."

856-779-3838 @BBBoyer

comments powered by Disqus