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.
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?"
Shauna Chapman is the only other server on duty this Sunday. Freshly out of a bad relationship, she recently left Boston, the only hometown she's ever known, to return to school in South Florida. Her deep dimples and dark blond ponytail make her look more like a high-school kid than the graduate student she is. She is shy but optimistic about her recent move and new job. "This is the first time I've lived away from Boston, but I'm excited to live somewhere that's warm in the winter," she confides as we prepare napkin rolls for the day.
Breakfast service starts with five Fort Lauderdale firefighters, four men and a woman, who just got off the night shift. Pete takes their food orders. This is the first of many times today that I'll hear a raucous struggle as some guest wants to substitute potatoes for tomatoes ($1 extra) or get a refill on their cup of coffee (75 cents). Sure, the no-substitution rule is handy for wait staff and chefs, but it irritates the patrons.
After about 45 minutes, the check comes, and the firefighters tip generously, about $25 on their $100 check. "Generally the tips are quite generous," Pete says as he sweeps by to pick up the check and the dirty dishes in one graceful move. "No one really gives less than 20 percent."
An older man comes in with a much younger woman. It's hard to tell whether she's a daughter, niece, or girlfriend. He's dressed in khakis, a black Lacoste polo, and driving loafers. She's wearing a Rolex while Dolce and Gabbana sunglasses hold back her shiny, highlighted hair. The man gets coffee and a crab omelet; Miss Rolex goes for a skim latte, an egg-white omelet, and a fruit bowl. "Her salon bill is probably more than my rent," Pete quips. For a $40 check, they leave $12. Again, not bad.
A young couple comes in with a toddler and asks for a booster seat. The restaurant has none, so the couple sits the boy between them. Pete tells me there are no child seats on purpose; kids are messy, and they're not really encouraged here. The couple orders eggs and a pancake and asks for a substitute: "Is there anything besides potatoes?" Yes, grits, but not fruit — that's extra. In this little breakfast house, people mostly go with the flow when they're told they can't get their way.
It's now about 10 a.m. The tables are all filled, and almost a dozen names are on the wait list. Pete and Shauna look less tired than bored. There are four hours to go.
Three retired men walk in, and there's a buzz. Rodney, the owner, says the man in the yellow is the former CEO of Roche Pharmaceuticals. With him are two other men of the same age, mid-60s. One says he's just come back from the Bahamas, where he loaned his yacht to Columbia Sportswear for a photo shoot. It seems he traded his ship for a day of model-watching. The men are jovial, stay for a while, and leave a good tip of about $15 for a $54 bill.
We're well into the morning, and there's an hourlong wait. Every time a party leaves, the table gets bussed almost immediately. The restaurant plays like a good piece of music. A group that had the foresight to bring their own bloody marys in red Solo cups sits outside in a makeshift waiting room. At the outside tables, a young couple with a fluffy Pomeranian in a pink T-shirt grows impatient for food. "We're hungry," the man bellows.
I try to diffuse the situation, but the guy follows me inside and extinguishes his cigarette on the window in anger. It could easily escalate, but Rodney calmly asks the man to leave. Maybe he's embarrassed to be seen with a dog in a pink shirt, but he just exits.
The shift is almost over, and two more couples come in. Over coffees, they pass around a black-and-white grainy picture. It's a sonogram of their first child. "This is the first naked picture of my daughter," jokes the proud father-to-be over his latte.
After a seven-hour shift, the checks are tallied up. My split of the tips is $180. That translates to about $25 an hour from grats alone. In Florida, waiters also make a minimum wage of $4.65 per hour from the house. If I were working full-time, that would equal about $55,000 a year — double the average security guard and nearly equal to a low-ranking beat cop.
Pete tells me he's worked at just about every high-end restaurant in Fort Lauderdale since coming to Florida nearly three decades earlier. Though he admits he could make more money working a dinner service, he considers O-B his place. "It might not be my restaurant, but it's my vision," he tells me. "I tell Rodney every day — it's your money, but it's my restaurant."
Then Pete confesses the real reason he's serving breakfast. "Could I make more money at night? Fuck yeah, but then I'd be doing coke, chasing women, and getting into trouble."
Red the Steakhouse is a very different kind of restaurant. It's one of the upscale eateries that have made SoFi — the once-ghetto, now-chichi area south of Fifth Street — into the center of the Miami Beach restaurant universe. Executive chef Peter Vauthy takes pride in selling Wagyu steaks that have pedigrees longer than an Oxford graduate's and sell for upward of $20 an ounce. The restaurant's modern décor of dark brown, white, and red blends well with the traditional steak-house service. It's a restaurant that's just right for dates and business meetings.
I'm shadowing Chris Carr, a 26-year-old guy who's made waiting tables his career. He looks just like Will Smith from his Fresh Prince days. Tall and thin, he's 90 percent swagger and 10 percent little boy. Chris shows me how to dip each preset wineglass in hot water until steam engulfs it, then wipe it down so there are no smudges from the dishwasher. All silverware has to be exactly a thumb's length apart.
At 5:30 p.m., the staff gathers for a family meal. It's lasagna — oily, cheesy, and hot, the kind of meal waiters like and hostesses skip. The chef goes over some specials, then notes this is likely the last week of king crab season. But there's still a monster left in the cooler if someone wants to impress a date. One intact crustacean was sold earlier in the week for more than $200.
At 6 p.m., the doors open, but Chris tells me things won't pick up until at least 7:30. He has been with Red since it opened about three years ago. Originally from New Jersey, he moved to Davie to attend Nova Southeastern University. He took a job at a restaurant to make some pocket money, and when he heard Red was hiring, he moved to Miami. He's made the place his career, even quitting school against his parents' wishes.
Chris explains the tip-out situation. This is a high-volume, expensive place where a New York strip steak can go for $48. A lot of players dip into the tip pool: 5 percent goes to the bar, 3 percent to the bussers, and 1.5 percent to runners, who help serve the food to patrons. "It doesn't matter," he says. " One big tipper can make the night."
Rosie O'Donnell, for instance. A frequent diner, she comes in early with her family and tips generously — sometimes the equivalent of the check. Since dinner for her party can range upward of $500, one visit from O'Donnell or another A-lister pays the rent for the month.
At 7 p.m., the room is still virtually empty. There is one couple dining, not in Chris' section. The music is soft, and a bottle of Louis Trey cognac sits alone on a cart, lit candles surrounding it like a shrine.
Four men aged 20 to 50 in crumpled suits, looking like they've come straight from a business meeting, are seated at 7 p.m. Chris takes their cocktail orders, then tells me of the Red waiter's recipe: Take drink orders and water preferences. Six minutes later, describe specials (make sure you've memorized them). Chris talks up the meat: "The steaks are certified Angus prime. Every one is served at the perfect temperature."
They all order the steaks; then, as they eat, an older couple is seated. They're in from New York. The man is a president at Chase Manhattan Bank. He tells Chris their concierge recommended Red. As the waiter takes drink orders, another couple is seated.
Chris tells me the second couple is on a first date. They're sitting side by side on the long banquette. "I suggested they sit that way," Chris tells me. "I saw them pull up in a McLaren AMG. They're going to tip big. I can feel it."
For Chris, this is a game of Monopoly in which the player with the biggest bank at the end of the night wins.
At 8 p.m., a four-top of IBM staffers comes in. There's a clear leader in the group who orders starters for everyone. Two $200 bottles of wine are requested, along with drinks. One man wants a piece of fish, and the leader at the table disapproves. Seafood is a sign of weakness in whatever test this dinner has become.
Chris moves like Gregory Hines, practically tap-dancing from table to table. In fact, his spiel is a form of a dance. Women are beautiful and are meant to be flattered. Men should be upsold with pitches like, "The sommelier just purchased this vintage today, and I'll give it to you for just $125. I suggest lobster mac and cheese."
I initially think that this might be a bit much, but I'm wrong. His gentle but insistent pushing of crab, straight from the Bering Sea to your table in Miami Beach, his insistence that the extra $50 for lobster in the macaroni and cheese is well worth it, are not wasted on this table. He's offered a job at IBM. Chris is excited. I'm certain that the offer, like the side dish, will be forgotten tomorrow.
Chris glides from table to table, 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. Chris is disappointed. So far, the night isn't going his way. But it's still early.
The IBM'ers leave $100 on a $500 check. That's good news. The bad news is that another two-top, a restaurant owner from Italy and his wife in Miami on vacation, leaves $5 on a $162 check.
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 come home with $150. Not too shabby for three hours of hustling. Chris works as many shifts as he can, and on a busy day, he says he can make double this. 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 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 started 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 tells me as we wait for the server meeting to start.
J.C. tells me he has a twin brother who works at another restaurant. They live together in Coconut 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 that she used to live in the Grove but recently moved to New York. After asking J.C. for an omelet and a juice, she says that 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 for a $30 check.
Paul and Terry live only a few blocks away and come in every Sunday. When they walk in, J.C. brings coffee and skim milk without bothering to ask what they want. They're regulars too. For them, the familiar is comforting. Why come to the same place each week? "You always know what you're going to get," he says. They leave a $7 tip on a $35 check.
J.C. is 50 years old and doesn't look in great shape, but that's deceptive. He moves faster than other 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. tells me he can make $70,000 a year.
He's worked hard at this job, making friends and steady customers. For many, it's not the food that draws people 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."
Miami has gone through so many changes in its short municipal life that continuity in any form can be a real draw — for servers and for patrons.
Latin Burger & 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 they don't have to pay high-priced leases. And though food charges can be steep — a macho burger goes for $6.25 and a taco trio for $10 — 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 that 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 it 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.
I quickly learned to use the cash register and the credit card machine and 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 started forming, and by 6:30, I was in the weeds. About ten tickets were lined up over the grill. And it didn't matter how quickly I took the orders; things just kept backing up.
How the hell do people at 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 down a bit, a deaf 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 written: "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 backtalk 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 equates to a big tipper in the food-truck game.
"Aren't you hot in there?" a customer asked as she bought $30 worth of food on her Visa card and generously 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 am. The only thing I thought about was a shower. And about 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 Jupino. This had to be a good night, I thought, as I saw people putting dollars in the tip jar all evening.
As we closed the register, I counted the tips. There was $72.50 in there, including the 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 went home with 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 at least go home with enough money to fill their cars with gas.
I asked Heins what the guys on the truck make, and he told me their pay was $8 to $10 per hour, depending on experience. He also noted, with a little headshake, that that's before taxes.
As I drove home, I got a whiff of myself and thought two things: My dogs were going to love me, and I needed 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 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: a whopping $70.62, far less than I'd earned in the restaurants.
How do food trucks find cooks and servers who put up with it?
They hire guys like Steven Korosi — the sometimes expediter, sometimes prep guy on Latin Burger — who are thankful for any kind of food job.
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A year ago, Korosi was couch-surfing at a friend's house after his mother died and the construction engineering company she owned closed. Steve 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 get his own efficiency close to the Metrorail. Steve has a two-year degree in music education from Miami-Dade College and hopes to start teaching 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 Korosi complaining from the back of his food truck.
"I've gone through a long stretch of tragedies and upheavals," he says. "The work at Latin Burger has allowed me to focus on getting by. Hey, in this economy? I'm just happy to be making any money at all."