In Waiting at Joe’s, the tuxedo-clad men and women who have been waiting tables for decades at Joe’s Stone Crab reveal just how hard they work for their tips.
Anthony Arneson, who’s worked at the South Beach institution for 29 of its 100 years, keeps handwritten notes on almost every customer he serves, guaranteeing a personal touch for their next visit.
Karl “Chopper” Robertson, who’s been at Joe’s long enough that he’s trained five of his brothers to work there, talks of the physical demands of lifting and balancing with one hand a tray loaded with 25 pounds of food and drinks.
Andrew Rubin, working his 30th Joe’s season this year, has fulfilled hundreds of oddball requests, like the times Paul Newman asked for a bowl and ingredients to whip up his own salad dressing.
With her new book, released last month by Seaside Publishing, author Deeny Kaplan Lorber has given the Joe’s staff a different kind of tip — along with a bit of celebrity.
“People have been going into Joe’s with the book and saying to their waiter, ‘What page are you on? Will you sign my copy?’” Lorber said. “Here are people who have been serving famous people for years, and now they’re the ones being asked to sign autographs.”
Waiting at Joe’s is just one of the new culinary titles featured at the 2013 Miami Book Fair International, which runs through Sunday. Others from local authors include The Sizzling History of Miami Cuisine by Mandy Baca and Feeding the Hungry Ghost by Miami Herald columnist Ellen Kanner. The three will appear together at 4 p.m. Sunday.
Lorber, who helps run a Miami-based television and movie dubbing firm called The Kitchen, has been a semi-regular at Joe’s since her family moved here from New York in 1987. Her usual order: chopped salad with extra vinaigrette, Lyonnaise potatoes with extra onion, grilled tomatoes and — “if that doesn’t fill me up” — stone crabs.
“Every special occasion or holiday or client dinner or celebration meal, we have it at Joe’s,” she said.
Waiting at Joe’s started as a thank-you from Lorber to the matriarch of the family-run restaurant, Jo Ann Bass, 81, whose grandparents opened Joe’s in 1913.
Lorber told Bass that she had a nephew in New York with a terminal illness, and he badly wanted a Joe’s Stone Crab meal. Bass shipped Lorber’s nephew a feast that wound up being his final meal.
“What she did for me was wonderful, and she refused to take a dime,” Lorber said. “Every single person I spoke to has a story about Jo Ann’s tremendous generosity.”
Lorber interviewed more than 50 Joe’s employees as part of the project, from servers to captains to executive chef André Bienvenu and fourth-generation owner Stephen Sawitz.
Each brief profile includes unique recollections and anecdotes, but there are some recurring themes, like how difficult it is to score a server job at Joe’s and how diligently they work to maintain the restaurant’s reputation.
It’s a lucrative job, with good benefits and, of course, good tips, which Joe’s waiters collect immediately when their shifts end.
“Waiters don’t leave Joe’s,” 18-year veteran Samira Alani told Lorber. “If you do leave, you either leave to start your own business, or you’ve won the lottery.”
Or you die.
Lorber’s book tells the story of waiter Phil Grier, who retired from Joe’s in 1987 and died nine years later. As he had requested, his body was cremated and his ashes were buried in Joe’s front garden.
And for all the stories the waiters tell of stone crabs and high rollers — Charaff Gouriche says his favorite customers are a couple from New York who order 56 crab claws each time they come in — they also take pride in the rest of the menu and the value it provides.
“The customers who order our delicious chicken entree for $5.95 are treated the same,” Gouriche told Lorber. “They’ve been waiting for two to three hours. They are hungry.”