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.”