New York's finest bread slices up price fixers

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The Independent Online
FOR A WHILE last year the tiny Louis Basile Italian Bakery shop in Greenwich Village did a terrific trade: the bread was cheaper, crisper and tastier than its rivals; the Basile family of several brothers were the most courteous of shopkeepers, dressed neatly in white overalls and selling their loaves in traditional Italian paper sleeves.

Then, without explanation, the shop on West 11th Street closed down. This week, New Yorkers found out why. It had been run by undercover detectives trying to break the city's Italian bread cartel.

Four city bakers with Italian-sounding names have been charged with price-rigging through the local Association of Independent Bakers and Distributors of Italian Bread. The group's members include 50 bakeries, and it supplies bread to more than 1,000 small groceries. If convicted, the men face four years in jail.

For years, the police had received complaints about a small band of bakers who had used threats of violence to control the distribution and price of Italian bread. Finally, they set up a sting.

Every morning one of the undercover cops would drive out to a friendly bakery in New Jersey, fill up a van with fresh loaves and drive them back to Manhattan. The loaves then went on sale at West 11th Street as if they had been baked by the fictitious Louis Basile family.

One day detectives at the shop received a call from the bread distributors' association suggesting a meeting at the White Horse Tavern on Hudson Street, a bar made famous by writers including Dylan Thomas.

Over drinks, members of the association told the detectives that violence could come to Basile's if the shop did not play by the association's rules, which included fixing prices for bread and buying loaves from a single approved source.

The city prosecutor's office spent dollars 100,000 ( pounds 60,000) on the operation, a sum which taxpaying residents may view as good value if it brings lower bread prices. The detectives could do New Yorkers another favour by saying where they bought their good New Jersey bread.