Leamington’s underground economy caters to migrant workers


A catering business in Leamington that gives migrant workers a taste of home could close next month due to competition from illegal operators.

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Leamington’s underground economy is based on fajitas, burritos and empanadas.

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Illegal caterers delivering hundreds of meals to migrant workers daily have a very active job. They threaten the livelihoods of legitimate operators – those who pay taxes and pass health inspections.

“It’s the Old West in Leamington,” said Steven Easton, who, along with his fiancee Carol Gomez, owns the struggling Invernadero Cocina and Catering on Oak Street East. “Until you work with the Mexican community, most people don’t know it exists and on what scale.”

Over the past two years, the City of Leamington has investigated 14 unregistered food businesses serving migrant workers. Usually, advice on these underground operators comes in the form of names and phone numbers scribbled on flyers posted in dormitories.

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To find out where the cooking is taking place, officers responsible for enforcing municipal regulations staked out the accommodation of migrant workers and followed the delivery vans to their places of operation.

Two operators have closed their doors after a visit from enforcement officers and inspectors from the Windsor-Essex County Health Department, said Ruth Orton, director of legal and legislative services for Leamington.

The other 12 were elusive.

Regulatory officers and inspectors call numbers posted in dormitories, but illegal operators do not answer. In the rare cases where officials can obtain addresses, they attended and found no evidence.

“Operators may have taken notice of the investigation and have stopped or moved their operations,” Orton said.

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“We have no idea how many there are because we don’t know where they are. We have to rely on complaints.

Orton said the city had received two new tips on illegal operators. They are the next to investigate.

Orton tells the story of an operator who cooked in a condemned building on Talbot Street. “The health unit shut it down,” Orton said. But the woman persisted, returning to the building in the middle of the night to cook.

Easton and Gomez opened Invernadero – Spanish for greenhouse – in May 2015 to serve what, on the surface, appeared to be an “untapped market” of more than 3,000 migrant workers from Mexico alone.

“Here was a niche business,” Easton said. “We did market research, but what we didn’t know was the abundance of people doing it illegally.”

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Leamington Mayor John Paterson said the town was tracking every tip it received, but by-law enforcement officers couldn’t be everywhere all the time. To stop illegal operators, officers would have to work around the clock.

“It’s like any underground economy,” Paterson said. “We tried to shut them down, but they move or stop for a while and then restart… It’s a cat chasing a mouse all the time.”

And it’s not just food deliveries. A man named Tono delivers beer to the dorms and runs an unlicensed taxi service. There is a woman who runs a portable bar, her car filled with alcohol, cups and mixes. There are also reports of people selling new and used clothing in the trunk of their vehicles.

Easton said the underground food operators are doing well. Susana, Liliana, Tatiana, Luisa, and two separate women named Ana have flyers posted in dorm rooms.

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Invernadero’s hemorrhagic finances are further proof that underground operators are thriving.

Gomez delivered up to 400 lunches a day, six days a week. In its first year of operation, Invernadero had six full-time employees, not including Gomez and Easton. But business quickly declined, with customers telling Gomez they had found cheaper alternatives. Today, delivering 120 meals on a good day, Gomez employs only one full-time person: his mother, Giorgina. Two part-time employees – a delivery driver and a housekeeper – are the only other employees.

Gomez doesn’t pay himself, and most months relies on Easton’s consulting firm, EQM Services, to subsidize rent and utility bills.

Gomez said she had lowered prices to $ 5 a meal, including delivery. She said she couldn’t afford to charge less.

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She said her illegal competition undermines her because they don’t pay taxes or incur the costs of running a clean kitchen. For example, illegal caterers who add a stove or two to their basement or garage are unlikely to have the mandatory commercial hoods that need to be cleaned twice a year at $ 800 a pop, Gomez said.

City officials have met with the Mexican consulate in Leamington to discuss the issue, Orton said. The city even distributed leaflets in Spanish on food security.

Gomez, a Canadian citizen born in Tlaxcala, Mexico, tried to educate her clients about the health unit’s star rating program. Invernadero has five stars, the highest rating. The illegal operators simply responded by drawing five stars next to their name on their ads.

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Leamington regulations allow home-based businesses as long as they are registered with the city, Orton said. The fine for operating an unregistered business is $ 100. In the past two years, no food operator has been fined.

That will likely change this year when the city passes a new “more robust” licensing bylaw, Orton said. “Once that is in place, we will go ahead and start issuing tickets.”

City bylaw officers work with health inspectors and the fire department to track down unlicensed food operators.

Phil Wong, a health inspections manager, said the health unit’s goal is to bring food operators into compliance with provincial regulations.

“Any establishment that serves food to the public must be inspected by law,” Wong said. The Health Promotion and Protection Act has 82 sets of rules governing food premises.

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“A lot of these business owners don’t know the requirements,” Wong said. “Often they don’t realize they need an inspection. “

Part of the health unit’s mandate is to inspect the housing of farm workers. During these inspections, health unit officials first saw leaflets from illegal food operators. They share the information they meet with city officials and investigate in tandem with them, Wong said.

Easton said he and his fiancee knew they would face competition when they launched Invernadero. “But we thought our competition was from other legitimate restaurants,” Easton said.

“We’re just looking for a level playing field. “

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Bonny J. Streater

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