BRISTOL – Mark Roberts, owner of Foodies and Baskets, said his problems with the city and the Connecticut Department of Labor have been resolved and he expects to reopen both businesses.
Bristol Mayor Ellen Zoppo-Sassu, however, says she believes the issues have not been resolved.
“My concern continues to be the employees who work there who are waiting for their paychecks,” Zoppo-Sassu said. “I cannot speak for the Department of Labor, but I do not believe the issues were resolved. My goal is to coordinate some type of workshop in which either DOL staff or perhaps a group like American Jobs Center will meet with former employees and try to help on this issue.”
Roberts, who is based in Canada, downplayed the Department of Labor’s involvement.
“So far they’ve found like $290 in errors related to payroll, which certainly didn’t warrant being closed,” he said. “In Canada and other jurisdictions it would have been something that you would have an auditor come in and review your books and that would be it at the end of the day.”
The Department of Labor has not responded to several requests for comment.
In late 2019, Roberts opened Baskets, a high end gift basket business, at 200 Main St., former home of the Central Connecticut Chambers of Commerce, among other organizations. In 2020, he opened Foodies, an Italian restaurant and gourmet marketplace, at the former Super Natural building at 224 N. Main St.
Zoppo-Sassu said city officials welcomed the new businesses but almost from the start Roberts has been uncooperative when it came to following health and safety regulations.
Baskets and Foodies are both closed at the moment.
“We’re renovating them right now,” Roberts said, adding he doesn’t have reopening dates in mind because he can’t predict the progress of the work.
He said he is changing Foodies from a marketplace to “a normal restaurant,” adding a patio for permanent outside dining, “and the city is more than excited about it.”
As for Baskets, it’s going to be a retail store only now, with no online orders, to ensure social distancing, he said.
“I closed it down because I wanted to make sure that we could properly social distance for the next six to 12 months while the United States gets out of its covid problem,” he said. “We’re being responsible corporate citizens.”
Zoppo-Sassu confirmed the city’s building department has a permit for interior renovations at Foodies, however, “there is nothing there at Baskets that requires permits,” she said. “They are in violation of sector rules as it relates to covid, which we have not ticketed them on because they were not there, and there are a few minor property maintenance issues that we asked them to resolve.”
Zoppo-Sassu said she has received complaints from both consumers and employees of the two businesses, with the majority being about Baskets, “in terms of quality of product, lack of receipt of product, those types of things.”
Manchester also has a Baskets and Foodies set up there, although Foodies had not yet opened for business. Zoppo-Sassu said she has been in touch with Manchester Mayor Jay Moran, who said the Baskets there is experiencing similar issues.
On Jan. 12, agents from the Connecticut Department of Labor closed the Manchester Baskets due to wage complaints, and then headed to Bristol.
“We met DOL agents on Main Street and they informed us that the investigation was a multi-agency response involving consumer protection, revenue services, health and labor,” Zoppo-Sassu said. “It is important to note that when the Department of Labor agents arrived in Bristol, there was no one working, so no actions were taken. This is different than Manchester, where a stop work order was instituted.”
In reports to the mayor, the Bristol-Burlington Health District has cited violations of covid-19 rules, including lack of masks and social distancing by employees at Baskets, in addition seeing pallets of non-refrigerated meat, cheeses and various other items being prepared for shipping.
Roberts dismissed the idea that meat and cheese being left out unrefrigerated was a problem, preferring to focus on problems with the health district over a machine for dipping strawberries in chocolate.
“We’ve given up on the chocolate machine. We’re doing all the chocolate operations now in Canada, and we’re just sticking with our pre-packaged goods,” he said. “So when they say that we’re difficult to deal with there’s another side to the story and they will find, if anybody cares, that the actual issues had a lot more to do with government bureaucracy.”
Despite the tension and saying he foresees “many more problems,” Roberts said he plans to stay in Bristol. He noted he liked dealing with Justin Malley, the city’s economic and community development executive director, but “it all depends on how we are treated.”
Susan Corica can be reached at 860-973-1802 or email@example.com.