Working at Miami restaurants and food trucks: The inside scoop

Chris glides across the floor, bidding farewell to the couple from New York and taking a dessert order from the IBM group. This room is his. The bank president and his wife, who did not drink, leave $22 for a $127 check. That's 17 percent, and the check is on the low side. He tells me he'll make it up between the McLaren and IBM tables.

The McLaren date couple leaves. The check is $385, and the tip is $50. That's less than 13 percent, and Chris is disappointed. So far, the night isn't going his way. But it's still early.

The IBMers leave $100 on a $500 check. That's good news. The bad news is that an Italian restaurant owner and his wife on vacation leave $5 on a $162 check.

Jen Hsieh
Jen Hsieh

Location Info

Map

Latin Burger and Taco

Various locations/Food truck
Miami, FL 33137

Category: Restaurant > Burgers

Region: Midtown/Wynwood/Design District

Red the Steakhouse

119 Washington Ave.
Miami Beach, FL 33139

Category: Restaurant > Steakhouse

Region: South Beach

GreenStreet Cafe

3468 Main Highway
Coconut Grove, FL 33133

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Coconut Grove

Old Fort Lauderdale Breakfast House

333 Himmarshee St.
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33312

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Fort Lauderdale

At 11 p.m., the room drops into an abyss. Though the kitchen is still technically open, the night is over. Chris averages out the tips and figures he'll go home with $150. Not too shabby for three hours of hustling. He says he works as many shifts as he can, and on a busy day, he can make double that amount. Add a few high rollers a month, and Chris can make about $50,000 after taxes.

Though the take-home is almost the same as that at the breakfast joint, there are fewer hours and more downtime. Moreover, Chris uses the connections he makes at the restaurant to further his income stream. "I work with the bouncers at the clubs here in South Beach," he confides. "If there's a group of high rollers at one of my tables and they want to go out, I hook them up. In return, I get taken care of, let's just say."

Juan Carlos Lopez, J.C. for short, is a waiter at GreenStreet, a Coconut Grove brunch joint on Main Highway. J.C. came to the United States from Honduras 25 years ago and began bussing tables at diners. He started at GreenStreet in 1993 and has been working the brunch circuit ever since.

Indeed, J.C. is iconic. Many people are willing to wait to sit at one of his tables, even with the promise of immediate seating elsewhere. "I like what I do. I like to serve people," he says as we wait for the server meeting to begin.

J.C. says he has a twin brother who works at another restaurant. They live together in the Grove. "I can walk to work," he says. "I have enough money to go on vacation and buy nice furniture. I just bought a new flat-screen television. There's nothing better."

Waiting tables is in some ways like being a pediatrician or a teacher: "I serve these families. They come to me. They come to J.C. I've seen babies grow up and even get married. This is my family."

Nancy is one of J.C.'s regulars. Wearing a velour tracksuit and in her mid-50s, she explains she used to live in the Grove but recently moved to New York. After asking J.C. for an omelet and some juice, she says she's here just for the weekend but that she visits GreenStreet and J.C. whenever she gets the chance. Nancy eats quickly and leaves a $15 tip on a $30 check.

Paul and Terry live only a few blocks away and come in every Sunday. When they arrive, J.C. delivers coffee and skim milk without bothering to ask what they want. For them, the familiar is comforting. Why frequent the same place each week? "You always know what you're going to get," Paul says. They leave a $7 tip on a $35 check.

J.C. is 50 years old and doesn't look like he's in great shape, but that's deceptive. He moves faster than servers half his age. For him, this job is the American dream. Working five shifts a week and taking into account a good season, J.C. says he can make $70,000 a year.

He has worked hard at this job, making friends and steady customers. For many patrons, it's not the food that draws them to GreenStreet. It's the people.

I spoke with dozens of guests on a recent morning. There was single refrain when I asked folks why they came: "The restaurant and J.C. are like family."

Latin Burger and Taco, where the Russian beauty made a run for the casino after getting her order, was one of the first food trucks on the Miami scene when it opened two years ago. The rolling eateries have advantages over traditional restaurants: They're mobile, so owners don't have to pay high-priced leases, and workers I spoke with are generally paid just a couple of bucks above minimum wage.

When I began work on the truck this fall, I quickly learned it was far smaller than it appeared from the outside — and much hotter. It didn't help that it was about 89 degrees outside. The griddle and fryer made the truck feel like a small metal box heated to about 350 degrees. I was the fourth person onboard. In the back, Juan Carlos, the prep guy (no relation to the GreenStreet waiter), was preparing dozens of meat patties. Michael, the cook, had the grill fired up, and Steve, the expediter, was ready to show me what to do. I would be taking Steve's place.

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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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