Ledetu Ghebremedhin never guessed selling a simple, single cigar could deliver a deadly blow to her bodega.
But it almost did.
Ghebremedhin was covering for her husband and co-owner, Mulu Woldezghi, at Cool N Cozy, their Bedford Park Boulevard convenience store, last April, when an undercover agent for the city’s consumer affairs department walked in, asking for a single cigar.
Ghebremedhin — by day, an information technology technician — figured no harm in helping out a customer. She broke open a $6 pack of four, and sold her one — individually wrapped, with a clear health warning on the front — for $1.50.
What Ghebremedhin didn’t know was that she’d just violated the city’s administrative code, which stated at the time a cigar that costs $3 or less, including sales tax, must be sold in a package of at least four cigars. (Legislation that went into effect last June now requires a single cigar to be sold for at least $8.)
Cool N Cozy got smacked with a $1,500 fine — 1,000 times the price of the cigar. And although neither Ghebremedhin nor her husband — who live on Sedgwick Avenue near the Jerome Park Reservoir — had ever committed a violation, it wasn’t the business’ first.
Woldezghi’s former business partner, Teklu Woldemichael, got caught advertising three cigars for the price of two, and $3 packs of three cigars, in 2016. He paid a $1,000 fine.
Ghebremedhin bought Woldemichael out last December. But the violation was against the business, not the former partner. So when Ghebremedhin sold the cigar last spring, it suddenly made Cool N Cozy a repeat offender.
Ultimately, Woldezghi settled the case by paying a hefty fine. What he didn’t realize is that the consent order also revoked Cool N Cozy’s retail tobacco dealer’s license. Permanently.
Woldezghi didn’t realize the full magnitude of the agreement — a de facto death penalty for his business, where one-fifth of its revenue comes from tobacco — until he first met with his attorney, Jerald Kreppel, after he’d signed the agreement.
Kreppel begged consumer affairs commissioner Lorelai Salas to reconsider taking away Cool N Cozy’s tobacco license, or at the very least, rip up the settlement and let Woldezghi have a hearing.
Cool N Cozy lives up to its name — an air-conditioned haven from the sweltering sun-soaked intersection of Bedford Park Boulevard and Jerome Avenue, nestled between a beauty salon and a corner barbershop across the street from the elevated, curving 4 train tracks.
Neon window signs advertise an ATM, lotto, steaming hot cups of coffee. A giant icebox sits out front. Inside, a cornucopia of colorfully packaged snacks neatly pack shelves. There’s detergent, paper towels, newspapers, bananas — but no cigarettes, no cigars.
Ghebremedhin — who immigrated to the United States from Eritrea to learn English — earned a master’s in database management from Touro College. But she keeps close tabs on the store when her Ethiopian-born husband needs time off, especially when he’s undergoing cancer treatments.
“I try to manage whatever we have, whatever is missing,” Ghebremedhin said. “A lot of people play lotto. This is a winning place. Mostly, that’s how we survive.”
But lotto and snacks alone can’t keep the place afloat. And the ban on tobacco in a neighborhood where “people love the hookah stuff” has crushed business.
It’s also inflicted collateral damage because smokers seek “one-stop-shopping,” Ghebremedhin said, buying cold drinks, munchies and ice along with their tobacco. Since Cool N Cozy stopped selling it, business dried up.
“It’s really hurting us,” she said.
Mayor Bill de Blasio signed into law last year a package of legislation aimed at decreasing smoking rates by raising minimum prices for all tobacco products and imposing a new 10 percent local tax on tobacco products other than cigarettes, among other measures. But critics of the city’s enforcement practices say cracking down on the little guy isn’t the right way to stop people from smoking.
In fact, it’s not unusual for a place like Cool N Cozy to get hit with a raw deal, said Frank Garcia, chairman of the National Association of State Latino Chambers of Commerce.
“We have seen, especially in bodegas and restaurants, these inspectors are targeting our community,” Garcia said. “Especially in the minority community, because they’re immigrants, they don’t understand the rules.”
Instead of doling out punishment, Garcia said, the city should focus more on education.
“They’re fast to give a ticket, but they don’t give workshops for the business owners to let them know what their rights are,” Garcia said. “It’s very one-sided.”
Jim Calvin, president of the New York Association of Convenience Stores, agrees.
“One would hope that if (enforcement agents) encounter a retailer who is selling cigars for less than the minimum price, they would treat that as a teaching moment if they determined that the retailer” wasn’t deliberately circumventing the rules, Calvin said.
Garcia suspects it’s the bottom line driving the city’s draconian enforcement.
“Why do they do this to mom-and-pop shops?” Garcia asked.
“Because it’s a cash cow. It just shows the city and state don’t support small business. They have no mercy for these business owners that put all their heart and soul, and all their savings, into this.”
All Ghebremedhin wanted was a second chance. And thanks to Kreppel’s efforts, it appears Cool N Cozy is getting one. A spokeswoman from consumer affairs informed the attorney and his client they decided to pull out of the settlement, and not seek to keep the bodega’s tobacco license. They will, however, reissue the summons, likely including just the $1,500 fine Woldezghi already paid.
Consumer affairs, the spokeswoman said, “is committed to educating businesses in order to ensure they know how to comply with the law,” by holding open houses to discuss changes to tobacco licensing and working with merchants associations and advocacy groups.
The news “thrilled” Ghebremedhin, Kreppel said.
“There’s something we say in my language,” Ghebremedhin said. “We accept the good, we accept the bad.
“Still, I don’t believe in failing permanently. It’s a learning process. If you don’t encounter obstacles in life, you don’t learn anything.”