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.