Bean Disguise

— Abe McNeil says that convenience is what prompts him to buy Café Moto beans to stock the PJ's Coffee and Tea franchise he manages next to the Hilton Hotel in the Gaslamp Quarter. It's only an eight-block drive from his Fifth Avenue and K Street address to Café Moto at 12th and J.

But customers come out on the short end. That seems to be the message in an April 8 "Food Inspection Report" by Ricardo Encarnacion of the San Diego County Department of Environmental Health. After a surprise visit to the Gaslamp café, Encarnacion wrote, "'PJ's Coffee and Tea Company' is a brand name marketed and sold in this facility as prepackaged units of whole beans, ground coffee, and tea. Prepared coffee beverages are made with Café Moto brand coffee but not indicated on the store's menu, outdoor displays, or marquee."

The report continues by stipulating to PJ's the following corrective action: "Indicate Café Moto brand usage to properly inform the public of the product they are purchasing." At the end, agent Encarnacion cites as reference the "Truth in Menu" section of the Sherman Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Law found in Article 3, Chapter 4 of the California Health and Safety Code. The section calls unlawful the dissemination of any false advertising of food. More specifically, it mentions substitution, point of origin, packaging, and labeling violations.

Etienne Wiggins, a PJ's employee for four years, never did like his company's coffee-sale practices. They started, he says, when "I was working out of our La Jolla store, at the coffee cart," says Wiggins, "and I received notice to reduce using PJ's coffee bags because it was too expensive a coffee to serve at the cart."

As a store manager, Wiggins knows that for bulk beans and other supplies, payments of $1300 to $1400 to the store's parent company in New Orleans can fall in price to $600 to $700 at Café Moto.

"The company first sent me a couple of the Café Moto bags," says Wiggins, "but I decided not to use them, and they sat in my cart for quite a while. Then I received a memo from our general manager marked urgent. It was attached to one of the Café Moto bags." Wiggins shows me a copy of the memo, which notified him that his paycheck was attached to the bag, too.

"I guess there was a statement behind that," says Wiggins. "They knew I was opposed to the move, so in the memo they used the term 'rotate them in,' meaning work the new bags in slowly, or slowly start making the changeover to the new coffee. I still held off doing it until they said to stop using the PJ's bags, period," says Wiggins.

But PJ's owner Ken Satterlee insists the company never sold Café Moto brand coffee exclusively. "We are the most remote of all the PJ's franchises," he says. "Shipping the beans to San Diego is very slow, and when there is a big event at the convention center, we often have to get new supplies overnight. The store would be overwhelmed if we relied on shipments from New Orleans to restock. So we buy Café Moto and keep plenty of it on hand for those situations when we're short."

I saw plenty of PJ's beans in bags displayed in the Gaslamp store. But Marc Apodaca and Leigh Lawson, who wait on customers, say their manager Abe McNeil has forbidden them to use anything but Café Moto to brew coffee for over-the-counter drinks.

Now the Gaslamp café is the only PJ's Satterlee owns in San Diego. He says he sold his La Jolla store "in November or December." Wiggins has the more specific memory of a sudden announcement of the sale on Christmas Eve. "I've always been loyal to this company and its owners," he says, "so it would take a lot to get me to tell this story. But to dismiss employees the day before Christmas, that was ugly. I thought I worked for a mom and a pop who were only trying to make a go of it." (Besides owning PJ's, Satterlee works for Burnham Real Estate and is a partner in St. Croix Capital Corporation and Delta Development.)

After PJ's closed its La Jolla outlet in December, says Wiggins, "I was offered hours back down here in the Gaslamp, where I started in 2000. So I came down to take those hours, because I obviously didn't want to be out of a job. I'm a newlywed with a six-month-old baby at home."

At the same time, however, Wiggins's working hours declined and his pay rate dropped from $11 to $9.50 an hour. "When I got my first check with a substantial drop in it," he says, "I called the owner. He said he couldn't afford to pay me what he did before but hoped I would stay on anyway."

I ask Wiggins why PJ's corporate personnel in New Orleans don't object to the drop in sales of coffee to the San Diego franchise. "For one thing," he answers, "we were buying just enough of their coffee that they would think things were okay.

"But I've wondered the same thing," adds Wiggins, "because we also stopped purchasing muffin batter from them." New Orleans sends its franchisees a batter that yields an overflowing mushroom-looking top to the muffins. But Wiggins tells me that PJ's in San Diego has taken to buying smaller muffins locally. He names S&S Bakery, Jody's Bakery, and La Provence as vendors.

"Maybe New Orleans isn't worried about things like that," says Wiggins. "Still, a franchise store is supposed to be bound by the agreement it makes with the main company to continue using its products. Café Moto is doing the right thing for its business in keeping prices low. That makes their coffee attractive to somebody who is in a nonfranchise store. If you are a franchise store, however, and you find a local coffee that is cheaper or better than your company's, then you should make your store a nonfranchise company, name it whatever you want to, and buy whatever products you want. Doing that would have been admirable compared to what our company did," says Wiggins.

In the past two weeks, a four- by two-inch Café Moto logo has appeared on PJ's front door. An eight-inch rectangular one is now pasted on the front of its cash register. But three days after his April 8 visit, health department inspector Encarnacion came back to PJ's to see how the store had responded to his call for corrective action. At least, wrote Encarnacion in a follow-up report, he was "unable to locate bags of Café Moto." But, he continues, there are "bulk containers labeled 'PJ's' brand with package cut-outs from unit packages." What Encarnacion is complaining about, Wiggins explains to me, is that despite the cut-out labels on otherwise unmarked containers, there is no way to tell which coffee is inside them. "The inspector does not have the expertise to tell that," says Wiggins. "So he can't tell whether our manager has done the opposite of what he was asked to do. And the logos on the door and cash register seem to admit we still do brew Café Moto coffee."

Meanwhile, owner Ken Satterlee says that his franchise contract with the PJ's corporation in New Orleans runs out in two months. "Sometime this summer," he says, "there will be a rebranding of the business in San Diego."

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