Julia Wang had not owned Orchid Massage Spa in Nokomis for a full year when neighbors started tipping off city inspectors about suspected prostitution.
It seemed odd, neighbors complained, that male customers bound for the spa would routinely park their cars blocks away from Orchid, despite the availability of much closer spots. So business license inspector Beth Roberts, a former police officer with 25 years experience, began to investigate.
In November 2016, she watched as two separate male customers walked to Orchid after parking more than a block away. To Roberts, this was typical behavior for people seeking illegal sex services. When she entered Orchid, she found that owner Wang was out for lunch, leaving the spa in the charge of a woman who couldn’t provide identification as an employee, and claimed to be there for a job interview.
The woman told Roberts she was the only one present that day. However, the inspector soon discovered a male customer inside one of the massage rooms with a female masseuse, who immediately closed the door at the sight of city staff.
During that same inspection, Roberts noted the spa had a “generally cluttered, unkempt, uninviting and unprofessional appearance,” storing a large amount of food, cooking equipment, clothing, personal effects, and beds. This led her to conclude that workers lived on site, another sign of possible prostitution.
Later, Roberts trawled the web for Orchid ads, discovering the spa advertised heavily on Backpage.com, “often with sexually provocative photographs and copy.” Orchid had also earned a number of customer reviews on RubMaps, an erotic massage locater. The ads weren’t so overt that they broke any laws, but their tone and presentation seemed to flirt with the possibility, according to the inspector.
Orchid’s business license expired January 1 of this year. When Wang attempted to renew, Minneapolis Business Licenses staff recommended against it. So Wang appealed, denying having done anything short of running a legitimate business.
She points out that the street parking immediately outside Orchid is only valid for one hour, which doesn’t do her customers any good when the typical massage itself is an hour long. As for the beds, clothing, and personal items found in the back room, Wang says she provides a lounge for her workers to rest up after tiring shifts, nothing more. And while she admitted to being careless by leaving a prospective employee with poor English in charge of the spa while she went out to lunch on the day of the inspection, Wang also criticized the city for failing to provide an interpreter while questioning the woman.
“I think it’s not fair,” Wang says. “I’m an honest business owner. I am Chinese, I am yellow, but that doesn’t mean all the Chinese massage parlors are engaged with prostitution, or that all Chinese women in the massage business are likely engaged with prostitution.”
It would be one thing for the city to shut down businesses over firm evidence of illegal activity, Wang says. But it's another to insinuate she has committed a crime without proof.
An administrative hearing was held on May 30, with city hearing officer Michael Sindt finding the inspector's hunches much more credible than Wang’s explanations. He also recommended that the city cut Orchid loose.
Tuesday at 1:30 p.m., the community development and regulatory services committee will hear Wang once more, before considering whether to deny her application to resume business.