Working at Miami restaurants and food trucks: The inside scoop

Working at Miami restaurants and food trucks: The inside scoop
Jen Hsieh

It's about 8 o'clock on a sweltering, muggy evening in the parking lot outside the Magic City Casino in Little Havana, and 20 people are in line at the Latin Burger and Taco food truck, where I'm working behind a hot stove. Two dozen other trucks are here, and the area smells like grilled meat.

From the corner of my eye, I spot a bottle blonde with breasts spilling from her casino-issued white button-down shirt. After waiting for about ten minutes, she places her order in a lilting Slavic accent: "Can I have a Latin Macho and an orange soda?"

"Sure," I say as I take her money.

There are already more than a dozen tickets stacked up, but I don't let her know. She stands in front of the window for about ten more minutes and then gets frustrated. "My break is over and I've got to go. I can't wait. I need my money back," she says.

"Hold on a minute," I tell her as I sneak her ticket to the front of the pack. "You're up next, I promise you." Then I offer her a free soda before turning to add cheese, onions, and special sauce onto the meat patty and wrapping the whole thing in foil.

As I hand the casino worker her dinner, I hear grumbling from outside the truck. Then another women asks why her number hasn't been called. She's been waiting for at least ten minutes longer than blondie. Short and wearing a Hurricanes sweatshirt in the 80-degree heat, she looks like a small battering ram.

I remember the raffle tickets the casino provided a few hours earlier and offer her a few along with her meal, which is just coming off the griddle. Then I hand out more tickets to the dozen or so people waiting. "You can win a casino T-shirt or a travel mug," I explain. One by one, everyone gets their burgers and tacos and they are appeased — for now.

These days, Americans spend close to half their disposable income on restaurants and dining out, according to Forbes. Around here, diners range from the rich and famous, who savor an eight-ounce A5 Kobe filet at Prime One Twelve for $240 (sides extra), to college kids, who grab a steak taco for $1.99 at El Taquito in Coconut Grove.

More interesting to me, though, are the people who serve the meals — the waiters, the bussers, and the bartenders. So over the past few months, I observed what really goes on backstage. I shadowed waiters and worked at three restaurants in Miami and Fort Lauderdale plus a food truck. I also talked with dozens of local employees about their jobs, pay, and tips.

At one place I worked, my face and lips swelled like a collagen-injected Real Housewife from the intense heat of the griddles. At another, I watched in wonder as an Italian restaurateur left a $5 tip on a nearly $200 check. A customer at a third eatery fed her Pomeranian bacon from a fork. Some of the workers swore like sailors backstage and then presented themselves like lords and ladies to customers.

But the most interesting thing I noticed is the gross difference in pay between those serving at the brick-and-mortar restaurants and those toiling in the hottest trend on the culinary scene: food trucks. While tips bring old-school waiters as much as $50,000 per year, even in some modest eateries, many food truckers don't earn much more than minimum wage.

Take 35-year-old Steven Korosi, who has worked a little more than a year at the Latin Burger and Taco truck.

He wears many hats, from expediter to manager, yet makes about half what the typical restaurant employee earns. "This is the money that I make. Times are hard," he says, sounding resigned. "I could quite easily be in a worse situation. Though it wouldn't hurt if I had an extra zero at the end of my paycheck."

The Old Fort Lauderdale Breakfast House, or O-B House, in downtown Fort Lauderdale opened in August 2011, but it's already the go-to place for locals who want to linger over a long morning meal. There's no counter service or free Wi-Fi; it has the vibe of a restaurant that's been around for decades. The small standalone building is a Himmarshee landmark. Inside, gold-painted walls are adorned with old prints of World War II seamen. In keeping with the nautical theme, employees wear sailor hats.

A sign in the front reads, "We run a tight ship." That is really the only way owner Rodney Ely can make this small restaurant work. With patrons waiting for a table for more than 45 minutes on weekends, he has to make sure his staff is quick. He has implemented a strict no-substitutions policy with the menu and set other rules for the staff to follow.

The top waiter here is Pete Hardy, who strongly resembles Popeye in his shorts, worker boots, and Greek fisherman's cap. Now in his mid-50s, Pete came to Miami from New Castle, England, in 1982 in search of Fort Lauderdale's legendary beaches and bikinis. Back in the day, he was a punk rocker, but now his Doc Martens are the only remnants of his misspent youth. "We're short a server," he says while naming the special muffins of the day. "Can you bus the tables?"

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32 comments
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V_S
V_S

"Sure, the no-substitutions rule is handy for the waitstaff and chefs, but it irritates the patrons."

Well, to hell with the patrons. If they don't like it they can go somewhere else. Right?

With a management philosophy like that, it's no wonder that the tips are disappointing. My guess is the business will be gone in a year.

Chakalaka
Chakalaka

Great article, i'm shocked as how much a waiter can earn or not earned, however I say that the tip is really based on the service not really the amount on the receipt.

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Tony A
Tony A

I used to think my average 20% tip was pretty good. Now I think it's become a standard. I am going to tip more. I am also going to adopt the $5 minimum rule someone posted above.I never tipped at a food truck which will change immediately as I try to find the Pincho Factory truck on my way home!

Anthonyvop
Anthonyvop

WOWNo wonder service is so bad in Miami. If the majority of the servers are like the people in this article then it is easy to see.

Usually when somebody leaves you a small tip it is because the service sucked. Normally I tip 20% If service is good I tip 25% and up. Bad Less than 10% and on a few occasions nothing. Don't like it? Too Bad. Remember you are easily replaced so work on the attitude. I also check if the tips are pooled. If they are then it is 15%. It is a reason why it is called a gratuity and I seem no reason to reward anyone for doing nothing.

VinoJon
VinoJon

There was sex in the title but none in the article. What gives?

Urban Bitch
Urban Bitch

Great article and very accurate! I've worked "in the biz" since I was 15 in all different levels of restaurants and you've captured the spectrum very well. My personal rule is that I never tip less than 20% unless it falls less than $5 in which case I tip $5. For some strange reason, I never applied this to food trucks. Thank you for giving me perspective into a job that definitely deserves a tip! Also, I noticed your Greenstreet section was rather brief. Was this because the general manager wouldn't let you shadow her servers? I've heard that woman is absolutely nuts and runs that restaurant like a slave ship.

JB
JB

Good read!

Aaron
Aaron

very good work, liane, I will be reposting to the ps561 facebook page, it is clear you put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into writing this. Very bourdain-like. thank you!Aaron

Fryerphuk
Fryerphuk

Very good insight on the server side of the restaurant world. As in any profession, your appearance, ability and work ethic usually determines income. I was surprised that a guy slinging omelets can pull down more than the Red server.

Yak
Yak

While reading this article, I felt as though I was a fly on the wall eavesdropping at each of the restaurants. You must do another, this time at the douche bag establishments like Prime 112, Joe's Stone Crab, etc.

Riki
Riki

Great work, Laine! You really put a lot of time and energy into this piece. Really proud of you! Guess I don't have to worry about you quitting your day job. :-)

ted anthony inserra
ted anthony inserra

Laine you did a great job capturing the inside working of a restaurant, as a "IN THE BIZZ", the public really has no clue on the inner working's of a restaurant.....the people are the best, most interesting, and fun you will ever meet. We spend more time with each other, weekends. holidays, events, than we do our families. The "family meal" is a great tradition, you opened up a small window into the only business i have ever known, and would not have it anyother way, i enjoyed your article!!

Former Chef...
Former Chef...

Liked your article, you have a good flowing style, very informative... My question is, how did you remember all the details without stopping your duties to record/write it all down...?If you really want an experience, try working behind the line in a very busy kitchen. I cooked for over 20 years and the characters I've come across and worked with, could be a novel.

In my humble opinion, I think you could write such a book...

Anonymouse
Anonymouse

what exactly do you mean by "if the majority of the servers are like the people in this article" bit? they all seem to be hard working people doing their best to get by. i don't see what your gripe is about them.

however, any good server can spot an asshole a mile away. good luck with your next service.

Eddie
Eddie

Why should we reward you with excellent service while you're sitting there doing less than nothing (i.e. keeping track of whatever infractions have been transgressed upon you)? How can you ever have a pleasant restaurant experience when your time is spent overly judging the service in order to make the 'correct' calculation of what percentage tip to leave?

Magic Mayhem
Magic Mayhem

You sir, are a dick. I’m sure you never tip anyone 25% because nobody can achieve the high level of service that your ego requires.

GoodPoint
GoodPoint

I don't go to food trucks often, but I'm going to have this article in mind too

Laine Doss
Laine Doss

Bourdain-like? You, sir, made my day.

Laine Doss
Laine Doss

I used a small tape recorder and talked into it every chance I got - which was often as I bussed tables and ran into the kitchen to get water/bread/etc.

Anthonyvop
Anthonyvop

So now I am an asshole for expecting good service and not rewarding poor service?Then you are just another of the entitlement/trophy generation.

Anthonyvop
Anthonyvop

Why should I get excellent service?

Because I am paying for it.Give me Excellent Service you get an Excellent Tip. Give me adequate service and you get an adequate tip. Give me poor service and get a.............................(Are you ready?)...............A poor tip. It is called the free market. It has worked for centuries and no other system has come close to being as fair.

Drake Mallard
Drake Mallard

Why should we have to give you extra money because you are doing your job? Its not my fault that restaurants don't pay their servers enough to make tipping a necessity. if you don't like your job and aren't making enough off your hourly rate get a new job.

Anthonyvop
Anthonyvop

Why?Because I am paying for the service! I work hard for my money and I expect prompt and gracious service when I spend it.It is called the Free Market. I live it. There are some restaurants that I refuse to return to because of consistently bad service. So many people harp on about the "Dinning Experience" So do I and if the service is poor or the staff has attitude I will take my business elsewhere.

Anthonyvop
Anthonyvop

Let me guess......You are a waiter!

Another Aaron
Another Aaron

Yo Laine! This was the best article put out by New Times in a long long while. Thank you! Now all I can hope for is that the others follow your lead. We need more of this, not polarized anti-Miami vitriol; you dove into it and produced a gem, reaffirming my belief that we truly hate what we don't know/understand (like some of the other writers and the city of Miami). I don't mean to bash the others, I'm just truly impressed with your work, especially in comparison to what I've come to expect from the New Times. Thank You Based God and Laine Doss.

Anthonyvop
Anthonyvop

Wait. Let me get this straight.

I am suppose to accept inferior Service and encourage their poor performance by rewarding them just because they made a bad career choice? Nobody forced them to take the job. I am under no obligation, moral or otherwise to finance their life.

I can tell by your posts you are of the entitlement/Trophy generation. You probably believe that a Job is a right and that pay shouldn't be tied to performance. I wouldn't even be surprised that if you had a job it is with a Government agency or similar like a College....or as a waitress.

Anonymouse
Anonymouse

no, you're an asshole because you are aware of the circumstances these workers are in and still choose to visit their establishments of labor only to judge them if they do not act according to your demands or whatever skewed perspective derived thereof.

gratuity, in restaurant terms, is the mother of all misnomers. these people could not make ends meet without it and your food would not be affordable if your average restaurant had to pay the load of their service workers anything above minimum wage.

you seem like an intelligent individual and surely must know this yet still dangle a faulty tipping method over them.

btw, you did not answer my question. what exactly do you mean by "if the majority of the servers are like the people in this article" bit?

 
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