Waiting for a Shot at the Big Show

In the world of waiters, landing a gig at Joe's Stone Crab is like getting drafted by the Marlins, only better

Tell us a little bit about yourself."
The 30-year-old man in a pressed gray suit sits like a deer in headlights; the three-person panel scrutinizes him across a brown-linen-draped table. After 43 consecutive applicants, the man now has about a three-minute opportunity to suitably impress the panel that, yes indeed, he is right and ready to join the elite ranks of servers at Joe's Stone Crab.

"Well, I moved down here about a year ago from Manhattan," drones the man, his time almost audibly ticking. "My aunt told me this was a wonderful place to work."

Stone-faced, the triumvirate quickly records numerical scores for appearance, ability, and experience. Head server Janine Ostow gives him an unflinching once-over, checking his clothes, fingernails, hair, posture, and attitude. Day maitre d' Anthony Arneson, businesslike and bespectacled, scans the application and makes notations. Assistant maitre d' Dennis Sutton, the man in the middle, asks most of the questions, including the coup de grace: "Are you familiar with tray service?"

He says he is and approaches the tray stand. Bending his knees and placing his right palm under the oval plastic tray stacked with ceramic china plates and saucers, stainless steel bowls, and dipping cups, he carefully lifts the twenty-pound arrangement over his right shoulder, straightens his back, takes three strides, pivots, and returns as if on a catwalk, his left hand pointed downward and stiff as a military salute.

"OK. Thank you very much. We'll call you."
"Number 45!" booms "Bones," a seating captain and 26-year veteran of Joe's.
The roll call has been a tradition at Joe's since owner Stephen Sawitz, age 39, can remember. Joe Weiss, Sawitz's great-grandfather, discovered the stone crab as an edible crustacean and opened the restaurant in South Beach in 1913. Every year on the Tuesday before the start of stone crab season (October 15 to May 15) the restaurant interviews experienced food servers to work the lunch shift, five days a week, full-time. In due course, the best lunch servers will be promoted to the more prestigious dinner shift. It's a career to many, the pinnacle of the business. Waiter Bernhard Lukoschek, for example, has served here since 1968.

This year 110 men and women applied. A smattering of them left before their number was called; they were either impatient or daunted by the test -- particularly the tray-balancing competition. The remainder vied for 20 openings to fill out the lunch staff of 36.

"It's like going before a congressional committee," quips Bonnie Brown, a 39-year-old whose experience includes Charley's in Georgetown and the Rascal House in Sunny Isles. She was one of the first in line, but when her three minutes came up, she blew it. "My mother died yesterday and I spent half the night in a bar drinking," she revealed in the parking lot after a poor performance that ranged from dourly asking the panel "What do you want to know?" to giggling during the tray carry.

"This was a chance of a lifetime," she laments. "I guess I'll just work for Denny's the next ten years."

In the world of food servers, Joe's roll call is awaited with the kind of anticipation that college athletes feel during professional sports drafts. Winning a job at Joe's is a chance to don the black tuxedo and bright-colored bow ties and carry trays of pricey stone crabs in the cool Old World setting of white walls, dark wood trim, high ceilings, and tile floors. Joe's sold 400,000 pounds of stone crabs last year from a total Florida harvest of 2.2 million. With an average of 2000 customers a day, each spending an average of $40 per person, the tips are enticing: Servers may take home between $100 and $350 a shift.

Other perks for Joe's employees include medical insurance, profit sharing, and the opportunity to mix with celebrities, which over the years have included Damon Runyon, J. Edgar Hoover, Elizabeth Taylor, and Pres. Bill Clinton.

This year the restaurant remained opened in summer for the first time in its history, closing for only six weeks. Of course, the restaurant could not sell stone crabs out of season, and business dropped two-thirds during that experiment. But Sawitz plans to stay open again next summer.

The five-month off-season vacation that is traditionally available to Joe's employees is what attracted Lisa Jordan. A friend told Jordan that Joe's would be interviewing, but she was surprised by the cattle call. She didn't know the restaurant had advertised in the Miami Herald and believed that one has to have an inside connection to get a job at Joe's. "I thought it was going to be this hush-hush thing, with only a few people in the know here," says the 27-year-old Ocean Drive restaurant manager who's wearing a slinky, comment-provoking sundress.

Jordan's impression that jobs at Joe's are not open to everyone is a sensitive topic these days for its managers, who are in the thick of a federal lawsuit alleging that their hiring practices are discriminatory against women. In 1991 the EEOC filed a lawsuit on behalf of a former female employee who claimed she was mistreated because of her gender; since then eleven other women who were turned down for a job at Joe's between 1986 and 1995 have been added to the civil rights suit.

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