the food is either extremely good, or extremely bad
January 16, 2020 4:20 PM   Subscribe

 
Trick question! I live in Rhode Island!
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:28 PM on January 16 [90 favorites]


I grew up in Aberdeen, so, uh...
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 4:29 PM on January 16 [19 favorites]


In my area...
posted by pompomtom at 4:32 PM on January 16 [3 favorites]


The White House
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 4:33 PM on January 16 [56 favorites]


Where I live(suburban Chicago), there are far too many health clubs, kick boxing gyms, and “indoor amusement centers” (laser tag, trampolines, etc), than can profitably service or amuse the available population. I’ve been wondering for years which of them are money laundering fronts.
posted by hwestiii at 4:35 PM on January 16 [6 favorites]


It would be interesting to know how much of the economy is nose candy.
posted by sjswitzer at 4:38 PM on January 16 [7 favorites]


In the early 90s I lived in a sketchy neighborhood right across the street from a run-down store front with paper over the windows and a delivery van. The business was named "United Fruit Baskets". It was so obviously a front that it seemed like it couldn't possibly be a front.

To this day I still wonder what the hell was going on in there.
posted by Ickster at 4:40 PM on January 16 [14 favorites]


A couple of years ago, there was a pizza place near me that was shut down for also dealing drugs - apparently if you asked for a particular type of pizza, it was code for ordering drugs. Everyone in the neighborhood was wondering "what type of pizza?", but that was never revealed.
posted by mogget at 4:40 PM on January 16 [11 favorites]


I don't know of any currently, but when I was a kid, it was our theory for the survival of a nearby Thai restaurant for many many years in the absence of any visible amount of customers (and no takeout or delivery.)
posted by tavella at 4:42 PM on January 16 [1 favorite]


"what type of pizza?"

I'll have the Zesty Colombian.
posted by Ickster at 4:43 PM on January 16 [14 favorites]


Fronty’s Meat Market
posted by Servo5678 at 4:44 PM on January 16 [4 favorites]


Here is one of the useless pamphlets available about money laundering With a super adorable graphic on the front.
posted by poe at 4:45 PM on January 16 [3 favorites]


Used tire shop
posted by Burhanistan at 4:45 PM on January 16 [4 favorites]


One of our very favorite pizza places nearby was never, ever busy as far as we could tell. But their pizza was literally one of the ten best I've ever had. I don't know if we were just out of the loop and were supposed to avoid the place, but we're pretty convinced it was a front. We were really bummed out when it shut down.
posted by tclark at 4:48 PM on January 16 [6 favorites]


So the weird thing is that you wonder about the scrappy mom and pop places and how they can make the rent. It's not an easy life. They have to make the ridiculous storefront rents after all. But it might be that real estate itself is the real money laundering powerhouse.
posted by sjswitzer at 4:49 PM on January 16 [38 favorites]


The store in my old neighborhood that replaced a hobby shop that I loved. It had a few candy displays. The guy behind the counter was really nasty. It lasted for over 20 years.
posted by Splunge at 4:49 PM on January 16 [5 favorites]


There was a JJ fish near where I grew up used to collect bullet holes in the front glass panes, but took a while to go out of business.

At one point I lived with my brother in this fairly sketchy two bedroom with four people - the rent for the one month I lasted there was $150. When I moved in, my brother was like 'don't tell mom, but I'm pretty sure the two stores next door are fronts'.

Meanwhile, my mom was like 'don't tell your brother, but the stores next door to them are definitely fronts'.
posted by dinty_moore at 4:56 PM on January 16 [54 favorites]


The kicker is that I just looked up reviews for at least one of the palces that that were next door, and I think my mom and my brother were both just being racist! (it wasn't the sort of place that they would go into, so obviously...)
posted by dinty_moore at 5:01 PM on January 16 [22 favorites]


Easy for metro Buffalo : La nova pizza.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 5:03 PM on January 16 [4 favorites]


If we had a less expansive definition of contraband, this would be less of a problem.

But on the other hand there's a lot of geopolitical stuff going on too and that probably accounts for even more money laundering. Also, POTUS is clearly caught up in all of this.
posted by sjswitzer at 5:04 PM on January 16 [1 favorite]


A reputedly well-connected second or third cousin of mine ran a used-furniture store that never had any customers. When asked how he managed to be quite wealthy running such a pokey shop, the story was that he "found gold doubloons in a chest in the attic".
posted by Rock Steady at 5:06 PM on January 16 [18 favorites]


There are a lot of stores around where I live where people either own the building and run a little storefront rent-free or something shady is going on. I'm in Chicago on the north east side, Edgewater. I see this very, very often. I just walk by and shrug.
posted by SoberHighland at 5:10 PM on January 16 [3 favorites]


There's a 24-hour mexican restaurant near me that's been open for years, and I've been baffled by its presence because no one's ever inside even though it's a block from a high school. A neighbor mentioned once eating there with her daughter and I remember thinking, wait, they actually serve actual food?

Turns out that yes! It was a front! It and several other restaurants here and in Denver were all laundering money through a fictional food distribution company with the proceeds going straight to El Chapo.
posted by mochapickle at 5:11 PM on January 16 [34 favorites]


One of the stores I'm talking about here is a 24-hour Mexican restaurant! I never see anyone in there and it doesn't look like a place I would ever eat in. And there's a LOT of small Mexican restaurants in my 'hood that I DO eat in. But they're not 24 hours and are NOT shady looking.
posted by SoberHighland at 5:14 PM on January 16 [1 favorite]


It's interesting that pretty much EVERYONE has one of these places near them.
For us it's a big furniture store that I've never seen anyone go into or out of it. Not ever, and they have hugely overpriced terrible furniture in the windows.
But they surely can't all be mob fronts.
There must be some kind of profitable side business, like, removals or something using their fleet of delivery vans?
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 5:15 PM on January 16 [4 favorites]


There's a shop a few streets from where I grew up called "[Family Name] Sports" that has had the same wrinkled, slightly off kilter t-shirt and safety vest hanging in its window for at least the last 15 years, quite possibly more. You can't actually see inside the shop, at least not from the road--the window is too dirty/scratched up. Never once saw anyone go there or speak of its existence. Never been in myself because I always assumed it was a drug front. Apparently it's a historical building, though, so maybe they get some payment for that? I dunno, but I have some suspicions.
posted by brook horse at 5:15 PM on January 16 [3 favorites]


In my Boston area neighborhood, there was a ratty "Chinese restaurant" named The Yankee Dollar (which is a little on the nose, come to think of it) that rumor always had it was a front, so nobody I knew ever went inside. But an ex of mine poo-poo'd this notion and decided that we were going to check it out. We didn't make it past the foyer. The conversation went like this:
Ex: Two for lunch, please.
Guy: We're already closed for lunch.
Ex: But it's 12:30?
Guy: So.
Ex: How 'bout some eggrolls to go?
Guy: We're all out.
Carmicha: Ok, thank you!
Ex: Dumplings?
Guy: Nope.
Carmicha: Another time, maybe!
Ex: Hot and Sour Soup?
Guy: Out of luck.
Carmicha: Let's. Go. Now.
Guy: Bye now!
posted by carmicha at 5:17 PM on January 16 [75 favorites]


Are we including things like car washes and nail bars where the staff are probably trafficked? They aren’t “fronts” as such, because you can actually get your car washed or nails done there (for an insanely cheap price). But clearly some money laundering going on, and links to gangs.

Or do you mean the “I’m a drug lord so I’m setting up my girlfriend with her own salon/boutique that is only open twice a week when she has her friends over for drinks”? Hard to tell whether these are fronts or hobby businesses, but again probably money getting laundered.

Ironically the local shop that only sells sacks of rice, drums of oil and those checked plastic heavy-duty shopping bags, is totally legit as far as I can tell. I have no idea how the guy even pays his business taxes, let alone his own salary. I have never seen a customer in there.
posted by tinkletown at 5:19 PM on January 16 [3 favorites]


carmicha: That reminds me of the Monty Python cheese shop sketch.
posted by SoberHighland at 5:19 PM on January 16 [7 favorites]


Salt Lake City’s Coachman’s Dinner and Pancake House insists it is under new management and “YOU WILL BE PLEASANTLY SURPRISED,” but it’s still cash-only and skeevy as all get-out.

BC Chicken, which used pictures of ‘80s girl-next-door cover models to advertise its kebabs, wasn’t so lucky.

Fun Time Kidz Care continues to be the focus of wild speculation, but no one has ever proven anything.
posted by armeowda at 5:21 PM on January 16 [5 favorites]


Wells Fargo
posted by nofundy at 5:22 PM on January 16 [86 favorites]


There are plenty of total mysteries out there but also there are a lot of places that have weird angles to their business that aren't immediately obvious. Restaurants might be doing catering/delivery, bakeries might be doing the bulk of their business shipping fresh stuff out well before the sun rises, and so on.
posted by feloniousmonk at 5:23 PM on January 16 [7 favorites]


Deutsch Bank
posted by carmicha at 5:24 PM on January 16 [43 favorites]


Many of the places I thought were definitely part of a money laundering operation when I was younger turned out to be hobby businesses that were never intended to make money, funded by a partner's regular gainful employment. The more sensible cases involved buying the land/building so as to have a useful asset at retirement age.

As others have noted, it turns out to be the supposedly legitimate giant companies we've all heard of that do the bulk of the money laundering.
posted by wierdo at 5:24 PM on January 16 [12 favorites]


Again, I want to emphasize that storefront operators are only the tip of the iceberg. It's the real-estate empires that are the real problem. So many dark windows in Vancouver or NY or Venice. This is where the real money is parked and washed.
posted by sjswitzer at 5:25 PM on January 16 [43 favorites]


(Also, Miami, of course)
posted by sjswitzer at 5:26 PM on January 16 [1 favorite]


Dunno about actual money laundering fronts but I've worked in enough badly-run convenience stores to wonder if deliberately poor take and over-reporting income was a KPI.
posted by I'm always feeling, Blue at 5:27 PM on January 16 [2 favorites]


I thought the pizza place in Providence ear my office was a front, but I just looked it up and there are a bunch of positive reviews so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
posted by wenestvedt at 5:28 PM on January 16 [2 favorites]


Somewhere in that twitter thread someone also posits that these shops can be a means of satisfying the investment required to access a speedier path to an EB-5 green card. For a long time the required amount was $500k, but of course the Trump administration increased the miniumum required investment threshold.
posted by carmicha at 5:30 PM on January 16 [18 favorites]


Local tanning salon. No one's ever in there except me a few times every winter.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 5:32 PM on January 16 [2 favorites]


How did that go?
posted by sjswitzer at 5:33 PM on January 16 [1 favorite]


Fronty’s Meat Market

But it might be that real estate itself is the real money laundering powerhouse.


Monty's Front Market
posted by phunniemee at 5:34 PM on January 16 [16 favorites]


Yes, for me a more useful list wouldn't involve storefronts, it would involve looking up at the brand new, fully sold, condo towers, many of which have suspiciously little lighting at night. I'm looking at a couple right now, actually.

Similarly, there are a surprising number of newly built or remodeled commercial buildings asking nearly twice the going rate in the neighborhood and therefore have had no tenants in several years at this point. I don't really care when they build on vacant lots or tear down derelict buildings to build their laundry, but it does bug me when they buy up occupied buildings, kicking out the businesses I patronize.
posted by wierdo at 5:34 PM on January 16 [33 favorites]


There is a Mexican restaurant a couple blocks away. It's been there for like 8 years per street view. It's hours are: Thursday - Sunday nights, seemingly at random. I've never seen more than a single car in the lot it shares with an ice cream place. The main sign is burned and barely legible. It doesn't even exist on Yelp and I couldn't find it by name on google.

Some night I'm going to go in.
posted by wotsac at 5:35 PM on January 16 [8 favorites]


sjswitzer: Are you asking me? They have a great standup booth that I avail myself of to ward-off S.A.D. and keep my all-over tan going for my life modeling gigs.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 5:37 PM on January 16 [1 favorite]


I almost forgot: if you do business in Utah, you’ll likely run across fronts for our preferred form of organized crime: polygamist fundamentalist groups, like the (incestuous, fraud-loving, child-marrying) Kingston group. (See the section on “assets.”)
posted by armeowda at 5:40 PM on January 16 [20 favorites]


I was an early buyer in a condo tower in a central CA city. One day a bus pulled up with a bunch of investors from China. I don't know how many eventually bought, but the whole idea of buying real estate as a way to park (and possibly wash) money was enough of a thing that there were organized tours. After somewhat less than two years I left. I was the only actual resident on my floor of the place.
posted by sjswitzer at 5:42 PM on January 16 [14 favorites]


Wells Fargo
Deutsch Bank


banks in general. There's also an air base in the vicinity. Various gas stations.
posted by philip-random at 5:45 PM on January 16 [2 favorites]


Or do you mean the “I’m a drug lord so I’m setting up my girlfriend with her own salon/boutique that is only open twice a week when she has her friends over for drinks”? Hard to tell whether these are fronts or hobby businesses, but again probably money getting laundered.

Suddenly the terrible pedicure I got, from a woman who was clearly aggrieved I took the "open" sign at its word, at a place around the corner makes so much more sense.
posted by sobell at 5:45 PM on January 16 [20 favorites]


There is NO WAY Los Angeles can support this many vape shops. Out here in the Valley there's one in at least every fourth shopping strip. And, I mean, we HAVE dispensaries (they are much larger than the vape shops, but only so prolific in extremely specific radii), so they're not selling weed under the counter. I have never seen anyone going in or out of one.
posted by Lyn Never at 5:53 PM on January 16 [12 favorites]


Back in the 1950s and 60s, my grandmother's second husband was a bookie for the Boston Mafia, and they ran a little convenience store in Lynn that was a front for his bookmaking.
posted by briank at 6:02 PM on January 16 [6 favorites]


This is a shout-out to anyone who grew up in Springfield, Missouri, and remembers Colonel Day's Levis Emporium.
posted by daisystomper at 6:03 PM on January 16 [6 favorites]


Do consider your local Persian rug store which has been “going out of business” since the revolution In Iran.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 6:12 PM on January 16 [27 favorites]


There's a drugstore around the corner which is only open from 10AM-5:30PM on weekdays. Pretty sure it's a front...
posted by suelac at 6:14 PM on January 16 [3 favorites]


There's about 10 pizza joints in an 8 block radius from me. 4 of them are really good, and 5 are meh, but they're busy selling cheap slices to the kids in the area (there's 4 high schools, two Catholic 12-year schools, and a 4-year City University of New York college campus near me).

And then there's this one joint around the corner from me that I've never seen anyone in except for a couple of guys, one behind the counter, the other in front on a stool, both of them shooting the shit. It's been open for all the 7 years I've been at my current place. There isn't even a smell. Even the meh places have a "baking dough" smell, a "tomato-y" smell, you know? Something that indicates pizza is prepared inside. If any of the other joints are fronts, then they're fronting very well. These guys aren't.

In my neighborhood where I was growing up in the 70s, the sparsely-stocked corner store nearest to our flat was assumed to be a "Middle Eastern" money laundering operation of some kind because the 3 guys we'd see in rotation there were Palestinian. And it was only ever those 3 guys. No kids or women were ever in there like some of the other local shops. I was told to never go in. Of course I went in. They sold chocolate bars for 25 cents for a long while after the price went up to 50 cents!
posted by droplet at 6:18 PM on January 16 [14 favorites]


These guys were investing their retail-theft-ring dollars in real estate. That has to stop.
posted by amtho at 6:20 PM on January 16


So I looked up the Good Food Company in Arlington, Virginia. They say they deliver meals "to local daycares and preschools" and they have a reasonably detailed website and a Facebook page and so forth. Even a sort of blog listing the food they're making that week. And there are (apparently legitimate, apparently private) childcare programs that say they get food from them.

Google Maps has a feature that lets you see multiple StreetView photos of the same site, going back in time. Some of the photos of the parking lot seem to show eighteen nice, shiny, vans with their logo, all the same model. That's a big fleet! I understand that every daycare needs morning deliveries, but eighteen cars means at least eighteen drivers, plus support staff etc. And it also represents a lot of food - I do see some produce trucks making deliveries in a few of the photos, but not many. Maybe they deliver too early in the morning, and Google's camera truck didn't pass by at those times.

The bit that pulls it all together IMO is this, from their FAQ:
Good Food Company operates in a region impacted by the schedules of several school districts and the federal government. Weather-related closings are not uncommon in the winter months, and school districts often have scheduled student holidays.

In general, Good Food Company follows the federal government’s closing policy. If the federal government is closed, so are we. If the federal government is opening with a two hour delay, Good Food Company is open and meals will be delivered on our regular schedule.
I know the US Federal Government is the largest employer around, but that seems odd. Do all the preschools close when the government closes? Maybe, I don't know how things work in countries that experience bad weather. But here's my theory: the Good Food Company is primarily a supplier to the Federal Government, either directly or via the daycare centers that are under contract to it. Someone doing threat assessment thought that this makes the Good Food Company a target for terrorists, so the place has been locked down and entry, deliveries and so forth are now under government control. It's still a supplier of meals, and it's probably still a private business, but it operates as if it were part of the CIA or another security-conscious department. And when the Federal Government closes, the security guys are off work, so the whole place closes down.
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:21 PM on January 16 [7 favorites]


Trick question! I live in Rhode Island!

I was at a workshop at ICERM once in grad school and for some reason people decided to go have dessert in some Italian restaurant. It was an actual restaurant, but the whole time I was thinking "It's not just me who knows this place is run by the mob, right?"
posted by hoyland at 6:24 PM on January 16 [4 favorites]


JiA, I'm not following - a lot of businesses in the DC area follow the closing schedule of the federal government. Is there some reason you got looking at that business?
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:25 PM on January 16 [5 favorites]


The charter schools around here are bad enough ... they get paid to run the school, get several hundred bucks per head they pocket as “administrative overhead”, contract to themselves for “hot lunch” that is crap and a lot more than public school lunch (volume, I know), contract to themselves for aftercare services (paid by parents), contract to themselves for school uniforms (paid by parents), lots of testing is contracted to themselves or Pearson....

Also, I was immediately suspicious of Zzzz best carpet cleaning company as a kid and I was right but it took a lot more to be disillusioned as an adult and realize just how many scumbags are out there.
posted by tilde at 6:28 PM on January 16 [11 favorites]


Every casino on earth.
posted by Keith Talent at 6:36 PM on January 16 [5 favorites]


I dunno I think a lot of examples in this thread are just like, businesses that do not cater to the general public. Like they deliver shit to other businesses, or it's a couple of contractors who share an address for storage but they spend most of their "working days" day drinking with each other while they wait for a gig to come in. Or at least, I know some dudes who do that. Or in my particular building, my landlord's bum son has a retail spot that he's always "renovating" for his new business that I have yet to see materialize in 8 years of living here.

There is NO WAY Los Angeles can support this many vape shops. Out here in the Valley there's one in at least every fourth shopping strip. And, I mean, we HAVE dispensaries (they are much larger than the vape shops, but only so prolific in extremely specific radii), so they're not selling weed under the counter

I thought they were all selling questionable bulk vape supplies from China to domestic non-legal sellers? Also, at least here in Oakland, some of them definitely are unlicensed pot shops. If they don't collect excise taxes that's a big discount.
posted by bradbane at 6:37 PM on January 16 [8 favorites]


The mobs developed in parallel to the nation states and--to some extent--as an alternative to them. Today the serious mobs are hand-in-hand with the nation states. There's a big game afoot and for the most part it's unreported. The corruption and undermining of democratic systems in the west is basically their work. But "res publica" means basically the same thing as "cosa nostra," it's kinda just a question of which gang you're in.
posted by sjswitzer at 6:37 PM on January 16 [11 favorites]


Something, something, the Irish Sweepstakes!
posted by SoberHighland at 6:48 PM on January 16


Many years ago I took a job in a new, small city. The lot I parked in was a couple blocks from my office, and along the way was a barber shop. Every day I'd walk by and the old Italian guy who owned the place would usually be sitting by the window and would wave as I walked by. When I finally needed a haircut, I ended up just going to this place on my way into work. It was a charming little barbershop with old memorabilia on the walls, including a large collection of straight razors. The guy gave a good cut so I kept going there.

Several months into my job I mentioned to someone at work that I got a haircut there and they told me that I should really google the guy. Turns out he was a convicted mafia gangster. So I had a choice to make: stop going to this barber shop but still walk by the guy every day, or suck it up and just forget what I read.

Suffice it to say the wall of straight razors convinced me to keep going there (until I moved away a year later).
posted by noneuclidean at 6:50 PM on January 16 [10 favorites]


It's probably nothing, but now I'm curious about the taco truck near me that is only open at random, weird times--never when most people want a meal. I'll drive by it at noon, hoping for some grub, but it's shut down. Then I see it at 3:00, and the open sign is on, but it's off again by 5:00. Whoever owns it clearly isn't trying hard to actually sell many tacos.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 6:58 PM on January 16 [4 favorites]


I dunno I think a lot of examples in this thread are just like, businesses that do not cater to the general public. Like they deliver shit to other businesses, or it's a couple of contractors who share an address for storage but they spend most of their "working days" day drinking with each other while they wait for a gig to come in.

Similarly, SWIM worked for a couple of guys who moved out of London to fulfill their dream of running a tchotchke shop in a small town, sourcing a significant part of their stock by buying it at retail prices (sometimes in town) and marking it up. Definitely concur that not all businesses which make no sense from outside are necessarily somewhere in a Bond Villain chain.
posted by I'm always feeling, Blue at 7:01 PM on January 16 [8 favorites]


I'm sure people thought my grandfather's surplus store was a mob front owing to the fact that he basically used it as his private clubhouse for old Armenian guys to smoke cigars and hang out all day. But he made his actual living as a totally legitimate commercial landlord, and opened the surplus store because he was hooked on going to government surplus auctions as a hobby and didn't have space for all his weird purchases at home. He wasn't opposed to selling things to customers, per se, but that definitely wasn't the point.

I think there are a lot of people out there who run retail storefronts as a hobby sideline and barely break even or even lose money. That doesn't mean there's crime involved, necessarily.
posted by potrzebie at 7:02 PM on January 16 [38 favorites]


Something, something, the Irish Sweepstakes!

You know what, I thought this was an old ethnic joke—the Irish sweepstakes is getting hit by a car and claiming compensation, or something like that. I looked it up to see and found out it was a real scandal.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:05 PM on January 16 [3 favorites]


[Quick general nudge to be cognizant about the ways these perceptions/guesses can connect with ethnic stereotypes and othering, and try to avoid that.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 7:05 PM on January 16 [25 favorites]


JiA, I'm not following - a lot of businesses in the DC area follow the closing schedule of the federal government. Is there some reason you got looking at that business?

Yes, there's a long bit of the Twitter thread going on about how the Good Food Company is obviously a front for the CIA. I thought it had been mentioned here too, sorry for the lack of context.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:12 PM on January 16 [5 favorites]


When I was a kid we went to a Sicilian style Italian restaurant. Nobody was ever there but us and a lot of business men. One day I found a secret door behind the coatrack, and decided to pretend I hadn’t.

The food was delicious though.

Now I live in Vancouver, so basically ... a lot of places. It’s a problem
posted by Valancy Rachel at 7:12 PM on January 16 [6 favorites]


Possibility #1
Small store that sells bags of coffee beans. Apparently. Signage isn't clear. One bag displayed in window. Never open.

Possibility #2
Large restaurant but sorta isolated. A bunch of us skipped out on classes for a long lunch. Front area was a bar with a side door where a few men would go in and out of. Main dining room completely, 100% empty at lunch hour on a weekday. The food took so long to arrive that we started sneaking off to explore the empty rooms off the dining hall. When the food finally arrived, we cracked up so hard after the waiter left. It was obvious that someone had gone to the nearest store and popped the food in the microwave.
Something felt off as soon as we walked in but we still followed through. Honestly, we were surprised they didn't just say they were closed. I'm impressed they bothered to go to the store.

I do see a lot of boutique-type places that are definitely hobbies or something.
posted by jojo and the benjamins at 7:12 PM on January 16 [5 favorites]


There is a store in the Italian part of Medford, Massachusetts that only sells sausages and sausage casings. I never once saw it open the entire five years I lived down the street. It looks like it's still there.
posted by marfa, texas at 7:14 PM on January 16 [3 favorites]


Oh, I used to work near a “rug repair shop” that I was super skeptical of, but our UPS guy confirms it’s legit. They’ve made rugs for the Oval Office. And his shipments are always bulky and heavy as crap (wool to make the rugs).
posted by tilde at 7:19 PM on January 16 [4 favorites]


There's a Russian/Eastern European restaurant in the St. Louis suburbs called Dvin. It never appears open, as the curtains on its small window are always drawn, and the glass door cannot be seen through. Sometimes its lights are on, sometimes not. Somehow, it's earned above-average ratings on Yelp, which reinforces Alice's comments about how the food is (though only 22 reviews, hmmm).
posted by stannate at 7:21 PM on January 16 [1 favorite]


I wonder how many perfectly nice (if humble) business were utterly ruined, their immigrant owner's dreams crushed and meagre savings wiped out, because one too many chucklefucks went around running their mouth because they just knew something was going on
posted by Freelance Demiurge at 7:26 PM on January 16 [41 favorites]


Somewhere in that twitter thread someone also posits that these shops can be a means of satisfying the investment required to access a speedier path to an EB-5 green card.

Yeah I never knew that and it explains a certain amount.

I think this thread is super funny and it makes me think of lots of odd places I’ve known and also that it reveals a little bit of xenophobia. Otherness plays a role. Just because you’re not the target market or don’t speak the language or don’t know those people doesn’t mean it’s a front.
posted by Miko at 7:26 PM on January 16 [20 favorites]


Across the street from my own (actual, non-front) vintage shop, there’s a little shop that allegedly sells handmade baskets. If you look in the window, it is in fact full of very nice handmade baskets.

In the two and a half years I’ve been here, I’ve seen it open exactly once, on a random Saturday. Door open, lights on, music playing, and nobody in the goddamn store but me.

I left in case it was one of those ‘spend half an hour inside, leave to find a hundred years have passed’ situations.
posted by nonasuch at 7:37 PM on January 16 [30 favorites]


My brother who lives abroad sent me a gift e-certificate to a downtown Philly health spa on a second floor. It was faded and dinky, with bead curtains obscuring alcoves, and no customers. I got a fairly lackadaisical foot massage from a skinny Russian woman who told me Russia was a "very bad place." (A consistent statement from every one of the many Russian emigres I've known, mind you)

Either my brother was misled about the nature of the business or he's been in the US Foreign Service far too long.
posted by Peach at 7:39 PM on January 16 [9 favorites]


There was this Albanian restaurant that opened in my Boston neighborhood. Kind of cool, since the neighborhood actually has a fairly large Albanian community, and you don't tend to see many Albanian restaurants around here, but they never seemed to do much business and they never had any of the Albanian beers listed on the menu.

Turned out the owner was using the place as a distribution point for cocaine shipped in from California. He got 15 1/2 years.
posted by adamg at 7:47 PM on January 16 [3 favorites]


- a convenience store that was run by an elderly couple who kept a rusted out van in the parking lot. They were totally not shy to go to the van to pick up 200 packs of contraband smokes when anyone needed them. They had a hidden room in the back with VLTs, had racks of very lurid porn DVDs and sold ice-cream bars that had thawed and refrozen after the 2003 blackout. A few years ago they retired and the site was taken over by an very industrious family who cleaned up all the dodgy stuff - and didn't last six months.

- Green Beanery in the Annex in Toronto funds research and advocacy into climate-change denial. Not a crime but should be.

- a store in Scarborough that sells parts and supplies for Linotype and Monotype printing systems. This has all been obsolete for at least 40 years. Curiously, they're not a front at all: they own their store, and it's their home from home.
posted by scruss at 7:51 PM on January 16 [12 favorites]


There's a cheesesteak place by my office that has to be a front. No one ever there. Soda machine has been broken for over a year. Has had a B rating from the health inspector for two years. Sometimes the guy who works there/cooks everything just closes up and goes off for a while during the middle of the day when people are taking their lunch breaks. I can't imagine they'd stay open unless they're laundering money or dealing drugs or something. Sandwiches are amazing though.
posted by downtohisturtles at 7:54 PM on January 16 [1 favorite]


I used to live next door to a Lebanese restaurant. At first, it was all right... the food was good, and the $2.50 falafel special on Tuesday evenings was such a good deal that I used to eat there even when I was unemployed. But as time went on, the place got sketchier and sketchier. There were a lot of morose-looking guys sitting around smoking cigarettes. When you went in and ordered food, the staff would look panic-stricken before they went off to find actual food for you. I went away on vacation at one point. When I got back, the restaurant was closed, with paper covering the doors and windows. My neighbour told me the owners got busted for dealing hashish, and one of their cousins was living in the basement in conditions that constituted slavery.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 7:54 PM on January 16 [2 favorites]


I've long felt this way about John's Ice Cream in Berkeley (which has either closed or is about to close finally). Up until several years ago, you could get ice cream cones for a dollar, and even after some price increases, they were only up to $1.75 or $2 by the end. Pricier items existed, but I rarely witnessed anyone buying them. Even in the busier hours, they barely seemed to make enough to pay two minimum wage employees, forget the rent.
posted by ktkt at 7:55 PM on January 16 [2 favorites]


Yeah, this real life laundering operation really disappointed me. I thought it would kill the businesses. Looks like just the upper level insiders got popped.

I go to Monica's Tacos all the time. A bunch of great latinx teens and young adults mostly staff the place. It's good and 7/10 authentic. The red salsa is delish and the chiles toreados are on the money. Fish tacos too with no skimping on fresh cilantro. They're still open, so maybe it was limited exposure. I recommend it.

Taco Star is late night above average fast food. A lot of the clientele are service industry peeps that clock out at 2-3 am. And night owls like me.

So...laundering or not, they sell a lot of yummy eats. And I'm all-in on family-owned and immigrant adjacent business.
posted by j_curiouser at 8:00 PM on January 16 [4 favorites]


Quite a few restaurants in my town are owned by a local dealer. One or two of them are the "always empty, do they even serve food?" variety, but several of them are well-loved local mainstays.

The one thing they all have in common is that they all (ostensibly) so takeaway. Real easy to launder money by just writing up a bunch of takeaway delivery receipts, and very hard to meaningfully audit.
posted by Dysk at 8:04 PM on January 16 [4 favorites]


Hey, armeowda, I moved away from Salt Lake City in 2006 and your places made me chuckle! Coachman’s was a solid breakfast joint that was always very busy, so the drug thing caught me by surprise when it happened. BC Chicken didn’t surprise me but I was kinda bummed because, again, the food was actually pretty good.

On the Kingston front, have you ever been to Eastside Market? I don’t know if it’s still there but it was right next to Liberty Heights Fresh on the corner of 13th S & 11th E back in the day. Had a good friend tell a hilarious story about she went in there thinking she was supporting local business only to find the place super odd and rundown and didn’t put it all together until she was standing in line to check out and all of the customers (all moms with little kids) weren’t paying for their food but having the transactions written down in a ledger and she was like, “Holy Shit! This is a polygamist grocery right near downtown!”
posted by Big Al 8000 at 8:05 PM on January 16 [2 favorites]


There's an overt gambling den in a storefront near me. I assume it's tolerated under the Lord Vetinari theory.
"He always says," said Lord Rust, t"hat if you’re going to have crime, it might as well be organized crime."
They make the smallest of pretenses of being a legitimate business but everyone knows the score. I just assume the police figure it's better to have it in a known and controlled location than underground.
posted by Candleman at 8:05 PM on January 16 [3 favorites]


I feels like I'm walking the avenue of grey revenue, this thread.
posted by clavdivs at 8:08 PM on January 16 [1 favorite]


Hock joint, toll booth
Meat stand, rock shop

Standing in line
To stash little cash
And there's a light on
Usually blow
By the way you shouldn't say
I'd be there, waiting for

Train stop, game store
Saw shop, freeway
posted by clavdivs at 8:15 PM on January 16 [3 favorites]


I just assume the police figure it's better to have it in a known and controlled location

That's, uh, one possibility for what the police might be thinking.
posted by Not A Thing at 8:21 PM on January 16 [20 favorites]


Without having gone in any of them, I'm going to assume that about half of the off-brand Crossfit/"extreme bodyshaping" places that have sprung up locally are fronts, because that's what I'd use to launder money if I were going to, for the following reason:

1) They seem to spring up anywhere that there's commercial space; strip malls are common locations (and probably cheap, given how hard many of them are hit by the death of brick-and-mortar retail), as well as those small warehouse-y prefab buildings that you see scattered around industrial parks. I was riding along a local rail-trail and saw a sign advertising one of these places selling their equipment, and wondered who would have gone to some place tucked away in a cul-de-sac adjoining an old railroad right-of-way.

2) Since they're "selling" a service, inventory would be limited to the exercise equipment, which would have good resale value as there would be minimal use.

3) Your "staff" could be people who you let work out there for free in exchange for telling any auditors who might come wandering in that they work there; if they hang out on various bodybuilding forums or exercise subreddits, they could pick up the lingo.

4) Most legit gyms have more people signing up for memberships than use their facilities; this is just taking that trend a bit further.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:31 PM on January 16 [15 favorites]


There is a store in the Italian part of Medford, Massachusetts that only sells sausages and sausage casings. I never once saw it open the entire five years I lived down the street. It looks like it's still there.

Some DIY sausage enthusiast bought some giant piece of equipment that their partner could not tolerate in their living space. Solution: Honey, all this time I've been wasting on my hobby isn't just for a hobby, it's a business! The aforementioned giant equipment goes into some crappy retail space and out of sight, out of mind.

This is how 90% of non-criminal, non-chain retail operations get started.
posted by bradbane at 8:35 PM on January 16 [12 favorites]


There's a cheesesteak place by my office that has to be a front.

You have described where the best Phillys outside of Philadelphia are found. The one I'm thinking of did have consistent hours for the most part, though. They just weren't hours in which normal people would ever see them open. Think 10PM-4AM. Lunch hours were just "whenever someone on staff is having a bout of insomina."
posted by wierdo at 8:42 PM on January 16 [7 favorites]


There is a place a few blocks from me on mission which is ostensibly a chiropractor's office. Nice looking, but you can only see from the glass door and window a large receptionist kiosk and some chairs for a waiting area. You can't see any further then that into the space. It's clean and nice and has some Chinese lettering on one wall and the outside and some stuff in English about good spine health and that it's a chiro. It's been there for literal decades unchanging and I have never seen a single soul inside. Not a receptionist in the receptionist area, not a patient waiting. Never. I'm thinking feds or CIA honestly. Actual criminals would make sure to have a customer or two occasionally.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 8:48 PM on January 16 [4 favorites]


Why yes, DC does frequently shut down if there is even a threat of the sky falling (aka snow).
posted by oceano at 8:52 PM on January 16 [1 favorite]


I'm thinking feds or CIA honestly. Actual criminals would make sure to have a customer or two occasionally.

not that the CIA or fibbies aren't IMHO criminals but you know what I mean.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 8:55 PM on January 16 [2 favorites]


There's a shop I pass by regularly that sells random accessories (purses, umbrellas, rainboots). I've never seen anyone inside - not even staff. It's on a corner of a busy avenue in the middle of Manhattan.
posted by airmail at 8:56 PM on January 16 [1 favorite]


The explosion of CBD product stores here is also kinda suspect.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:58 PM on January 16 [1 favorite]


Rice to Riches is a restaurant in SoHo that only serves rice pudding. A number of years ago, its owner was busted for running the largest gambling operation in Suffolk County.

Was Rice to Riches a front for his gambling operation? Unclear. But the restaurant is still open to this day, serving up 21 flavors of rice pudding and literally nothing else. My favorite is the Understanding Vanilla.
posted by panama joe at 9:00 PM on January 16 [10 favorites]


There used to be a business in West St. Louis County called Admiral Sick Room Equipment and Party Supplies. Had to be a front for something. Extraterrestrials, maybe?
posted by panama joe at 9:03 PM on January 16 [5 favorites]


Okay, but I knew of another rice pudding only place that was run by a family of celiacs (before being gluten free was a mainstream thing), so it's not like its completely unheard of.
posted by dinty_moore at 9:04 PM on January 16 [2 favorites]


So how do we fight this?

If we had the political will and the budget (*cough* President Warren plus a Congress full of Elizabeth Warrens plus thousands of Elizabeth Warrens at every level of state and local government *cough*) to seriously fully enforce the law, could we shut this all down? Or is there something beyond lack of law enforcement that makes this possible?
posted by kristi at 9:16 PM on January 16 [1 favorite]


I should also note that at my old vintage shop space, where I rented the basement of an existing store, I had multiple people tell me they had long assumed it to be a front because the store windows were full of old spooky mannequins and never changed.

In fact, the owner just liked old spooky mannequins and didn’t bother to change the window displays super often. I spent literal years convincing her to replace them with modern tailor’s dummies and change their outfits more often — and lo and behold, business picked up.
posted by nonasuch at 9:44 PM on January 16 [12 favorites]


> I dunno I think a lot of examples in this thread are just like, businesses that do not cater to the general public. Like they deliver shit to other businesses, or it's a couple of contractors who share an address for storage but they spend most of their "working days" day drinking with each other while they wait for a gig to come in. Or at least, I know some dudes who do that. Or in my particular building, my landlord's bum son has a retail spot that he's always "renovating" for his new business that I have yet to see materialize in 8 years of living here.

Yep, I was thinking the same thing. Also, "businesses" that are the building owner/owner's family members just farting around waiting to see just how expensive real estate prices can get.
posted by desuetude at 10:02 PM on January 16 [7 favorites]


But what about other kinds of fronts? "Mr. Dalliard! We've been activated!"
posted by bartleby at 10:17 PM on January 16 [5 favorites]


Oh this was a few years ago but there used to be an ice cream truck that came through my neighborhood, even in the wintertime, even when there was ice on the roads. I'm pretty sure it was definitely selling more than ice cream.
posted by LizBoBiz at 11:07 PM on January 16 [5 favorites]


In Montreal, on the North side of what used to be the garment district, there are a lot of weirdly-niche, specialty auto shops that seem oddly-placed and conspicuously always-vacant. This was all the more notable because much more legitimate looking businesses in the same vein exist on Jean Talon’s far-West side. Since Montreal used to be a big mob city, and continues to be a huge Hell’s Angels centre, I had always assumed these places were fronts.
posted by constantinescharity at 11:23 PM on January 16 [2 favorites]


Also, in Montreal, there’s a place lying in the shadow of the Oratory, on a side street, called Hermitage. That specific slice of Cote-des - must be pricey as hell, and despite it being a fancy restaurant, I can’t imagine they get enough clientele to make rent. I’ve only ever seen a handful of people there at night, always big families having parties, with some strikingly expensive cars outside.

I’d love for other Montreal people to chime in. We have loads of organized crime.
posted by constantinescharity at 11:49 PM on January 16 [2 favorites]


I know of a men's hairdressers which looks like either a front for a drug dealer or a clandestine policing operation. There's just too many things that seem 'off'.

Yes LisBoBiz, we have quite a few ice cream trucks that travel around in the worst weather - funny that we don't see them much in nice weather! One of Ian Rankin's books (can't remember which) has a Mr Whippy where asking for an extra flake or somesuch ... and passing a tenner gets you a very special icecream.
posted by unearthed at 11:59 PM on January 16 [1 favorite]


Many years ago there was a place in one of the suburbs of Minneapolis that I hoped was a mob front, cuz the alternative would have been just too sad to contemplate. It was a little store off by itself that only sold bean bag chairs. While I say it was many years ago, this was the 1990s, so either they were the dumbest mob front ever, "So Johnny it says here you sold 25 grand worth of bean bag chairs in March. Seems a little fishy to me." "No, no. It's totally legit, kids in Bloomington love bean bags!", or a pathetic hope for a return of a 70s fad that never happened. "I'm tellin' ya Martha, bean bags are gonna come back big and we'll be the only place in town to get 'em.". It seemed a bad choice either way.
posted by gusottertrout at 12:55 AM on January 17 [7 favorites]


Oh oh! So many

KEYS in big letters, no fobs in sight..
"Persian Rug Store" that's been going out of business for 7 years..
"Chinese Takeout Place," mysteriously with burritos on the picture menu..
"Sushi Train Restaurant" with nines and coke in the back!
posted by aw jeez at 12:55 AM on January 17 [3 favorites]




There's a store on the corner near me that everybody says is a front. It sells only greetings cards, nothing else, no boxes, no wrapping no balloons. And they're the cheap generic sort of cards, but at big big marked up prices. Nobody is ever in there. I always thought cards were a pretty good choice, easy to quietly dispose of to make inventory make sense.

My parent's small Scottish village also has an ice cream truck that is suspiciously around in winter, occasionally in the snow. Also, a guy was murdered and all the news was about how he was a kind older gentleman and a pillar of the community, and we didn't know better till one of the young lads my dad worked with at the time told him "everyone" knew the guy was involved in running drugs.
posted by stillnocturnal at 1:32 AM on January 17 [2 favorites]


Too many to list here. But once I had to pick up a parcel at a store, so I went there, and there was literally nothing and no-one in the store, except a lot of parcels. I began looking for mine, and eventually a guy came in, very relaxed, and found it for me, then disappeared again. It was surreal. Sometimes I think I dreamt it, but I have the stuff I had delivered there.
At least the other places have something in them.
posted by mumimor at 1:35 AM on January 17 [6 favorites]


I just looked it up, the name of the "store" was "General Store and Café", and it was "open" for a little less than 2 years.
posted by mumimor at 2:05 AM on January 17 [3 favorites]


I'm having a sudden realization about the time in my early twenties when I went into a furniture store on Milwaukee Ave in Chicago and all the employees made fun of me for wanting to buy a couch.
posted by HeroZero at 2:41 AM on January 17 [22 favorites]


my granddad's fabric shop in the garment district 60 years ago had a numbers operation in the basement, does that count
posted by poffin boffin at 3:12 AM on January 17 [8 favorites]


There's a convenience store at the bottom of our road. (Maddeningly, it's the only one for a half-mile in any direction.) It's run by one guy who lives above it. It closes at five PM. It sells no alcohol. The only person we ever see regularly going in is the man on our street who is a dead ringer for late-career Warren Zevon, who only ever buys a newspaper.

We have no earthly idea how the place stays in business.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 3:20 AM on January 17 [3 favorites]


These were all in MA.

In the exact center of Lexington, MA in the '60s, everyone knew that the basement of the Colonial Pharmacy was a bookie joint. And if high-school kids knew it (the popular nickname was Felonious Pharmacy), then the cops had to know it. It cruised along for many years, until the Feds busted them for trafficking truckloads of stolen cigarettes. After that, it was renovated, and an actual bookstore was put in the basement. IDK if the bookstore was still a bookie joint.

A friend in HS claimed his father, who owned a pool hall in Waltham and a car wash in Bedford, was connected. The kid had a really nice new car, so we all believed him.

There was an Arnold Thrift Store day-old bread store in Acton. Supposedly, the proprietor's husband was a mobster who set her up in business. They actually seemed to sell a lot of bread, but that doesn't mean that the bread didn't all fall off the back of a truck, if you know what I mean.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:54 AM on January 17 [3 favorites]


I think a lot of us underestimate other people's tolerance for losing money. I mean, watch any episode of Kitchen Nightmares. Or beyond that, pretty much any independent owner who thinks it would be fun to run a restaurant.

One thing I'm curious about in my area is a strip of businesses on a busy road that all have different owners and all seem too hobbyist for the rising real estate prices around here. I'm not sure if they just haven't quite yet been priced out or if the one landlord owns all of the buildings and that landlord is a front.
posted by tofu_crouton at 4:15 AM on January 17 [8 favorites]


"donuts & hot dogs"
posted by pracowity at 4:33 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


[speculation about Good Food Co. catering place in VA]
I have a client next door in that same building (front entrance can be seen in the street view photos), go there usually a few days per month for the last three years. If there is something else going on there it would have to be in addition to the food delivery. If I walk past from the public parking lot across the street to my client at like 7:00 AM or so there are a whole bunch of guys wheeling big food carts around and loading the vans along the front and side of the building. We usually share a chuckle and “good morning” as I dodge through them.
That said, something truly has always seemed a little odd about the place - I think it’s just how CLEAN everything looks. The building, the vans, the carts of food, the guys wheeling the carts around - so clean! Maybe TOO clean. Maybe suspiciously clean, hmmmm...
I’m going to be there a couple of days at the end of the month. Will keep an eye out.
posted by zoinks at 4:39 AM on January 17 [6 favorites]


There was an Arnold Thrift Store day-old bread store in Acton. Supposedly, the proprietor's husband was a mobster who set her up in business. They actually seemed to sell a lot of bread, but that doesn't mean that the bread didn't all fall off the back of a truck, if you know what I mean.
In Boston, last month, there was a report of someone who stole a truck full of lobsters, but was apprehended after employees of the seafood company got in another lobster truck and crashed their truck into the stolen vehicle. And, of course, caused $10,000 worth of lobsters to literally fall off the back of a truck. Which is SUCH A BOSTON CRIME THING TO SEE, and my wife and I thought that it was some sign of a organized crime beef that lurks under the surface of the harmonious lobster trade. But, no, turns out the thief is just a random dude who apparently plays way too much GTA
posted by bl1nk at 4:51 AM on January 17 [16 favorites]


Some DIY sausage enthusiast bought some giant piece of equipment that their partner could not tolerate in their living space. Solution: Honey, all this time I've been wasting on my hobby isn't just for a hobby, it's a business! The aforementioned giant equipment goes into some crappy retail space and out of sight, out of mind.

This is how 90% of non-criminal, non-chain retail operations get started.


I feel so horribly targeted by this.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:55 AM on January 17 [19 favorites]


someone who stole a truck full of lobsters,

as soon as i saw the linked text without any other part of the comment i instinctively knew it was about boston
posted by poffin boffin at 4:56 AM on January 17 [6 favorites]


wait wait was the second truck in pursuit also full of lobsters? this is so good.
posted by poffin boffin at 5:06 AM on January 17 [11 favorites]


Real easy to launder money by just writing up a bunch of takeaway delivery receipts, and very hard to meaningfully audit.

Auditors = expect to see invoices from food suppliers for the raw ingredients and dry goods. Not that those couldn't also be gamed (or aren't, of course they often are), but if the adding machine gang shows up they will definitely need a trail of paper showing you paid for your supplies as well as took in cash. Legit restaurants do manage this appropriately and can produce the documents.

The CrossFit thing, though, that's genius.
posted by Miko at 5:07 AM on January 17 [7 favorites]


"Going Out Of Business!" (along with the slightly less suspect "Inventory Reduction!", "Inventory Closeout!", and "Everything Must Go!") is totally old-school pre-internet marketing "strategy." I dunno that I'd necessarily take it as a sign that something nefarious is going on so much as a store owner figuring that if $40 worth of signage in the window convinces a few punters to come and pay full retail because they assume the prices are "Going Out Of Business" desperate, that's a win.

(Source: used to work music instrument retail back in the 90's with a store owner who had to regularly be talked out of throwing fake "Going Out Of Business" sales to bump up traffic. We had enough regular/semi-regular customers that the ill will and hassle engendered by people showing up expecting serious sale prices and instead getting a paltry 3% off our regular prices would have been epic.

And that place was a perfect example of how a business can fart along for years not doing a lot of business but not being a criminal front. A couple of generations of a family had run pawn shops, and then when the older son graduated from college with a business degree in the late 70's he looked around and saw that golf was growing in popularity so he started a chain of golf and sporting goods stores. The younger brother went looking for his own thing a few years later and settled on music instrument stores. Not saying the music places never made a profit, but I guarantee the golf end of the family business kept the music end alive just to keep the younger brother out of the older brother's hair.)
posted by soundguy99 at 5:21 AM on January 17 [8 favorites]


In Japan, one of the biggest fronts/scams are Japanese language schools, though the scam got too big, and too bold for the government to keep ignoring it. The thing is, a person in Japan on a student visa can legally work up to 28 hours per week, while low paying service jobs in Japan are having a harder and harder time trying to attract Japanese workers. Rather than, y’know, paying decent wages, companies started hiring foreign students. People noticed the demand, and suddenly language schools are popping up all over. A guy I worked with told me he paid several thousands of dollars in his home country (Kazakhstan) to get into a language school in Tokyo, with his end goal to switch to a full time visa if he could find a job here (he couldn’t).

28 hours a week, though, that’s not much, either for the companies looking for exploitable labor, or workers trying to make money, so a large number of “students” end up with several jobs, mostly under the table, and the economy keeps going. Of course, any profitable thing keeps getting bigger, until it got so big, with enough “students” skipping out on their schools and visas, that it’s finally being cracked down on. Timely, that the widely known loophole is closing just as Japan made a new class of visas available for blue collar labor, one that can’t be renewed longer than five years, and as far as I’ve heard, allows it’s holders to be paid lower wages.

So the front, I guess, is Japanese labor laws. Or the language schools. One of the two.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:22 AM on January 17 [12 favorites]


Right as you got off the highway to drive to my alma mater, in Westmoreland NY, there was an ice-cream-stand across the state highway. In the four years I drove to and from college, that stand was never open once. I chalked it up to the semesters not lining up with prime ice cream season. But then I stayed on campus the summer before my senior year, and one night a few of us said "Hey, we've never been to that ice cream place up the road, let's give it a try!" and then discovered that it was closed at 7 PM on Saturday night in the middle of July.

What really gets me is that the place was METICULOUSLY kept up. New red paint on the exterior every year, one of those backlit signs advertising new flavors (changed multiple times a year), spotlessly clean windows, well-kept lawn and grounds. Whatever it was a front for, they rolled up their goddamn sleeves and they did their work.

I still think about that place sometimes.
posted by Mayor West at 5:45 AM on January 17 [8 favorites]


I've seen a few places that seemed like money laundering operations, definitely, and a few that were openly illegal.

But I also used to live in a town that was full of hobby/prestige businesses. Almost all based on outside money, plus spouses/kids of rich locals. When you own the location outright and are not depending on the business in any way for your household finances, it lets you run things really loosely. Ideally it makes a bit of money, but all it really needs to do is not lose too much (or rather, to only lose money in tax-advantaged ways). And out of that, you get to participate in an industry with some cachet, you get a social life, you get to call yourself a business owner, etc., all without any financial pressure. Hire one or two low paid staff for the heavy lifting, and things are pretty relaxed.

It's kind of genius, really; we should all be so lucky as to be able to have a "business" that doesn't actually need to turn a profit.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:49 AM on January 17 [17 favorites]


I have two, in the small town I went to college in there was a Mexican restaurant called Jose's that was located in a building that had clearly been a cheesy Italian place in the past, and never been redecorated, that was open like 8pm-3am, and seemingly employed only one or two people. It was directly next to the townie bar, never saw any of them in there, but it had a rabid following with the college kids, though service could take a literal hour for two tacos, they were incredible tacos. Then he was arrested for selling cocaine out of there, it tried to reopen as a stand in the sad mall and failed.
The second one is a local chain of vape shops that never have customers, have sales floors like living rooms, and are hideously expensive. I'm told by weed dealers that the owner of that chain is deeply involved in heroin amoung other things. My workplace actually bought out one of there locations in our strip mall, an action they fought heavily, and when we were able to move in we discovered that while there was only the one security camera up front, there were like 10 in back, along with strong locks and a room containing only sinks and a strong smell of bleach.

And yeah, as mentioned there are far more fronts for trafficking of people that you might come across and have no idea about, and real estate scams and businesses owned by independently wealthy folks, though that last one I will defend because it's a source of antique stores owned by people who don't care about profit, and that is a source of profit for me.
posted by neonrev at 6:10 AM on January 17 [5 favorites]


ctrl-f "psychic" 0 results

Whaaaa?? I assume every single one of these in Manhattan is a front? How are there so many??
posted by Grither at 6:17 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


wait wait was the second truck in pursuit also full of lobsters? this is so good.

News reports didn't say, so I'm going to keep on thinking it was full of drawn butter.
posted by adamg at 6:30 AM on January 17 [8 favorites]


A foam shop - signage loudly shouting about any size! any shape! all your foam needs! Twenty years I've been walking past it and finally had a chance to go in when we moved into a new flat...

I went in and they wouldn't cut foam to the (pretty average) shape of my window seat and wanted to charge about 6 x what I'd been quoted online, where they could cut it to shape. Never seen anyone else in the place, and it occasionally has odds and ends of old furniture for sale outside. Maybe there's a cornered market for foam something that I don't know about...
posted by sedimentary_deer at 6:42 AM on January 17 [3 favorites]


There’s a psychic down by the railroad tracks in Broward county; three of the four corners are highly built up with expensive buildings, but not this place. Been there on a primo corner lot for 30 years and had at least two major fires since I’ve known of it; otherwise well kept up. No customers ever that I’ve seen there (and I’ve been in the area for one reason or another over the last 25 years at all hours.) But didn’t see the fires or a major train vs fuel truck duel that ended badly for all coming ...
posted by tilde at 7:20 AM on January 17 [4 favorites]


When my wife and I first started dating, she lived across the street from a pet supply shop which she swore was a front. Never saw any customers, and occasionally an SUV with dark windows would park in front of it and the owner would saunter out and sit in the truck for a while. It still feels weird that it's so under-trafficked, since it's the only pet shop in the area (and it was empty even before Chewy, etc.).

Back in my teens when I was working at the airport, we had a tenant with a very nice twin who paid for everything in cash. This being airplanes, we're talking thousands of dollars a month for hangar rent, fuel, and other services. Coworkers said he was a farmer who grew poinsettias.

My great-grandfather was a bookie who ran a flower shop in Chinatown as a front. We have photographic evidence of it, and my uncle wrote about it in the book he wrote about Chinese emigration to the states.
posted by backseatpilot at 7:21 AM on January 17 [6 favorites]


You know, something I didn’t mention way up thread about the rug stores-

It’s difficult to get money into/out of Iran, not just for nefarious purposes. It’s not like you can just go to the bank and change out dollars. So you “buy a rug” from someone here, then an associate in Iran is waiting for you to come and they give you a giant pile of bills.

It’s not really criminal so much as a way to get around onerous and arbitrary regulations. My own family has to do a similar money-swapping thing whenever they visit. They’re *related* to the people they do this with, but I assume not everyone has those connections personally, and a person who does this service for a larger population *would* need an explanation for all the money changing hands.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 7:23 AM on January 17 [17 favorites]


A couple of years ago, there was a pizza place near me that was shut down for also dealing drugs - apparently if you asked for a particular type of pizza, it was code for ordering drugs. Everyone in the neighborhood was wondering "what type of pizza?", but that was never revealed.

"I'd like a large pineapple pizza, and I expressly want no ham on there, just pineapple."
posted by 23skidoo at 7:25 AM on January 17 [5 favorites]


My roommate was a waiter at the restaurant owned by Biagio Digiacomo, until it closed just a few months ago due to Biagio deciding to retire. It was a perfectly legitimate restaurant, 'cause a reformed capo has to do something after he's been in jail for 13 years. My roommate hated to wait on the Russian mafia whenever they rented a function room, because they tried to weasel out of paying the bill more frequently than the Chinese mafia or Jewish mafia. Now Biagio's son is looking into opening up a chain of restaurants, and my roommate may go work for him when it happens.
posted by sockerpup at 7:41 AM on January 17 [3 favorites]


RE: Good Food company

Yes, the place looks like a total front. In fact, I was going to mention it in this thread! But then we were visiting a daycare, and the shiny silver Good Food company van was parked out front delivering food. They do a lot of business with the local corporate daycares, breakfast, lunch and snack. The government contracts with those types of daycares a lot, so it doesn't surprise me that the GFC is on the OPM schedule. The kids do seem to really like the food, except for the baked blueberry oatmeal.
In all honesty, although the location seems suspect (super clean, locked down, in the middle of a busy orange line corridor), I'd much prefer that to the the location of one daycare we saw: seedy, behind a taxi company parking lot, etc etc.
posted by Hermeowne Grangepurr at 7:45 AM on January 17 [5 favorites]


A foam shop - signage loudly shouting about any size! any shape! all your foam needs! Twenty years I've been walking past it and finally had a chance to go in when we moved into a new flat...

Knew your location before I checked your profile! I actually mentioned this as an example in the original twitter thread.

I went in there a decade ago because I’d read an instructable on making your own memory foam mattress on the cheap and they looked absolutely baffled by the idea. Also their google reviews point out that they rarely bother maintaining their supposed opening hours, to the frustration of the odd legitimate foam customer. A friend at the time reckoned that several of the shops on the same row were fronts (although that may have changed in the interim).
posted by chappell, ambrose at 7:50 AM on January 17 [4 favorites]


Decades ago I worked at a small company building and repairing video poker machines. These were “for amusement only” - said so right on the front of the machine! - and were in many many bars around town before a real casino came in. There are still some around in dive-ier corner bar type places but nothing like before the casino.
The scam: We would install meters inside the cabinets to count credits purchased and credits won. Not solder the wires, just twist them together, play a few games to make sure they were working properly, then disconnect and tuck the wires away. The meters not being connected made things legal, and we’d explain to the customers which wires to connect where once they had the machines installed at their bars.
When finished playing, a bar patron would get the bartender to come look at how many credits were on the on-screen counter (if any) and pay out the corresponding amount from the till. Without the counters hidden inside the cabinet there’d be no way to reckon the take later on.
Besides building and repairing these machines I did deliveries and saw many shady-ish operations. The bars themselves tended to be on the dive-y side but just fine really. But the vending operations were sometimes places that I knew to keep quiet, do business and get out. Often handed several thousand dollars cash for a few machines delivered to some beat-up industrial building with no signage.
Thinking about this now is making me miss that job for the first time ever.
posted by zoinks at 7:53 AM on January 17 [11 favorites]


So about fifteen years ago I lived in Westchester County NY. There was this pizzeria in one of the small towns north of Yonkers that my husband and I wanted to check out, so one weekend afternoon we drove over there and he dropped me off so I could order the pizza to go and he could find a parking spot. I walked into the pizzeria to find it empty except for five Italian-American men. They immediately stopped talking. I ordered a pizza from one of them, the owner, and sat down to wait.

After a few minutes of uncomfortable silence they resumed their conversation in Italian.

What they did not know was that I speak fluent Italian.

They were talking about how they were going to handle the debt that the proprietor owed them.

I think I managed to keep a straight face.

Eventually the pizza came out and I left. Husband was waiting outside next to a large, glaring man standing on the sidewalk with his arms crossed and a black SUV.

Pizzeria closed within six months. The pizza was really good :-(.

Also once in Florida I saw a store in a strip mall selling strippers lingerie next to an indoor gun range.
posted by bq at 8:00 AM on January 17 [13 favorites]


In a previous life I worked for a guy who owned a bunch of small businesses. A real idea man.

Turns out at least a few of his businesses worked solely to launder profits from his illegal renting operation that catered only to people who paid cash and couldn't make a complaint or call the police (for a variety of reasons).
posted by FakeFreyja at 8:01 AM on January 17 [3 favorites]


There was a doughnut shop in a strip mall near my high school that we used to go to at lunch. Excellent doughnuts. On a regular basis a very expensive car would park right in front, a couple well-dressed men would enter the shop, go to the back room, and leave a few minutes later with a brown paper bag. Either that was a front for something or they had really special doughnuts in the back.

All this talk has me rethinking some weird businesses in Ottawa that have been here for at least the past 17 years since I moved here, never seem to have customers, but somehow remain in business.

My neighbourhood also has an extraordinarily large number of no-name pharmacies in weird locations like old houses and run-down strip malls. They open up, no-one ever seems to be in them, yet they stay open. I don't know how our neighbourhood can support so many of the damn things.

There are also a lot of pay-day-loan places, but those aren't fronts for criminal activity, but they should be outlawed.
posted by fimbulvetr at 8:02 AM on January 17 [5 favorites]


Anyone else here ever been investigated for being a front?

A few years ago, my office got an in-person inspection from the IRS because the agent thought we were some kind of bitcoin-laundering operation. They actually interviewed employees and poked around our one-room suite looking for, I dunno, a bunch of illicit GPU servers? Physical piles of bitcoins?

Turns out the IRS agent had started the investigation because our company name has the word "Mine" in it. Yes, really, that's it. Obviously we were running a bitcoin mining operation from our office in downtown San Francisco (presumably to take advantage of the cheap cost of electricity and office space in SOMA).

My theory is the IRS agent was very new and very confused, and had heard bitcoin mentioned a few too many times. Then once the investigation process was started, they had to follow it through to save face or something. It was bizarre.
posted by ryanrs at 8:15 AM on January 17 [12 favorites]


- Green Beanery in the Annex in Toronto funds research and advocacy into climate-change denial. Not a crime but should be.

Yep! It takes a bit of digging, but it's not a secret.

They also have terrible workplace safety practices - the roasting space is too small and roasters have gotten bad burns.
posted by jb at 8:18 AM on January 17 [3 favorites]


So how do we fight this?

1st - what is the "this" being fought? Money Laundering? The crime behind the need to launder?

If the answer you are going to come up with is "get rid of cash" to provide tracability to money there are plenty of reasons to keep cash.

If the idea is to address drugs there is the history of "Poppy" Bush, Barry Seal, the golden triangle and things like the only time you should give LaRouche credit for or The big Red Button Story (Short version - Magic red button stops all drugs. Most don't push because it ruins their retirement.)

If one wants to "fight crime" - in a few states the citizen can still present directly to the Grand Jury. CA and TX and I believe TN. Other states have some way to bypass the DA. Based on what I've seen in the court record and my own attempts at going around the DA what happens is a big nothing. Ok, not quite nothing. Your paperwork gets un-stapled and re-stapled 10 times in the case file in a years time and eventually a copy is moved to the front with a spring binder. (Spring binders and out-of-order paperwork is typically not done) If they REALLY feel the need for a hearing the court system passed the case from Judge to Judge with rescheduals 'till the statue of limitations ran out and then they said the matter was moot, too bad. So actually fighting "this" yourself can be done. Most people are not willing to have the fight, but if one reads the criminal code in your state odds are there is a way for a citizen to attempt to "fight this".

Just putting a different person at the top is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic because so few are looking at watching what happens in court or keeping tabs on the DAs.
posted by rough ashlar at 8:19 AM on January 17 [6 favorites]


There's a Russian/Eastern European restaurant in the St. Louis suburbs called Dvin. It never appears open, as the curtains on its small window are always drawn, and the glass door cannot be seen through. Sometimes its lights are on, sometimes not. Somehow, it's earned above-average ratings on Yelp, which reinforces Alice's comments about how the food is (though only 22 reviews, hmmm).

We've been there twice, and the food is excellent. The owner is the chef and her daughter is the server. It can get a little slow if there are more than a couple of tables, but it's a small place. I recommend it.
posted by jedicus at 8:24 AM on January 17 [11 favorites]


In my old neighborhood, in the PNW, there were two concurrent "bikini barista" scandals: one was an actual prostitution ring being run out of roadside coffee stands operated by scantily clad lady baristas, and the other was a First Amendment lawsuit brought by employees of a different bikini barista concern where the employees had been fined for not wearing enough clothing. They made the news at roughly the same time, so of course the more salacious story dominated any discourse about it. But at the same time the local news was blowing up about those stories, there were about a thousand little "massage/bodywork parlors" going seemingly unnoticed up and down Highway 99, tucked in shabby little buildings between auto body shops and legal weed shops and et cetera.

Before that, in Seattle, there was the Colacurcio family and their little empire of money-laundering strip clubs. And before that, way back in the 1930's, my grandmother used to tag along with her father when he'd go down into Seattle's Chinatown to visit the tea shop that served as a front for the Chinese bookie.

In my current area of NE Ohio the only obvious front I know of is the vape supplies store that sells weed. But there are a lot of empty-ass rundown strip malls around here and a fair number of businesses operating in those strip malls that sure do give me frontish feelings...
posted by palomar at 8:36 AM on January 17 [3 favorites]


Also once in Florida I saw a store in a strip mall selling strippers lingerie next to an indoor gun range.

TBH, that just sounds like Florida to me. Strip clubs and sex shops are dime-a-dozen around the strip malls, and gun ranges are not uncommon either.

Speaking of Florida, my partner once tried to order pizza from a restaurant in Lake Worth where the employees were visible startled to be asked to provide the service that they were ostensibly there to provide and then they made her wait upwards of like 15 minutes for a single slice of pizza, which when she finally got it was terrible.

But also, again tangentially related to Florida, I have to agree with the multiple assertions upthread that the real estate industry itself is the true money laundering front.
posted by tobascodagama at 8:42 AM on January 17 [4 favorites]


There is a gas station near me. One of those with a convenience store. Immaculate looking and very well lit, badged as a BP, right by a busy freeway exit and next door to McDonalds. Whatever the price is at other gas stations in the neighborhood that day, their price is 50 cents higher. I never see a car there, or any people in the store. It's been there like that for years; the property is regularly maintained and upgraded but continues empty.

We often wonder what their scam is.
posted by elizilla at 8:52 AM on January 17 [6 favorites]


Almost twenty years ago, the new right wing government decided to shut down the open trade in cannabis products in our city. For reasons that seem very far away today, I was invited to discuss this with the police and some civil servants, as part of many other urban planning issues.
I told the working group that this worried me personally, since I was pretty certain that the pushers would move shop to some specific streets in my area, and that they would move on to harder drugs in the process, which would certainly lead to more a more dangerous situation. The chief of police was kind of bemused by the specificity of my statement, but wholly agreed. The top official representing the government pushed off our concerns, saying "criminals need to be somewhere, I can't care less if it's one place or the other".
Within a couple of years there was a full scale gang war happening in schoolyards and other places where families live.

The thing was, my area is dominated by immigrants but was a very family oriented place filled with more children per capita than any other place in the country. The other place was near my workplace and more of a nightlife/young area, so every day, I'd see the (mostly white) pushers' cars in both areas and I realized that they had their fronts in my neighborhood, far away from where the dealing went on. When they got pushed out of their marketplace, they moved the market into the their front shops and to the street corners here. And when the whole thing went underground, it created a space for more aggressive gangsters.

I've always wondered if the right-wing politicians knew that they were literally framing the immigrant neighborhood, making it more violent and dangerous. Or if they just blundered into this because as we know, reality has a progressive bias, and thus the chief of police was probably a damn Commie when he told them what would happen.
posted by mumimor at 9:09 AM on January 17 [14 favorites]


There used to be a big, shut down, Safeway, with the windows papered over where Miracle mile starts or splits in Tucson. Anyway, a major road forked and went on either side of this building. Every night at about 1AM a huge, off the books drag club, bar with all the trimmings, went on until dawn, run by some folks from New York. The radar was shut down for this business, it went on and on. This was long ago.

However there was a "loud motorcycle" drug delivery business going on in my neighborhood. They ran it like this, the loudest machine on earth, would pull in at 4:56 AM, and at 5:00AM, six cars would pull away and go in different directions, and the motorcycle would go as well. There was a fleet, serviced by a pair of huge "cross the desert," bikes, with gas tanks big enough to make it from Mexico. The bikes are all gone now. The noise of the machines was the communication, no need for phone calls. Under a flight path, close to a fire station, with medical helicopters over head, and ambulances all the time from a huge medical facility, and a freeway a couple of blocks away, they were the loudest thing in the neighborhood. You could hear them coming a mile away. It is not a quiet, but a succinct business model.

Anyone who bills medicare, medicaid, these days.

Many art studio buildings were there are numerous studios, provide cover for all sorts of work. Think of it, being an artist, is virtually no visible means of support.
posted by Oyéah at 9:13 AM on January 17 [4 favorites]


In my fancy neighborhood a Stop-And-Go store on a busy corner was torn down 10 years ago, and a Vein Center was built of beige cement blocks. Almost half of the parking area in front of it is taken up by large decorative grasses. It is rare to see any cars parked at the center. The empty parking area made a great cut-through to bypass the traffic light. They put in speed bumps that are also sure to rattle any legitimate customers, who I assume would be older women.

I wondered how they stay in business in that prime location. Now I will have to pass with a raised eyebrow and a nod.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 9:28 AM on January 17


There's a laundry place I drive past that I never see anyone in or any cars in the lot and which I at first thought was deserted. But there are still clothes on that chain-rack thing, and every now and then the clothes start moving. I think there's just a guy in there who's paid to turn the thing on every now and then. I should see if they're hiring.

There are only a few reviews on google, one of which describes the place as "flat out terrifying".
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 9:37 AM on January 17 [3 favorites]


Some DIY sausage enthusiast bought some giant piece of equipment that their partner could not tolerate in their living space. Solution: Honey, all this time I've been wasting on my hobby isn't just for a hobby, it's a business! The aforementioned giant equipment goes into some crappy retail space and out of sight, out of mind.

This is how 90% of non-criminal, non-chain retail operations get started.


I would be willing to believe this if only Medford didn't have an extensive history of organized crime. They shot someone in The Lighthouse, the FBI caught them inducting more people into the mob, and they even broke into a bank at one point.
posted by marfa, texas at 10:09 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


Also once in Florida I saw a store in a strip mall selling strippers lingerie next to an indoor gun range.

the only possible way this could be more typically 100% normal floridian business behavior is if one or both of these establishments had an illegal exotic pet as their in-house mascot.
posted by poffin boffin at 10:14 AM on January 17 [16 favorites]


I can think of some places of business that had the "something is up" vibe, but most of them could also be explained away as simple incompetence, the proprietor being in way over his or her head, not remotely realizing how much time he'd have to spend away from home to run (say) a diner.

My old neighborhood included a very quiet, profoundly understaffed pizza parlor that also had the most elaborate telephone system I've ever seen. That one I couldn't explain as incompetence.
posted by Western Infidels at 11:11 AM on January 17 [1 favorite]


all the employees made fun of me for wanting to buy a couch

I'm visualizing this as a Mr. Show sketch.
posted by paper chromatographologist at 11:26 AM on January 17 [4 favorites]


So how do we fight this?
I miss C. Estes Kefauver.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 11:38 AM on January 17


A Baltimore rapper I follow on Instagram has been working on opening a restaurant and keeps dropping obvious hints that it's going to be a front. He's a bit dim but advertising a money-laundering scheme on a public Instagram seems very dumb even for him. I've been wondering if it's actually some kind of reverse front, where he's pretending that his business is a front to bolster his street cred while actually just opening up a restaurant.
posted by vathek at 12:00 PM on January 17 [16 favorites]


Many years ago in Vancouver, long before full cannabis legalization and before even the years of de facto legalization, there was a shop in an nice part of downtown with butcher paper covering the windows and a sign saying "Bookstore! Coming Soon!". You would ring the doorbell, be inspected by a discreet security camera, and get buzzed in. They did not sell books.

I've always wondered if this was just a Vancouver phenomenon or if some percentage of 'under construction' stores around the world are secretly already open, just waiting for you to buzz.
posted by Gortuk at 12:09 PM on January 17 [2 favorites]


On a regular basis a very expensive car would park right in front, a couple well-dressed men would enter the shop, go to the back room, and leave a few minutes later with a brown paper bag. Either that was a front for something or they had really special doughnuts in the back.

That feels less like a front for something and more like the Piranha Brothers saying, "Hey, nice shop you got here, it would be a shame if something happened to it."
posted by hanov3r at 12:21 PM on January 17 [7 favorites]


That feels less like a front for something and more like the Piranha Brothers saying, "Hey, nice shop you got here, it would be a shame if something happened to it."
Yeah, that's a huge thing here
posted by mumimor at 12:26 PM on January 17 [2 favorites]


"Hey, nice shop you got here, it would be a shame if something happened to it."

Yeah, I could see that. They never stopped at other shops on that strip though. Doughnut store, then drove away.
posted by fimbulvetr at 12:41 PM on January 17


I am pretty sure some of the restaurants in the Heart of Chicago neighborhood (South of Cermak on Oakley, till Blue Island) are mob fronts. Especially the ones that are cash only, in this day and age.
posted by indianbadger1 at 12:47 PM on January 17


In São Paulo there are these sketchy looking newsstands with just a handful of old, dusty magazines; they're fronts for Jogo do Bicho, an illegal lottery.

Also, in my neighborhood there was a pizzeria that was actually a brothel. They did serve pizza, but there were also all these women sitting at the tables, NOT eating pizza. Weird as hell!
posted by Tom-B at 12:51 PM on January 17 [4 favorites]


My roommate was a waiter at the restaurant owned by Biagio Digiacomo, until it closed just a few months ago due to Biagio deciding to retire.

The case cited above also involved Anthony "Spucky" Spagnolo, who all by himself proves this was a Boston case because "spucky" is a sort of sub roll that was mainly (only?) sold in Boston's North End.
posted by adamg at 1:09 PM on January 17 [2 favorites]


Here in San Antonio the persistent rumor is that Fred's Fish Fry has to be a front because you never see anyone at them.

But yeah we're talking petty penny ante money laundering here with false front retail stores. The big stuff is laundered via real estate and banks. Thats why 50% of the new high rise luxury apartments in NYC are empty.
posted by sotonohito at 1:51 PM on January 17 [1 favorite]


[sotonohito, I'm like 100% sure that's an autocorrect disaster and you meant "new high rise" but since we don't unilaterally edit ambiguous typos I'm just gonna mention that here instead of nixing what would be a real WHAT sort of comment, and you can check in about it when you get a chance.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 2:04 PM on January 17 [6 favorites]


"In general, Good Food Company follows the federal government’s closing policy. If the federal government is closed, so are we. If the federal government is opening with a two hour delay, Good Food Company is open and meals will be delivered on our regular schedule."

I know the US Federal Government is the largest employer around, but that seems odd. Do all the preschools close when the government closes?


Daycare I've used has a similar policy as their insurance explicitly won't cover them if the local school system is closed due to weather.
posted by dragoon at 2:19 PM on January 17 [2 favorites]


There's a cheesesteak place by my office that has to be a front.

Ironically, it's the lack of payday loan places in my neighborhood that makes people think it must be dangerous.

Also, it just occurred to me that there is another reason for papered up windows these days: Delivery only restaurants that rely solely on GrubHub, Uber Eats, etc. A couple of the forever empty spots in my neighborhood have become this sort of quasi-restaurant in the past few months. They look as empty as ever most of the time, since they only "serve" during dinner hours. I'd think they'd need to be open more to make the rent, but for all I know it could be the owners of the buildings looking to make just enough to cover the property tax bill.
posted by wierdo at 2:57 PM on January 17 [3 favorites]


Back in the 90s I had American Express for a customer. I did day trips from ATL a couple of times a year to take the AMX folks out to lunch. We always went to this restaurant in the basement of one of the World Trade buildings. You walked down some stairs and entered an unlabelled door into a dark restaurant with no windows. There was no menu. You just sat down and they started bringing food. 7 courses and 3 bottles of wine later I'd pay a $2000 bill and fly back to ATL.

The other customers in the place were always older men wearing suits, who appeared to be in no hurry to get back to work.

You'll never convince me I wasn't lunching with mobsters.
posted by COD at 3:10 PM on January 17 [8 favorites]


Maybe not a front for organized crime, but there was this one restaurant that was owned by a member of a known crime family, and was run crooked as hell. Doesn't count, but just IIRC.

Grandma used to be convinced that Tops, the Western New York-based grocery chain, was run by the Mafia. I miss Grandma.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 4:06 PM on January 17 [2 favorites]


Also, in my neighborhood there was a pizzeria that was actually a brothel. They did serve pizza, but there were also all these women sitting at the tables, NOT eating pizza. Weird as hell!

Newly divorced, the only rental my Mom could afford for her and two middle-school-aged daughters in our little village had been the seasonal brothel used by the migrant farm workers. That first summer before everyone learned the new address was a master class in keeping the lights off and pretending nobody's home.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 4:12 PM on January 17 [7 favorites]


We called that game "playing church mice" in my family.
posted by I'm always feeling, Blue at 4:19 PM on January 17 [4 favorites]


All this talk has me rethinking some weird businesses in Ottawa that have been here for at least the past 17 years since I moved here, never seem to have customers, but somehow remain in business.

I think I have addressed this already. (It was on Bank, just north of Catherine, btw.)
posted by ricochet biscuit at 5:47 PM on January 17


When I lived in Ithaca my last apartment was above a sewing machine/vacuum repair place. I never saw anyone besides the owner in there.
Where I live currently, in a cute little MA town, there are many shops that make me go hmmm? A sock store just opened up, but it’s all boring dress socks, not cute cat ones etc.
I remember reading here once that frozen yogurt shops are great places to launder money. I forget the specifics, but it certainly explains the weird locations of the two that have operated near me.
posted by Biblio at 7:57 PM on January 17 [1 favorite]


Um. Yes. That was an autocorrect mistake. I'm so sorry I didn't proofread before I hit post. Either nuke the comment or edit it please cortex. It was supposed to be new high rise. Sorry.
posted by sotonohito at 8:36 PM on January 17 [3 favorites]


[Fixed!]
posted by cortex (staff) at 9:02 PM on January 17 [4 favorites]


There are either a whole lot of shops being used to launder money, or my guess which is the flip side of worsening income inequality is worsening consumption inequality, so I'd rightfully guess that many of the shops described are in so-so locations and are hanging on by a thread, or do business to business work mostly, which is not quite in such dire straights.

Thats why 50% of the new high rise luxury apartments in NYC are empty.
That was condos, not apartments, and they aren't very many of them to start with (about 11000 units) and the dataset wasn't of very high quality so it could be true or could be false.
posted by The_Vegetables at 9:14 PM on January 17 [2 favorites]


There are two restaurants in the same shopping center, one Italian and the other Lebanese, that don't seem to have the type of customer volume that keeps a business profitable, but they've been around for a long time (the Italian place for at least 20 years and the Lebanese place for maybe half that time) and show no sign of closing. The food at the Italian place is not good but the Lebanese food is delicious. I just got creeped out by always being the only person there the few times I went. A couple of streets over, there is a designer clothing company on a major street where pretty much every item of clothing is $400 or more. They're often closed and I never see anybody shopping there but they've been in business for at least six or seven years at this point. But I am in New Jersey, so it might be easier to pick out which businesses I DON'T think are fronts.
posted by LiliaNic at 9:17 PM on January 17


Some stories from St Paul.

When I was in grade school there was a little dairy store right next to the Macalester campus that sold papers, smokes, soda, and the like. I'd always swing by there on Sundays after church, buy a Coke and watch the football games that were always playing on the 9" black and white. Turns out Larry was running a rather huge book before he was arrested. My 13 year old self never suspected.

Much more current is a place called Morrelli's over on the east side. Liquor store, a small meat counter, some Italian food for takeout some days, nothing too interesting. Except for the preposterously low prices, the parade of extras from Jersey Shore that work there (and resemble no one from that neighborhood) and, oh yeah, cash only. There's an ATM in the corner, go get cash.

And contra, until a year ago my wife did bookkeeping for a small company in a shoddy, small warehouse that sold nothing but forklift tires. The displays inside the front door date back to when the company was founded in the 70s by the current guys' dad. Not much moves around there, but much of the work is done by guys that drive to your site. Looks totally bogus from the street but they do OK.
posted by Cris E at 9:40 PM on January 17 [1 favorite]


OMG I thought I shopped Morelli's occasionally! The prosciutto was so cheap but trying to get into the parking lot was painful. But definitely less painful than trying to find parking at Cossetta's.

I guess my nominee for strange front was the child care center near the frozen burrito factory near the border between Minneapolis and St. Paul I recall that when a girlfriend called them they stated an infant was 4K a month. No price break for siblings. They were at the end of a mysterious driveway that never had kids seen nor playground equipment. And here I thought they were a CIA safe house but money laundering makes more sense.
posted by jadepearl at 12:03 AM on January 18


@chappell, ambrose - yes! the 'foam shop' is famous in south edinburgh - saw your tweet ! interesting to hear they were also baffled by your foam request.

Also on that street are some empty office/shop fronts with vertical blinds and giant electric typewriters covered up in plastic cases. Plus a 'kiltmaker' full of piled up cardboard boxes. According to local rumours they are all owned by the same guy, as are the temporary xmas tree places. Adds a bit of intrigue to a relatively genteel part of Edinburgh...
posted by sedimentary_deer at 2:10 AM on January 18


jadepearl, I'd suspect that child care center was one of the multiple scams in the Twin Cities in recent years that billed assistance programs for kids that did not actually attend, for example https://www.hennepinattorney.org/news/news/2017/January/guiltypleas-fraudscases-daycares
posted by superna at 7:40 AM on January 18 [2 favorites]


Reading between the lines of his Fresh Air interview, it sounds like it was money laundering that gave us Bruce Springsteen. I'm wondering if universal basic income could provide some of the "business fat" (reduced need to chase short-term profit) that would allow such new artists to flourish.

(Or maybe the internet has changed everything)
posted by Baeria at 10:26 AM on January 18


Reading between the lines of his Fresh Air interview, it sounds like it was money laundering that gave us Bruce Springsteen.

Can you elaborate?

One thing people might not be aware of is how many restaurants/bakeries have a wholesale or catering operation in which the dining room is almost an afterthought. For example, we have a local bakery that's often empty and doesn't seem self-supporting, but the back end of it is a huge commercial kitchen where they do the baking that supports a bunch of other bakeries across the state. They also do a big order business for cookie trays for funeral homes, corporate breakfast meetings, etc. So sometimes the "front" of the business is just a tiny retail sliver of a much larger wholesale or business-to-business pie.
posted by Miko at 2:16 PM on January 18 [2 favorites]


Independent print/copy shops? There were two rare occasions a couple years apart when I had an unusually large amount of specialty printing I needed done, and I thought I would support a local business rather than FedEx/Kinko’s. I went to shop after shop where they laughed at me and said they didn't do that type of work. "much bigger jobs only” one of them said, and I was like, how many jobs that big are there in this town, enough to support so many copy shops? Oh.
posted by Former Congressional Representative Lenny Lemming at 5:37 PM on January 18


I was like, how many jobs that big are there in this town, enough to support so many copy shops? Oh.

I don't get the implication. Is it that they don't actually do any printing, and that they're actually a front for an illegal business sharing their premises, or that they're involved in printing illicit material, but only in large quantities? Because I have seen what appears to be a print-on-demand publisher of textbooks near a university, which I suppose was technically a criminal enterprise. It was just a few doors away from the Law faculty, as it happens, and seemed well-frequented.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:48 PM on January 18 [1 favorite]


I have no idea what they were actually doing, but it would be a different thing if they had said ”we do print on demand for the university" or something less intentionally vague than "much bigger jobs." Not that they owe it to me to explain their business model, but they did have storefronts and open signs, and I had been sent to them by the business I was working for at the time with what I perceived as fairly large jobs, but what do I know.
posted by Former Congressional Representative Lenny Lemming at 6:09 PM on January 18


Years ago I worked at a print shop that had a walk-in copy-shop area up front. The walk-in business generated a very small percentage of the total revenue; almost all the volume came from larger commercial orders, mostly repeat clients. I think the owner liked the walk-in business as a social thing, but economically it would have been better for him to put paper over the windows, fire the counter staff, and just do the commercial work.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:18 PM on January 18 [3 favorites]


I used to work in a copy shop that mostly did legal copying, and they didn’t even take walk-ins.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 8:01 PM on January 18


This is less “looks shady” or “money laundering” than something I’m not sure how to categorize.

From the time we moved into the house I did most of my growing up in (1977ish) to sometime after I moved out (in 1993), my parents got cable TV service from a guy called Harold (I don’t know if I ever knew his last name), who also had a store that sold TVs and stereos and such.

As far as I know, most of my town got their cable through Harold’s TV. The store was legit enough, I suppose. People were always in there, as it was one of those places where local small town folk went to shoot the shit with Harold.

Some years after I moved out, my parents told me that Harold got shut down, as he had been acquiring the cable signal illegally on a satellite dish, and then selling illegal cable to the whole town.

I am still baffled and amazed that this happened.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 8:05 PM on January 18 [9 favorites]


Plus a 'kiltmaker' full of piled up cardboard boxes

That I can speak to, my dad having been in the kilt business. The retail kiltmaker stores you go into and actually buy a kilt? They don't make them there. The cheap ones are imported, but the good ones are made in utter dives like the one you describe. All the boxes are likely the different materials: a bolt for a kilt is quite a big box.

My dad bought me a kilt from one of the best kiltmakers in Glasgow. Their workshop/store was an absolute dive in Finnieston. There was dust and boxes everywhere, and we were the only customers. Despite the mess, the fitting and cutting was done incredibly quickly, and the end result fitted so well. Unfortunately that was about 6" ago on my waist, but …
posted by scruss at 8:15 PM on January 18 [6 favorites]


Just opposite Ealing Town Hall, which is being redeveloped and sold off as part of the "Dickens Yard" developments, and near where a posh cinema is being re-built in a disappointing bit of façadism, this Sports Direct closed its doors and moved to new digs.

In its place is an astonishingly tasteless furniture store. Imagine what cruddy old furniture stores looked like in the 80s: fluorescent lights, off-white cork ceiling tiles, all the furniture is white, putty, beige, or brown. The decorative objects are all mirrored or chrome chintz. It makes me think of vomit just walking past, and you can see clearly through the picture windows to the empty hall of unwanted sofas.

It's an already-failed business that is broadcasting its continuing failure to operate as a legitimate furniture business to the very core of the borough. I'm amazed they bothered with a place that has such high rent.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 8:51 PM on January 18


By contrast, there used to be a lovely Polish cafe on the Grove just a little to the east of this spot. I'm part of a group that used to use this restaurant for our meeting place once a month, and when Janusz closed up the place I found out the story of how he'd managed to coast for so long.
First, when he opened the place in the early-to-mid-2000s it was during a massive influx of Polish people to the area taking advantage of then-new Freedom of Movement. So he had a jump start and a captive market, and found himself turning people away. His food was good and word travelled, so even when competition started up, he continued to do well.
But eventually the competition was too much and his slightly awkward location became a liability. People could just go to the Polish markets and get stuff to make comfort food at home, and the generation that moved to London acclimated a bit more in the course of a decade and didn't feel the need to avoid other options.

So how did he cope? Well he started leasing out the space for other uses. Film schools would book him for location filming workshops or student projects. He cut back on staffing and turned it into a solo effort: you'd order from him, and he'd disappear back into the kitchen for a while until your food was ready. He'd even specially hire gig workers to staff the nights our group met.

But eventually with all the unpleasantness in the UK regarding EU citizens' right of abode here, he finally decided to pack it up and move out.

So yes, the folks who moved in are likely finding it much harder to make a living from that storefront. But they're paying 2017 rent and haven't had the margins to cut back over the years.

Sometimes there are real stories behind those "How is this still even here?" shops.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 9:09 PM on January 18 [7 favorites]


Thanks @scruss about the kilt information. This Street is a fairly posh bit of town so I'm assuming they have low rents somehow - or that it's a front for illegal sporran smuggling :)
posted by sedimentary_deer at 5:47 AM on January 19


At a former neighbourhood - which had been gentrified twice over without a dip and is beginning it's third "upgrade" - $M+ condos, $3M+ houses, there's a little noodle shop that had posted hours but was only ever open intermittently and no-one was ever in it when it was open, afaict.

Finally managed to go in when it happened to be open - the food was "ok," if fresh-ish and real and healthy but cheap. Like, base ingredient cost cheap. Owner started chatting me up - apparently he bought the commercial/ residential unit 20, 25 years ago (more now) after selling off a textiles business he started when he immigrated to Vancouver 40+ years ago; whenever he wanted to get away from the wife, he'd go downstairs and putter around in the restaurant and chat up any customers who might wander in.

He bought the place for something like 20k and it's probably worth 2M now. He lives upstairs and is delighted if he breaks even on supplies/ utilities/ taxes each month.
--
Same deal with a Persian rug place like BuddhaInABucket mentioned - no customers, the inventory never changed just got more sun-bleached every year, perpetually "going out of business" if the signs were to be believed, just a few older men shooting the breeze and smoking/ shiskaing.

I actually wanted to get a carpet and went in for a lark and was chatted up - exactly the same deal, they bought 30, 35 years ago, living off of passive investments, store was a space for their friends group to hang out.
--
Identical story for a corner store (bodega) that made absolutely no sense given the proximity of 24 hour gas stations, pharmacies, produce stores, supermarkets, hardware stores, etc. all with better hours - all closer to the neighbourhood (private, elite) highschool, when better placed corner stores had been going out of business the last decade.

They bought the property 40 years ago, family lives upstairs, grandparents hold the fort and sometime the grandkids or the failson would be made to put in hours. Happy to break even on utilities/ taxes. I think one of the kids who left the family business paid for the recent major renovation.

Same went for a bunch of super sketchy artist studios. Bought a long time ago, live upstairs, happy to break even.
--
There's a used laptop sales and computer repair place that doesn't make a lick of sense that lasted (and is still there) and I'm pretty sure they don't own the unit, which was under a "spa" that was a brothel (long since busted - but there's a straight up "Health Enhancement Spa" next to an after school tutoring place and a fitness center around the corner that's obviously a brothel and that's still around).

I popped in there once because I needed some (common) harddrive screws that any shop would have on hand. Nope. Didn't have any. Not even for "hey, I'll give you a fiver for four of them." I noticed that a few of the laptops they had on display had cracked/ busted Kensington security slots.
posted by porpoise at 10:58 PM on January 19 [2 favorites]


I recently read this great thread on money laundering because I know about as much about it as the guys in Office Space. Like I know what it is but not how it really works and even less of how a small business gets involved. I found it on pinboard popular links, but I am guessing that is because of this previous Metafilter comment by foxfirefey.
posted by soelo at 2:46 PM on January 20 [3 favorites]


Down in the Mid-Cape area of Cape Cod, a relative said "oh, we should try [restaurant] some time!" and their spouse said, "why? do you need to make a bet?" ... and, in fact, it got busted a while later as a front for a bookie operation.
posted by rmd1023 at 3:19 PM on January 20


Isn't there a wacky comedy where a restaurant that's a front actually makes good food and becomes insanely popular?
posted by mecran01 at 5:37 AM on January 21


> Years ago I worked at a print shop that had a walk-in copy-shop area up front. The walk-in business generated a very small percentage of the total revenue; almost all the volume came from larger commercial orders, mostly repeat clients. I think the owner liked the walk-in business as a social thing, but economically it would have been better for him to put paper over the windows, fire the counter staff, and just do the commercial work.

Yep, I've been turned away from primarily-commercial print shops. Fussing around with random walk-up "amateur" clients is really not worth their time. There's more of this than people realize in all sorts of industries! A business listed as a hardware store near my office was perplexed that I walked in asking about keys. They do make keys...in the context of outfitting entire office buildings with door hardware. No, they wouldn't make me a key.

I wonder if there's sometimes a commercial zoning factor that encourages these places to be technically open to the public. In contrast, there are definitely building supply places where I live that really are commercial-account only -- you must have a contractor's license to buy from them -- but they are not located in areas with pedestrian traffic.
posted by desuetude at 8:22 AM on January 21 [3 favorites]


I heard there was this place in the desert southwest called Los Pollos Hermanos. Sounds like they are not around anymore.
posted by Justin Case at 10:26 AM on January 21 [2 favorites]


> I heard there was this place in the desert southwest called Los Pollos Hermanos. Sounds like they are not around anymore.

Ah, but they are, and partnered with organized crime (Uber)!
posted by Burhanistan at 12:10 PM on January 21 [1 favorite]


I wonder if there's sometimes a commercial zoning factor that encourages these places to be technically open to the public.

Possibly, yeah.

At the very least I'm sure there's often a factor of what commercial real estate (buy or lease) is available at the right time for the right price - if the space you find when you need it has some kind of storefront area because it used to be a totally different business, well, you take the space while you can and figure it out later. Even if you don't really take walk-up business it's not the worst idea to have a space to meet with clients away from the noise/dirt/whatever of the main industrial space. Most to-the-trade places I've been to have some kind of counter and staff behind it with an unlocked door to the street or parking lot.
posted by soundguy99 at 3:54 PM on January 21


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