The Barrio Latino restaurant is bustling when a black 2010 Acura pulls up across the street. A lean young man with caramel skin, a round nose, and spiky black hair steps onto the sidewalk. It's 8 p.m. — four hours until his 39th birthday — but Eddie Santana still looks like a doe-eyed college student.
In reality, he's anything but innocent.
Santana leaves the car running and jogs across Sunset Drive in South Miami. It's a Sunday in late November, and the eatery has been open only a couple of weeks. He's here to pick up $60 in wages for training as a waiter. When he steps through the door, however, owner Edwin Scheer comes tearing around the bar like a linebacker escaping a block. Neighboring restaurants have warned the short, stocky Cuban-American with a salt-and-pepper goatee about the would-be waiter's habit of suing his employers.
"Get out," Scheer says to Santana, gripping him by the shoulder and guiding him toward the exit. "I told you not to come back here."
"Where's my paycheck?" Santana shouts. "You owe me!"
In an instant, the two are out on the street. Customers look up from their ropa vieja and ceviche to see Santana and Scheer pressed chest to chest, spittle and obscenities flying. Suddenly, Santana turns and walks back to his car. He opens the passenger door and reaches under the seat. Then he sprints back across the road toward Scheer with his right hand low and to his side, as if holding a handgun.
Scheer bolts toward his restaurant. But before he can reach the door, something whizzes past his head and across the busy patio before exploding against the restaurant's hurricane-proof glass with a deafening boom. Hearing what they think is a gunshot, customers scream and hit the floor. Santana gets back in his car and screeches off.
He doesn't make it far. An off-duty police officer eating next door hears the bang and dials 911. Cops pull Santana over a few blocks from Barrio Latino and arrest him on charges of assault with a "deadly missile," which turned out to be a water bottle.
The spat is far from over. Scheer made the mistake of messing with South Florida's most infamous — and litigious — waiter. After posting bail, Santana hit Barrio Latino with a lawsuit alleging unpaid wages, false arrest, and false imprisonment. Even as he faces criminal charges, Santana is seeking tens of thousands from Scheer.
"He's going to have to pay for what happened," Santana angrily says of the November incident. "I spent my birthday in jail for nothing. He deserves to go bankrupt paying me for what he did."
To fellow waiters, Santana is an unlikely if not unlikable hero who calls out South Florida restaurants on the hundreds of ways they steal from employees. He terms himself a "revolutionary." But to Scheer and countless other restaurant owners in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, he's a scam artist who does nothing but sue his employers.
The truth is that in the past nine years, Santana has filed 30 lawsuits against companies — nearly all restaurants and bars — for everything from illegal tip pools to excessive uniform costs. He's netted $144,924.79 after attorney's fees from 20 separate settlements. And from the nine suits still pending, he hopes to make another $100,000, if not more. The guy even sued his own brother.
But word has spread about Santana, leaving him practically unemployable. And he might soon repeat the ten-month stint he did in the slammer several years ago. His biggest adversary might end up being himself.
"This guy's crazy," Scheer says of Santana. "Actually, he's not crazy. He's fucking smart."
Santana is all smiles as he leaves the new Miller's Ale House in Coral Gables. It's a warm February afternoon, but he's swaddled in a black dress coat over slacks and a polo shirt with the Ale House logo. A sign outside the pub says it doesn't open until Sunday, but Santana can already smell another lawsuit cooking.
"They're not even open yet, and they're already slipping up," he says gleefully. "They make us go to shift meetings without letting us clock in first. That's unpaid labor. And they're forcing us to give part of our tips to people who shouldn't be getting any. You can't do that shit."
Santana has just finished a full shift, but he's buzzing with manic energy. He says the local restaurant business is shady. "Managers cut corners all the time. They make you pay for your uniform, which they're not supposed to do. They make you buy a new shirt, shoes, pants, a crumber, a bottle opener, even an apron. Then they undercount your hours and take your tips. All that is illegal. All of it."
A few minutes later, he enters Seasons 52, a chain restaurant in the Gables. He sits at an elegant wooden bar next to giant vats of organic, homemade grapefruit vodka and pages through a clownishly oversized menu.