Over the years, Princess Caroline of Monaco, former Presidents Bill Clinton and both George Bushes and actors and singers like Sean Connery and Madonna have all flocked to the venerable Joe’s Stone Crab. They’ve come for the delicate claws, French-fried sweets, hash browns, Key lime pie and much more, served up with a century of tradition.
It all begins again at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, as the world-famous South Beach eatery swings open its doors for the season, celebrating its 100th anniversary.
“It’s an institution,” said Jo Ann Bass, 81, whose grandparents started the restaurant in 1913 and who now owns it with her son Stephen Sawitz and other family members. “To the outside world, Joe’s is a restaurant — an expensive restaurant. And the truth of the matter is it’s so much more than that.”
At Joe’s, it’s the family atmosphere and deep camaraderie among the staff — who hustle to serve the business people, bankers, lawyers, judges, artists and others who come back year after year — that helps make it distinct, insiders say.
Leonard Abess is a third-generation Joe’s regular, who has been eating Sunday-night dinners there since he was a child.
“It’s our favorite food,” said Abess, who plans to be there this Sunday. “The service is just outstanding, and the waiters have been there forever. There’s not a lot of turnover, so you get to know the people working there, which is nice.”
In fact, Joe’s boasts dozens of employees who have been carrying trays, cooking or managing the restaurant for decades, and many have brought in their own family members to join in the fray.
Sous chef David Salina’s mother, Esther Perez, has been making Joe’s apple pies for 28 years; sous chef Hector Lopez got his start when his father was a server.
And executive chef André Bienvenu has brought in his son, a Florida International University hospitality management student, to cook at night during the season.
“It’s really my employees that make me come back year after year,” said Bienvenu, 47, who has led the kitchen staff for 14 years. “In October, the freight train pulls in the station and you enjoy the ride.”
Tuesday marks the first day back at work for the bulk of Joe’s 380 employees, who, except for a skeletal staff, have been away for months. Joe’s season ended May 15, and it reopened a week later, with about 150 staffers, operating on a limited schedule through July.
Server Nathaniel Allen, 68, was among the hundreds who came back for “roll call” last Friday. Joe’s longest-tenured employee, Allen started as a busboy in 1966.
“It’s a home,” he said, surrounded by the hubbub of the kitchen. “When I started, there were less than 50 employees. Now there are almost 400.”
Ready to rock
During the offseason, the walls have been painted, the wood trim restained, an area of new flooring installed, and all 650 chairs redone with new paint and upholstery.
It’s all ready to welcome customers, including celebrities who can often be spotted among the crowds in Joe’s four dining rooms. Just in the past year, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, Al Pacino, Robert Redford, and Billy Joel all dined there, said Joe’s General Manager Brian Johnson, who started in 1980 as a waiter. Others in recent years include Woody Allen, Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Prince Andrew, Martha Stewart and Mohammed Ali.
“People call and say, ‘I have a three-hour layover, can I get in and out?’ ” Johnson said. “I say, ‘As long as your bags are checked, come on in.’ ”
When sitting President George W. Bush dined in 2006, the restaurant was only given three hours’ notice. Bomb-sniffing dogs roamed the dining rooms; sharpshooters were perched on the roof; and Secret Service agents and White House security officers stood at the doors, Johnson said.
Even for regular guests, a long wait is often in store, particularly on weekends, when the restaurant greets as many as 1,800 guests nightly. Patrons often fill the bar and garden areas on busy nights, waiting hours to be seated.
Next door, Joe’s Take Away offers a faster, more casual experience and takeout, staying open until one hour before Joe’s closes. It opened in its current location in 1995 and serves breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Jim Heins is a fixture for breakfast at Take Away, eats dinner in the dining room at least once a week — and even moved from Coconut Grove to South Beach to be closer to Joe’s.
“I can’t wait [for it to reopen]. I’ve been jonesing for the fried chicken for five months now,” said Heins, who owns Latin Burger and Taco. “The staff all know you and take great care of you. It’s the best.”
Though Joe’s menu is varied, it is still best known for its claws.
“When anybody thinks of stone crabs, you think of Miami, and when you think of Miami, you think of Joe’s Stone Crab,” said Michael Sanson, chief editor of Restaurant Hospitality Magazine, a national trade publication. “It’s a legendary restaurant.”
Ranking as one of nation’s top-grossing restaurants, Joe’s amassed $33 million in revenue last year, with the greatest growth coming from Take Away and shipping, said Chief Financial Officer Marc Fine.
Joe’s also supplies its crabs to licensed restaurants, which are owned and operated by other restaurateurs. Called Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak and Stone Crabs, they operate in Chicago and Las Vegas, with a third, in Washington, D.C., scheduled to open next year.
Behind the scenes
Behind the scenes in South Beach, a corridor leads to a warren of cooler rooms — one each for produce, stone crabs, fish and meat — and prep areas where cole slaw is cut and potatoes are boiled. Oyster-shucking and stone-crab-cracking takes place in its own space, with refrigerated pass-through shelving. Upstairs, a full laundry runs with a staff of 10 to care for the restaurant’s linens.
Joe’s is a 24-hour, seven-day operation. A typical day begins at 6 a.m., when the wholesale division and the Take Away staff arrive. The dining room’s kitchen crew starts to filter in at 7 a.m., with the last staffers leaving at midnight or later. Then overnight, the cleaning crew takes over.
“Running a restaurant is like a new movie every day,” Bass said.
Last year, Joe’s served 350,000 patrons in its dining rooms, despite a rough year for stone crabs, when the supply was off statewide, Fine said.
It’s too early to know how this season will shape up.
“You don’t know until the traps go in the water,” Fine said.
Joe’s sources its crabs from the Gulf of Mexico, off of the Florida Keys and the Ten Thousand Islands area. Joe’s has two family-owned fisheries, in Marathon and Everglades City, that buy from independent fishermen.
Stone crabs, in all four sizes, are the most popular items on the menu, accounting for more than 60 percent of orders, Johnson said. Crab cakes are also big sellers, he said. And plenty of people prefer Joe’s fried chicken, whose price Bass has refused to raise, from $5.95.
“Despite rising prices of fish and other items, there is only so much that is passed on to customers,” Johnson said. “We try to hold it.”
Surprisingly, Bass said she never eats stone crabs — her favorite dish is mussels. “It’s like working in a candy store,” she said.
This season, all of the mainstays will remain on the menu. The sea bass will now be accompanied by edamame, hearts of palm and mandarin oranges, Bienvenu said.
Joe’s rich history began with Bass’ grandparents, Joe and Jennie Weiss, who had emigrated from Hungary to New York, where Joe worked as a waiter, Jennie as a cook. Suffering from asthma, Joe’s doctors told him that he needed a change of climate, so he headed for Miami and took the ferry to Miami Beach, where he started running a lunch stand at Smith’s bathing casino in 1913, serving fish sandwiches and fries. It was the beginning for the restaurant that would later grow to become Joe’s.
When Joe died in 1930, his only son, Bass’s father, Jesse Weiss, a lawyer, took over the restaurant. And Bass, who turns 82 on Friday, literally grew up there, living in an apartment above Joe’s that is now used for offices.
“I always felt like the kitchen staff raised me when I was a little girl,” said Bass, who started working in the kitchen when she was 12.
She started college and moved away for four years after she married, then took off a decade to raise her children, daughter Jodi and son Stephen.
Bass came back to the restaurant in the 1960s and has been there ever since, still working as much as six days a week. Other family members have joined in over the years — her son serves as chief operating officer, and grandson-in-law José Uchuya is a manager.
Bass’ son Stephen Sawitz started peeling potatoes and shrimp when he was 8 years old. He said the legacy means a lot to him, and he hopes to pass the tradition on to his 6-month-old daughter Julia.
“I just became a father six months ago at age 55, so you have a 100-year-old restaurant, a six-month old baby, a 98-year-old grandmother, and most of my family is alive,” said Sawitz, now 56. “I’m grateful. It makes time very precious.”
Still, the business has had its share of trying times, including an EEOC lawsuit alleging that Joe’s failed to hire female servers. Bass calls it “a setup” and said that Joe’s always hired female servers, except for the few years alleged in the suit — when she said no women applied for server jobs — and that eight out of 11 managers at the time were women.
Joe’s spent 12 years and more than $1 million defending themselves in the suit, whose appeal the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear. A lower court had ruled that the restaurant discriminated against two women between 1986 and 1991.
Bass is still angry over that case.
“I will always think it was unfair,” she said.
Yet, despite life’s rough times and tragedies, Joe’s has always provided stability and rewards in Bass’s life.
“I love it. I love the people I work with, I love the customers,” Bass said. “I think the camaraderie of everyone here, and the taking care of each other — it answers a need in me.”