LINCOLN SQUARE — Given a month to show an improvement in its operations, Fanta Sea on Lawrence Avenue, which neighbors contend is running an illegal nightclub, failed to meet the majority of benchmarks set by the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection.
In March, Fanta Sea owner Mario Morales was told to address nearly a dozen issues based on complaints lodged by residents, chief among them that Fanta Sea is not complying with its "incidental" liquor license, which requires at least half of an establishment's sales come from food.
Patty Wetli discusses the latest on the "Fanta Sea" and why neighbors are so upset:
Morales was asked to appear before the city again for a second community meeting, held last week, with a copy of the establishment's menu, proof that security cameras had been installed, and a plan of operation, among other items.
Accompanied by attorney David Daudell and Fanta Sea's manager, who would only identify himself by his first name of Swayten, Morales brought to the meeting a "draft" of a menu in development. According to Swayten, Fanta Sea is between chefs and in the midst of switching from Cuban cuisine to more of a fast-food "grease joint."
Morales retracted a statement he made at a March CAPS meeting in which he said Fanta Sea's food was provided by a "third party."
"We cook there," he said.
He also provided an estimate for security cameras dated April 10, and a plan of operation that referenced Fanta Sea's "lounge atmosphere."
"We had a meeting March 14, and one month later you're just showing me an estimate," said city attorney Vera Elue, moderating the community forum as part of the public nuisance process.
"Everything you're presenting is not looking very good," she said. "Everything you're showing me is violation after violation."
Neighbors told Elue and Barbara Gressel, assistant commissioner of Business Affairs and Community Protection, that little had changed in terms of Fanta Sea's conduct, stating that patrons were never seen eating at the establishment. In addition, they presented copies of fliers advertising two upcoming rap performances at Fanta Sea.
"How does this fit in with a restaurant?" Gressel asked Morales, who responded that he was unaware of the events being produced by outside promoters.
"There are so many red flags up with the use of promoters," Gressel said. "The promoter isn't licensed. He has nothing to lose; you have everything to lose."
Morales also submitted a 911 call log — another requirement of the city — that showed just two calls for service placed with police related to Fanta Sea.
By contrast, Sgt. Norman Kwong of the Foster District CAPS office had records of 88 calls for service requested in 2014 for the 2100-2200 block of North Lawrence Avenue, and 33 calls for service to Fanta Sea's address, 2122 W. Lawrence Ave., specifically. The majority were for disturbances and assault.
The most recent call was made on April 3 by Fanta Sea itself to report the theft of its kitchen equipment.
"We were robbed and have been closed," said Daudell, explaining both the lack of diners and kitchen and wait staff.
Neighbors disputed the theft by providing a photo of the kitchen supply company truck that hauled away equipment on the afternoon of the day in question.
"This establishment has been nothing but a nuisance," said Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th). "There is nothing they can do at this point to make good."
No other business in the ward — which includes Lincoln Square's "vibrant" dining and bar scene — requires security guards, he said.
"Neighbors aren't here because they're NIMBYs," Pawar said. "They understand the need for bars and restaurants on Lawrence. It's not that they don't want activity. It's this business."
Pawar asked city officials to "accelerate" efforts to shut down Fanta Sea, saying ownership "will take every opportunity to extend this process and skirt the law."
In the interim, the alderman said he intends to introduce an ordinance that would change the zoning of the Fanta Sea building from mixed-use commercial and residential use to solely residential.
"After we shut down this current operator, the zoning will only allow a single-family home or two-flat," Pawar said.
Any future business would require a zoning change.
"No one is going to be able to open anything without aldermanic approval. It's about making sure whoever comes in next fits the neighborhood," he said.
Pawar also is taking the temperature of his fellow alderman in terms of support for ordinances that would require the licensing of promoters and regulations that would make it more difficult to obtain a liquor license as an corporation than an individual.
"You sell the company, and the license transfers," he said. "Some of these bars that go out of business, they sell the [corporation] with the license," and the new owner comes in and operates a club under an incidental license.
"This isn't about trying to flex my muscles," Pawar said. "These guys are not good operators. I'm at my boiling point."
The city's public nuisance process requires three community meetings before moving onto the license hearing phase. The next meeting regarding Fanta Sea is scheduled for 10 a.m. May 22 at City Hall, 121 N. LaSalle St., Room 805.