- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 8, 2008

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) - The specialty of the house at many restaurants across Florida is a slab of grouper, blackened, grilled, stuffed or encrusted with pecans, sometimes on a roll, maybe with a slice of Bermuda onion. But not at Richard Gonzmart’s place.

Mr. Gonzmart, whose family has owned the Columbia restaurant in Tampa’s Cuban-American Ybor City section for four generations, won’t serve grouper, because he can’t be sure he is getting the real thing from his suppliers.

Many restaurants in Florida have been caught passing off Asian catfish, tilapia or other cheaper species as grouper. Fake grouper is by far the biggest food-misrepresentation problem Florida inspectors handle, and it has turned up in all corners of the state — even at the Capitol cafeteria.

“I’m not going to take that chance because my reputation is more important than keeping grouper on the menu,” Mr. Gonzmart said. “It’s not worth it to take a shortcut. If grouper is $20 a pound, so be it, but if we buy it for $20 a pound and it’s not grouper, that’s a problem.”

The Florida Department of Business & Professional Regulation, which regulates restaurants, found 139 cases of something other than grouper being sold as the fish between January 2006 through the end of October — more than half of all food misrepresentation cases statewide during that time.

“It’s just a huge amount,” said Department Secretary Holly Benson, whose agency has doubled the fish fraud fine for restaurants from $250 to $500 for a first offense.

The fakery hurts fishermen like Michael Athorn. He and his three-member crew spend up to 12 days 60 to 70 miles from shore in the Gulf of Mexico, trying to reach the 6,000-pound catch limit for grouper, which has to be caught on individual hooks.

Back on shore, he has often found restaurants advertising grouper and putting something else on a plate.

“It’s something that’s aggravated us for a long time,” he said. “I’ve embarrassed girlfriends and wives in the past by making a big point of it in a grocery store, letting them know it wasn’t what it was. I’ve embarrassed people that I’ve taken out to dinner by refusing a meal that wasn’t really grouper.”