Waiting for a Shot at the Big Show

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.

Joe's management contends that the numerical grading system used during roll call is impartial on race, age, or gender. After completing the interviews Tuesday, the three staffers went into an upstairs office and began tabulating their evaluation cards. Each applicant was given a grade between 70 and 100 in each of the three categories of appearance, experience, and ability, e.g., how they handled the tray. The points for each applicant were then added and divided by three, and those with the highest scores were offered a job. Women, points out Joe's lawyer Robert Hertzberg, have accounted for 22 percent of all hires in the Nineties.

So what's that special something one needs?
Hard to say, according to Sawitz, but he's impressed with anyone who has worked at high-volume restaurants, such as Bob Chin's in Chicago or Tavern on the Green in New York City, that are renowned for quality service. That experience indicates the applicant can handle the mentally and physically demanding, often seemingly chaotic, job. "All our servers have dynamite personalities and seem to develop their own personas here," says Sawitz, "but I would describe the style as efficient. They're efficient and proud."

Perhaps applicants would do well to emulate the interviewers. It's not surprising, for example, that 43-year-old Dennis Sutton is a maitre d'. The man has personality: lots of smiles, engaging eyes. He pays attention. Even his brisk call to the help -- "Tss tss" -- sounds good-spirited, and it works. When the restaurant is swamped and the staff is in the weeds, especially between 8:00 and 10:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday and after 5:00 p.m. Sunday, Sutton seems the type who would be unflappable, confident, even gracious.

"If I knew specifically what they wanted I'd do it," declares Scott Bernard after his second interview in two years. He was applicant number 42 last year; this year he's number 67. Last year he was hired, trained for five days, and then let go after his first real day on the job. "I remember everything about that day," says the 46-year-old Bernard. "The conversations, the tips, what they ate for lunch. I was feeling like, this is great. I'm working for Joe's. The next day, I got a Dear John letter. It really breaks your heart."

Put on waivers, huh?
"Yeah, as a matter of fact that's the word he used," Bernard recalls. "He said he was putting me on waivers. Like I was a quarterback with a bad leg."

Slight and sad-looking, Bernard is a dead ringer for the late John Cazale, who played the role of Fredo in the first two Godfather movies. He pulls a pack of Marlboros from an inside pocket of his JC Penney suit jacket and lights up. "He really didn't give me a reason," he continues. "I don't know if I needed a new jacket or if I needed to correct my service stance or what."

A waiter for sixteen years, Bernard works at two upscale restaurants, the Crystal Cafe and La Gorce Country Club. He is married and has two children. A job at Joe's would double his income. "This is the best job in the city and everybody knows it," he attests. "You make as much as a bad attorney or a good used car salesman. It's definitely a status thing."

One of the last applicants to interview is Michelle Espegio, a fit and attractive 27-year-old with long blond hair. She is better known as "Miki" around South Beach, where she has been bartending on the club circuit the last several years. The fact that she hasn't carried a serving tray since 1991 didn't worry her -- at first.

"I thought it would be easy, like doing the Hula-Hoop," she says with a swirl of her hips, minutes after her tryout. "But my knees started to wobble, and I was like, 'Holy moly.' I was shaky and nervous."

Miki, a Miami native whose father once valet-parked cars at Joe's, called New Times the next day with a bit of news:

"I got the job!


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