Our Intrepid Reporter Goes Undercover and Takes Your Order

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

From the corner of my eye, I spot a bottle blond with breasts spilling from her casino-issued, white, buttoned-down shirt. After about ten minutes in line, 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.

Illustration by Jen Hsieh
Illustration by Jen Hsieh

There are already more than a dozen tickets stacked up, but I don't let her know that. She stands in front of the window for about ten more minutes, 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 more than blondie. Short and wearing a Hurricanes sweatshirt in the 80-degree night, 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 his burgers and tacos and is 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 a $245 Kobe porterhouse from Steak 954, to college kids, who grab $2.50 tacos al carbon from El Jefe Luchador in Deerfield Beach.

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 decided to see what really goes on backstage. I shadowed waiters and worked at three restaurants in Miami and Fort Lauderdale and in a food truck. I also talked with dozens of employees from around the area about their jobs, pay, and tips.

At one place where I worked, my face and lips swelled up like a Botoxed Real Housewife from the intense heat of the griddles. At another, I watched in wonder as the self-proclaimed owner of a restaurant in Italy left a $5 tip on a nearly $200 check. A female 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 the paying customers.

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

Take Steven Korosi, 35, who's worked a little more than a year at Latin Burger and Taco's truck.

He wears many hats, from expediter to manager, and yet still makes about half what the typical restaurant worker 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, 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's invoked 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. Pete came to Miami from New Castle, England, in 1982 in search of Fort Lauderdale's legendary beaches and bikinis. Back in the day, Pete was a punk rocker, but now in his mid-50s, his Doc Martins are the only remnants of his misspent youth. "We're short a server," he tells me while naming the special muffins of the day. "Can you bus the tables?"

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8 comments
ted anthony inserra
ted anthony inserra

WHAT a great article, thanks Laine for that inside look in the rerstaurant business.  It is a well written article from the server point of view, very interesting!!

danton
danton

So I'm on a Mary higgins Clark book, and just returned a M.c Beaton one.This one is called Santa Cruise.The other one I just returned was called farewell to christmas.

VivlianWozz
VivlianWozz

Another restaurant cliaimed to use freshmozz arella cheese,where it's dishes were actually made with economycheddar.the "fresh pasta"advertieshed on another meau tumed out to befrozen.--Agedate. ℃⊙M--a nice and free placefor younger women and older men,or older women and younger men,to interact witheach other.

R. D. M.
R. D. M.

no one over 25 should be a waiter, get a real job and add something to the world.  

and as far as tipping, if your lifestyle hinges on whether I give you $5 or $10, you need another job

former waiter
former waiter

I don't tip at burger king, mcdonalds, or pretty much anywhere its self serve.  and food trucks are self serve.  there is no 'service'  you order food, and you pick it up.

-I don't tip for pickup at pizza hut either.

Why would anyone working on a food truck expect tips?  Do you tip at Macy's?   

FQS9000
FQS9000

Nice article, but it isn't a big surprise that working hard and knowing your job pays off.  It is also no surprise that some jobs pay better than others.  BTW, I never tip at fast food joints and TIPS stands for 'To ensure Prompt Service'.  Tipping fast food guys apparently gets you nothing unless you have big honkers.

danton
danton

I was just thinking of JWOWW and AMY FISHER....at least AMY has a porno.

danton
danton

so, last tuesday I moved a moving truck for 40 dollars, on thursday I did windows for 20, and yesterday I did trash removal and swept a gas station lot and removed cobwebs for a pack of ciggarettes and 5 dollars and 1 24 oz. natural light.Is that awesome?

 
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