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Full Frontal: Sugars Coffee Bar attracts young Hispanic men and unwanted attention from city officials.

Sugar and Vice

How afraid are city officials of lingerie and bikini bottoms?

By William Dean Hinton

THE WAY Tony Nunez tells it, San Jose city officials came at him in three waves. The first was in April of last year, two months after he had opened Sugars Coffee Bar on East Santa Clara Street. One morning, a "small but tough" city employee named Juanita Baca walked in and began writing violations for what Nunez says were petty things. The shop's windows were tinted. The bathroom and electrical wiring were installed without a permit. Sugars patrons could watch television on three TVs, including a big-screen. He blared pop tunes like the Kid Rock-Sheryl Crow duet "Picture" and hosted open-mic nights.

Nunez is admittedly on the cutting edge. He fashioned his coffee shop on Vietnamese-style cafes, where the interior is made to look like a cocktail bar even though nothing more harmful than caffeine is served. The featured attraction is typically petite Vietnamese waitresses with enough cleavage to draw eye contact chestward. Nunez took this idea one step further, creating a soft-porn website, www.sugarsmagazine.com, featuring his servers in catlike poses. Sugars is essentially a medium-size room, painted purple and adorned with pictures of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and The Sopranos, with a separate small kitchen, a bathroom and an office space Nunez separates from customers by a Chinese room divider.

For the first four months of business, Sugar waitresses wore lingerie, which, in the opinion of Juanita Baca, one of 25 San Jose code enforcement officers, broke a city ordinance forbidding any food server to dress in such a way as "to expose his or her private parts or buttocks."

The second harassment came on a Friday night in May when three San Jose police officers happened to drop by five minutes after midnight, Sugars' normal closing time. (Police say it was more like 20 minutes after the hour.) According to Nunez, three customers were still trying to straighten out drink orders, which technically violated the city's closing-time ordinance. The officers, members of the department's gang unit, didn't write a citation but nosed around Sugars, asking waitresses about gang activity.

Last month, the gang unit returned, again with questions about Sugar patrons. After leaving, they requested that a code enforcement officer cite Sugars with nine infractions, many the same complaints Baca registered in her initial visit. According to the city, nothing much had changed since summer except the Sugar waitress uniform morphed into elastic shorts and swimsuit tops.

According to Nunez, nothing much has changed, including the nonstop harassment by cops and code enforcement officers--city employees for which his taxes pay salaries and benefits. "It's like hiring a hit man to come kill me," says Nunez. "That's the way I feel. I'm a thug."

Nunez, 36, is a former Marine who worked seven years as a surveillance operations supervisor at the Garden City Casino. He owns a women's self-defense studio, Women Kickinit, in the Willow Glen area that has appeared in 10 news broadcasts and a half-dozen publications, including Sports Illustrated for Women.

To save his business, Nunez has fought the city with a vengeance. He's charged racial discrimination--not because he's Hispanic but because he believes police have linked Sugars to a dozen Vietnamese-style coffee shops believed to be fronts for prostitution, gangs and gambling. Nunez is sensitive to the charge, he says, because his wife Candy is Vietnamese. "This is a message somebody in power is sending to the Vietnamese in general," he says.

He's plastered two dozen salmon-colored fliers on Sugars' walls saying the city has resorted to "underhanded methods" to close Sugars, calling city officials corrupt and asking patrons to help fight the city. "Shame on you, San Jose city officials," the fliers conclude.

But Councilmember Cindy Chavez, whose district includes Sugars and who defended Nunez when she thought the city was persecuting him, says Nunez has manipulated the press (Metro, the Mercury News and CNN.com among others) just as he manipulated her. "I thought the city was totally torturing him," Chavez says. "He's smarter than I am. He's pushed the envelope to make more money without doing due diligence or following the law."

Counters Nunez: "That's the kind of people they are. They make it so nobody will go to the media when they're in trouble. The only support I've gotten is through the media."

At issue is whether Sugars is a restaurant, as Nunez claims, or whether it's a beverage-service business, as the city claims. The distinction is crucial because restaurants can have what the city considers incidental entertainment from 6am to 10pm. If Sugars is a restaurant, Nunez's open-mic nights and loud thumping music would be not violate city codes.

According to state law, a restaurant is a business that serves meals and has kitchen facilities suitable for preparing "an assortment of foods." Businesses serving sandwiches and salads are not restaurants. Sugars serves prepackaged sandwiches in addition to coffee, breakfast burritos, pizza and wings. Its kitchen is equipped with a refrigerator, coffee pot and microwave oven. "A microwave can cook an assortment of foods," Nunez says.

Police, meanwhile, don't consider Sugars to be a Vietnamese-style coffee shop. Most Vietnamese shops are located in strip malls along the well-traveled Tully Road corridor near King Road. Their clientele is Asian, not Hispanic. "His place is this little hole in the wall, this dumpy place," says Sgt. Gary Hafley, head of the San Jose gang unit. "It doesn't have many customers. Tony's saying the city is picking on him when the city could care less about him. The impression he gives is that we're trying to put him out of business when that's not the case at all."

Hafley, arguably the city's most knowledgeable source on Asian gangs, has worked in the gang unit seven years. He says many Vietnamese coffee shops are operating on the periphery of the law. Besides a love of coffee, the Vietnamese are fond of smoking. Smoking is so popular that coffee shop owners create elaborate schemes to outwit police: Lookouts using walkie-talkies alert shop owners when police are making the rounds. They use tin foil ashtrays that are easily crushed and thrown out. Some coffee shop waitresses solicit men for after-hours sex, and shop owners have been known to allow patrons to play video games for money.

Metro visited three Vietnamese coffee shops on Tully Road. All were identical: Loud thumping music; big screen televisions; petite Vietnamese waitresses with ample breasts; young Asian men smoking cigarettes in violation of the state's anti-smoking law. Most of the patrons were clean-cut: eyeglasses, tightly cropped hair, jeans and golf shirts. But Hafley says coffee shops, with their barlike atmosphere, are an obvious draw for gang members. "They're a magnet for Asian gangs," he says. "Hispanic gangs prefer to stand on corners. They're very obvious. But Asian gangs claim territories in coffee shops. That's where they go to socialize. They're bound to run into each other. Then an argument occurs, and the guns come out."

None of the shop owners were willing to talk with Metro, which doesn't surprise Hafley. "If somebody in the business were to talk it could be costly or deadly," he says. "We rarely get any cooperation. Three people get shot, and nobody calls us up. Once the victim is taken to the hospital, we realize what happened. When we go to the coffee shop, the place is cleaned up, the blood is off the floor. The cafe has a video camera but there's nothing on tape. When we asked what happened, nobody saw anything. Every employee was in the kitchen or bathroom."

Police and code enforcement officers worked on a plan to crack down on noncompliant coffee shops last summer. A planning official named Jeannie Hamilton gave a series of presentations designed to educate business groups. She even spoke to a group of coffee shop owners.

Nunez says Hamilton targeted Sugars exclusively in her June 25 presentation, saying the business was corrupting youth with prostitution, drugs, gambling and gangs. But both Sgt. Hafley and Hamilton's boss, Stephen Haase, say Nunez and his business partner, John Nebres (who attended the June meeting), misheard Hamilton. "There was a series of misunderstandings," says Haase, director of the city's planning department. "But the facts are they are not operating 100 percent inside the law."

In any event, the city's attempt to crack down on Vietnamese coffee shops was a failure, according to Sgt. Hafley. They shut down two shops along Tully Road; other shops briefly reigned in the smoking and gambling but have reportedly resorted to form. "We've not made much more headway in dealing with the problem," he says.

Haase disagrees, saying the city went after the two worst offenders and got them. He says Sugars could be next. "This business is on our radar screen," he says.


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From the March 17-24, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




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