Have you ever pondered over a menu and wondered if the offerings were really as “organic,” “local,” or “homemade,” as the description stated?
In a shocking Toronto Star investigation, the publication found one Toronto restaurant quick to pepper their menu with such foodie buzzwords – only to discover it was merely “lip service.”
As it turns out, Azure Restaurant & Bar, located in the Intercontinental Hotel Toronto Centre on Front St., wasn’t exactly truthful in its description of its menu items, passing off regular items as those of the highest quality (and the eatery isn’t exactly cheap either).
And it’s pretty bad.
The “wild Canadian salmon” was really a farmed Atlantic variety; the “organic” granola was boxed Quaker Harvest Crunch (seriously?!); the rare “Wagyu” was a regular skirt steak; and the “homemade” dressing was actually produced by Renée’s Gourmet. These findings are contained in food Inspection documents obtained by the Star.
According to the Star, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) conducted three menu verification inspections to reveal that incorrect descriptions of menu items in 20 instances between 2013 and 2015.
As reported by the Star, The Intercontinental Hotel’s general manager, Alexi Hakim, said that, to his knowledge, the CFIA’s concerns in each of the reports were addressed “immediately” in each case and “sometimes on the spot.” He says that it’s difficult to alter the menu each time an ingredient changes with such a large restaurant that serves thousands of people a year. He claims that none of the mistakes were malicious.
But, in reading the whole story, it’s difficult to have much sympathy for the “innocent mistakes,” especially because they happened repeatedly.
The restaurant’s false menu claims were first inspected in early 2013, when a bold, longtime hotel employee sent CFIA investigators a complaint saying he couldn’t abide “thousands of dollars being taken from (the) public pocket by false representation” at his workplace.
Good for him.
“The public is being mislead to believe they are getting a high quality product when they are actually getting a much cheaper lower quality food product,” he wrote, claiming that the hotel was describing farmed fish as wild, referring to bocconcini cheese as “Buffalo Mozzarella,” and describing the basic skirt steak as the rare, expensive Wagyu meat.
When inspectors visited, they discovered other examples of misrepresentation and deceit, like passing off Crown Brand Corn Syrup as “Canadian Maple Syrup,” and regular versions of products described as free-run eggs, free-range chicken, and organic beets.
In CFIA’s first inspection in April 2013, they found 13 advertising violations and immediately requested “corrective action” to be taken. In a July 2013 report, they noted that a new menu had been printed.
Instead of printing new menus, why not offer what the menu actually states (just a thought)?
Anyway, when CFIA returned to inspect the kitchen a year later, it turned out that the restaurant still hadn’t learned: three violations were found. Two were specific, while another was over-arching. The menu claimed that it used the restaurant used “the region’s freshest artisan ingredients,” while the inspection report found “frozen, processed and preserved” products were used to prepare some food items.
In April 2014, Azure was given 30 days to correct the violations, and warned that further violations may result in “more stringent enforcement action,” as stated in an issue detail report.
Then, in March 2015, the employee who made the original complaint reached out to CFIA inspectors again.
Though the report was completed by this point, a trail of emails between the employee and a CFIA inspector reveal that at least one more on-site inspection of Azure was conducted and yet again, the menu contained false claims. This included a claim that the kids’ hamburgers and fries were homemade when they weren’t, and calling other items “local” when they also weren’t.
Finally, on Oct. 5, 2015, the employee got an email from a CFIA inspector stating that Azure’s menus had been changed. The “freshly squeezed,” “homemade” and “local” claims were removed and everything was now “correct”.
The descriptions of the menu items have indeed since been scaled back. “If there were any violations, we have corrected them and corrected them immediately,” said Hakim, according to the Star. “We have put strict rules in place to prevent such violations moving forward.”
Even so, I have a feeling the restaurant won’t exactly be a favourite choice for Torontonians in the near future – if it ever was in the first place. I also have a feeling that Azure may not be the city’s only culprit. Hopefully, this will serve as an eye-opener for others.