The caviar business in South Florida is sleeping with the
Caviarteria, which has caviar restaurant and shops in Boca
Raton and Palm Beach, closed in Miami Beach; New York; Beverly
Hills, Calif.; and Las Vegas.
Other local caviar establishments are listed as inactive in
Florida, according to state records, and those in business
face a tough road ahead amid a shaky economy, crackdown on
illicit imports and a dwindling supply of black eggs from
Caviar in North Miami Beach is so concerned it is attempting
to farm raise Caspian sturgeon domestically.
economy is not very good," said owner Mark Zaslavsky,
who acknowledged an industrywide slowdown in demand.
Despite the dwindling numbers of sturgeon, supply from producers
is not a problem, as 45 to 50 tons of caviar cargo will be
available this year, he said.
Setbacks at Caviarteria
One of the major players in the caviar business has been Caviarteria,
opened by Louis Sobol in New York City in 1950.
A January 2000 Business Journal article told how the late
Sobol's sons, Eric and Bruce, were planning to open their
seventh location, on South Beach.
the South Florida region, we have 2,500 existing caviar customers,"
Eric Sobol said. "We do a major amount of business with
South and Latin Americans, and Miami is obviously the gateway
to Latin America."
But even after it opened, the place never took off, co-owner
Bruce Sobol said recently.
wasn't really selling caviar," he said. "We like
the drinks and the youths, but it really wasn't who we are."
Caviarteria South Beach dissolved in October, according to
Florida state records. Also gone are New York City locations
in Grand Central Terminal and the SoHo Grand Hotel.
In fiscal 2001, the company lost $2 million, according to
court filings cited by The New York Times in a Jan. 20 article.
Eric Sobol, Bruce's brother, committed suicide in his car
in the parking lot of a restaurant in Danville, Pa., on April
16, 2001, the Times' article said. His widow said he committed
suicide so life insurance policies would cover the company's
Bruce Sobol, who has battled his brother's widow in court,
said he has closed all locations except Boca Raton and Palm
Beach, but plans for eateries in Aspen, Colo.; Chicago and
Seattle may still be realized.
working on re-opening the Las Vegas location," he added.
"Boca [Raton] is doing pretty well."
Making the grade
Caviarteria has also been caught up in another industry problem
- the watchful eyes of U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents who have
seized shipments and led to Justice Department prosecutions.
In 1999, the Wildlife Service seized four shipments of black
eggs from Caviarteria after DNA testing said it was underrated,
according to a 1999 New York magazine article. A likely motive
for mislabeling caviar would be to hide its identity as coming
from an endangered species.
means our Russian suppliers have given us merchandise worth
double what they charged us," Eric Sobol told the magazine.
A new round of DNA testing performed at the American Museum
of Natural History showed the caviar was not mislabeled, he
Those findings were introduced into evidence in Brooklyn Federal
Court after Caviarteria sued the service for $100 million
and a ton of rotting caviar was kept as evidence.
Two file boxes containing documents from Sobol's lawsuits
challenging the seizures and DNA testing process were still
at the Federal District Courthouse in Brooklyn earlier this
year, the Times reported.
Smuggling in the catch
Sturgeon fisheries in Russia, widely reported to be controlled
by the Russian mob, have shrunken dramatically, leading to
poaching and an increase in organized crime, according to
In a scene reminiscent of a James Bond caper, a Miami-based
ring used paid couriers to smuggle caviar in suitcases.
Last August, The Department of Justice announced that Viktor
Tsimbal, president of Beluga Caviar in North Miami Beach,
pled guilty to a "far-reaching" wildlife smuggling
Couriers brought suitcases filled with caviar into the United
States, the DOJ said after new international restrictions
were announced in 1998 to protect sturgeon.
Tsimbal, a Russian national, pled guilty to conspiracy, smuggling
and money laundering charges contained in an indictment returned
by a Miami grand jury on June 2, 2002.
He also admitted to using false documents to smuggle more
Beluga caviar from Russia into the United States via Poland
in 1999 than the entire Russian export quota for the year,
according to court records.
Tsimbal, according to the DOJ, orchestrated a conspiracy in
which smugglers were paid approximately $500 for each trip
and were provided airline tickets, pre-packed luggage filled
with black market caviar and apartment and hotel rooms in
Europe and Miami.
A federal jury also convicted Mikhail Ivanovich Kovtun, also
a Russian, of illegally importing and transporting 98.2 pounds
- worth $1,000 a pound - of Russian-origin caviar after arriving
at Miami International Airport Aug. 23, 2001, on a flight
from Moscow via Zurich, Switzerland.
He was also convicted of making false statements to the Customs
Service and for a violation of the Endangered Species Act.
The convictions are possible under an international treaty
inked April 1, 1998, that protects all species of sturgeon
and their derivatives, including roe, under the Convention
on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna
DNA analysis conducted by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Forensic Laboratory for the trial established that the roe
smuggled by the conspirators was sturgeon caviar. Other fish
that provide caviar include salmon, paddlefish and whitefish.
This was the eighth conviction in Miami involving caviar smuggling
between November 2000 and November 2002.
Tom Sansonetti, assistant attorney general of the Justice
Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division, said
the department will continue to enforce laws designed to protect
and preserve sturgeon from the threat of extinction.
Caspian Sea sturgeon may have been around since the age of
dinosaurs, Sansonetti said, adding that "the appetite
of smugglers for profit has the potential to extinguish them
from the Earth."
prosecutions have shown that the caviar trade is rife with
corruption," he said.
Sturgeon can live up to 100 years. Because the time necessary
to reach egg-bearing age can be up to 20 years - and the fish
is killed in the process of obtaining the roe that is salted
to make caviar - sturgeon are especially vulnerable.
A major threat to the survival of the sturgeon is the trade
in black market caviar smuggled from Russia and other Caspian
Sea nations, the DOJ said.
Over the past two decades, the Caspian's beluga sturgeon population
has dropped significantly due to environmental degradation,
invasion of exotic species and over fishing.
This decline has prompted companies like Marky's Caviar to
take steps toward relieving the pressure on the world population
of sturgeon, supplementing the wild catch with farmed caviar.
Marky's, which imports Russian caviar from the Black and Caspian
seas, said it hopes to develop domestic stock of Caspian beluga
sturgeon by setting up its own fish farm.
Until now, American aqua farms have mostly produced paddlefish
roe or California white sturgeon varieties of caviar, which
have their own distinct flavor.
Last week, at the Lufthansa terminal at Miami International
Airport, Marky's announced it has become the first U.S. company
to transport five live beluga sturgeon.
are the only one," said Zaslavsky, noting there are only
six beluga sturgeon in the United States - its five and one
male at the University of Florida. "I called today to
see how they are. The fish are eating."
The co-owners literally slept with the fishes, accompanying
the sturgeon on a plane ride overseas.
The imported beluga, weighing between eight and 10 pounds
each, will serve as the brood stock for Sturgeon Aquafarms,
an aquaculture facility to be built near Orlando, the company
sturgeon is very important in that we take pictures of the
cans, the boxes, we even go to the length of random sampling,"
said Cindy Ferrer, a wildlife inspector on hand for the delivery.
"It is something we handle very seriously here."
Ferrer said it was the first time in her three years in Miami
that she's encountered imported sturgeon to be farm-raised
[Marky's Caviar] handled the logistics of handling the fish,"
she said. "I checked quantity and completed the species
inspection as normal."