Working at Miami restaurants and food trucks: The inside scoop

I quickly learned to use the cash register and the credit card machine and then was thrown into the fray. At 6:10, I was into my shift. The evening started slowly, thankfully, when a guy in his early 20s with striking blue eyes walked up. As he was waiting for his meal, he told me his name, Doran, and that he's studying to be a chef; he showed me a picture of himself with well-known Miami restaurateur Michelle Bernstein. When I handed him his food, he put three bucks in the tip jar for a $12 check.

Soon, though, a line formed, and by 6:30, I was in the weeds. About ten tickets were lined up over the grill. And it didn't matter how fast I took the orders — things just kept backing up.

How in hell do people at the Cheesecake Factory work with 30-page menus? There was a whole lingo I had to learn for the tickets: Two Latin Macho Burgers, a Burger Beast (a mammoth exercise in mass consumption), and large fries were 2Xmacho, 1BB, 1LF.

When things slowed a bit, a hearing-impaired kid looking a little like Kurt from Glee — young and cute — approached. Clutching an iPhone and a glittery white wallet, he made some hand gestures that let me know he was mute. Then he pointed to his phone. He had typed, "Chicken tomatillo and a side of avocado dressing." Pretty simple. Except I rang it up as a chicken tomatillo taco and not a quesadilla. I got some back talk in sign language. After I rewrote the ticket, he blew me a kiss and showed me his phone, where he'd written, "Thank you you're the best." Then he left two bucks for a $10 order. That equated to a big tip in the food truck game.

"Aren't you hot in there?" a customer asked as she charged $30 worth of food on her Visa card and added a buck for a tip.

"Uh, yes, I am hot." I felt grease embedding every pore of my body. Steve told me that when I got in my car at the end of the shift, I'd really be able to smell just how greasy and meaty I was. The only thing I thought about was a shower. And a gallon of ice water.

At 9:30, the crowd died down considerably. And by 10, we filled out the last ticket of the night. Thank God. We were out of almost everything but burgers. No more chicken tomatillo, fish, Sprite, or Jupiña. This had to be a good night, I thought, because I saw people putting dollars in the tip jar all evening.

As we closed the register, I counted the tips. There was $72.50, including tips from charges. I'd rung up $1,390 for the evening's service. That worked out to about 5 percent in tips, to be divided among four people. We each made less than $20.

Latin Burger's owner, Jim Heins, then walked over, checked out the tips, and pulled $80 from a roll of bills in his pocket. He said he always puts in a little something himself so the guys can go home with at least enough money to fill their cars with gas.

I asked Heins what the guys on the truck make, and he said $8 to $10 per hour, depending on experience. He also noted, with a little headshake, that's before taxes.

As I drove home, I got a whiff of myself and thought two things: My dogs are going to love me, and I need to take a really long shower. But first I had to stop at the nearest Walgreens to buy about ten bottles of ice-cold water.

The next day, I woke up with no aches or pains, which was a good sign. I felt great as I walked into the bathroom. Then I looked in the mirror. My face and chest were bright pink, my eyes were nearly swollen shut, and my lips looked like I'd had collagen injections. It was a reaction to being near the heat from the griddle and fryer all night and a souvenir from working on the truck.

My total wages for the night: $70.62, far less than I had earned at the restaurants.

How do food truck owners find cooks and servers who put up with it?

They hire guys like Steve Korosi — the sometimes-expediter, sometimes-prep guy at Latin Burger — who are thankful for any kind of job.

A year ago, Steve was couch-surfing at a friend's house after his mother died and the construction engineering company she owned closed. He had been working for his mom while taking care of his father, who was diagnosed with dementia, when the bottom dropped out. Suddenly he was left without a job or a home.

"I found out that Latin Burger was hiring, and I've been here since," he says. The position has allowed him to rent an efficiency close to the Metrorail. Steve has a two-year degree in music education from Miami Dade College and hopes to teach one day.

In the meantime, his work might be hot, awful, and poorly paid — even compared to other restaurant jobs — but you won't hear him complaining from the back of the food truck.

"I've gone through a long stretch of tragedies and upheavals. The work at Latin Burger has allowed me to focus on getting by," he says. "Hey, in this economy, I'm just happy to be making any money at all."

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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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