New York City restaurant Healthalicious serves up food for the fitness-focused. Dishes sport names like “Hard Core” and “Get Ripped.” But what the calorie-conscious eatery may end up ripping up is U.S. Rep. Michael Grimm’s political career.
The counter-serve café, nestled between an Italian restaurant and a children’s toy store on the Upper East Side, is at the center of a brewing storm for the Republican, who was indicted on fraud charges in connection with Healthalicious, which Grimm partly owned and oversaw from 2007 to 2010.
Federal prosecutors allege that Grimm failed to report more than $1 million in sales and wages, paid workers off the books in cash — many of them did not have legal status to work in the U.S. — to avoid paying taxes, and lied about it under oath in 2013 while he was a member of Congress. Prosecutors also say Grimm used an AOL email account to run the restaurant and discuss the off-the-books transactions with an employee during the time he was campaigning.
If you weren’t aware of Healthalicious’ dicey history, you wouldn’t get any clues after visiting the eatery — which has the slogan “better than delicious.” Four tiny tables with lime green booths line the walls, which are empty save for a giant menu pushing items like “healthalicious eggplant schnizel,” “nemo tuna” and “distance runner.” During a recent lunch hour, foot traffic was slow — but deliverymen on bikes frequently buzzed in and out to pick up orders. It’s a pretty normal-seeming restaurant.
When asked about Grimm, the man behind the counter – eager to initially help and even fix a wobbly table — clammed up. He insisted that he didn’t have names or contact information for any current managers or owners and that they rarely, if ever, come in.
Customers too were unaware of Grimm — many had no idea that he was even a congressman — or that the restaurant could be his downfall. Nor did they seem to let it get in the way of their “gym plates” and “baked not fried chicken cutlets.”
“It has nothing to do with me. I look at as if I’m hungry and I don’t have a lot of time and it’s in the area, then that’s what I’m going to do,” said John Feliciano, 24, who works nearby and comes to “Healthalicious” about once a week. Liz Henriquez, 28, a first time customer who tried the falafel, echoed that sentiment. “I’m totally fine with shopping here again.”
The Yelp reviews certainly haven’t been as kind, with the restaurant garnering a mediocre 3 star average based on 44 reviews – some of which were written after Grimm left. Gripes include poor quality ingredients, expensive dishes and sanitation concerns.
“The guy who was preparing my salad was using one hand to prepare it and the other hand to pick his nose,” wrote one unhappy diner back in February. “This place put me in the hospital with the worst food poisoning I ever had … The establishment is dirty, the employees are rude and the food is not worth the days of agony I endured” another wrote in 2011.
Back in 2007, when Grimm was one of the owners, one patron wrote that Healthalicious had messed up her order. “The owner did seem like a very hard working sweet guy. He was nice enough to reach out to me and try to make up for them missing part of my order.” Another customer in 2008 said she was “very impressed” with her mac and cheese, turkey burger and sweet potatoes, but acknowledged other reviewers voicing concern over quality control issues. “I ran into the owner today and he says he’s been working on this and feels like he’s getting those issues under control.” Of course, there were multiple owners, so it’s unclear if the man in either review was Grimm.
The restaurant was slapped with a number of city health code violations around Grimm’s time as co-owner. Inspectors found “mice and flying insects” and discovered some foods were not refrigerated properly. The campaign of Grimm’s opponent at the time, Democratic Rep. Mike McMahon, pointed to the violations as evidence that Grimm was a “careless businessman.” Healthalicious currently has an “A” letter grade from the city’s health department, the best available, hanging on its front window.
Grimm, riding a tea party wave, was elected to the House in 2010, representing Staten Island and parts of Brooklyn. The 44-year-old former Marine and ex-FBI agent – who ironically investigated fraud – was released on a $400,000 bond on Monday. He has maintained his innocence, characterizing the charges to reporters as a “political witch hunt.” He added: “We’re going to fight tooth and nail until I am fully exonerated.”
The congressman has since stepped down as a member of the House Financial Services Committee, insisting he doesn’t want his legal troubles to become a distraction. House Speaker John Boehner’s spokesman Michael Steel said he believes Grimm’s decision is “appropriate under the circumstances.”
Grimm has said he will continue to seek re-election this fall. After the indictment, the non-partisan Cook Political Report, which predicts House races, changed its rating in the district from “lean Republican” to “lean Democratic.”