In 1913, Joe Weiss opened up a small lunch counter on Miami Beach. This was before Miami Beach was even a city. Folks stopped in to chat and for a top-notch fish sandwich and fries. This, of course, was only the beginning, and what happened next is a story worth telling.
Joseph Weiss-the "Joe" of Joe's Stone Crab-came to Miami in 1913, when his doctors told him that the only help for his asthma would be a change of climate. Joe and his wife, Jennie, both Hungarian-born, were living in New York, where their son Jesse was born in 1907. Joe was a waiter, and Jennie cooked in small restaurants. Some seventy years later, Jesse recalled the move: "My dad borrowed fifty dollars on his life insurance policy, left my mother and me in New York, and came to Florida...He stayed in Miami one night, and he couldn't breathe. So he took the ferry boat that used to go to Miami Beach. Oddly enough, he could breathe there." So, he stayed and started running a lunch stand at Smith's bathing casino. That was the beginning of the restaurant that was the seed for Joe’s. According to JoAnn, Joe’s granddaughter, "You'd come over and rent lockers to change your clothes to use the ocean or use the pool. The women used to have the long bathing suits with the stockings...that was 1913. He sent for my mother and myself-she had this brat on her hands. We came down by train; I was six years old when we arrived. Collins Avenue was not really a street-it was sort of a trail with ruts in it. In 1918, Joe and Jennie bought a bungalow near the casino, on Biscayne Street. They moved into the back, set up seven or eight tables on the front porch, cooked in the kitchen, and called it Joe's Restaurant."
Jennie waited on tables, Joe cooked, and everything started to grow from there. They served snapper, pompano, mackerel, and some meat dishes.
"We used to open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner in those days," Jesse remembered, "because we were the only restaurant on the beach. For about eight years there was no competition. And my father made a hell of a fish sandwich."
As in the early days, Joe did the cooking, Jennie ran the dining room. "She was a tough old broad," Jesse remembered: She reminded me of some of those old Zane Grey books, where the madam is tough as hell but all heart. If she didn't like you she wouldn't let you in. Let's say a man was married and coming in with his wife. Then, another time, he'd try to come in with his girlfriend-out! She's just as soon say, "Don't bring your tramp friends in here"
Who's going to fight with an old lady? So that was that.
Other clients were captains of a different sort of industry. But Jennie Weiss had her own criteria for who belonged at Joe's: Al Capone came in, and he used the name Al Brown. Every day at 5 o'clock (because no one dined 'til about 5:30, 6:00 P.M.), he'd pull up with his entourage and sit down and have dinner and go. One night Jennie walked up to Mr. Capone. She said, "Mr. Brown, I must tell you something. If I don't like somebody, I don't allow them to come in here, but you've always been a gentleman, and anytime you want to come into this restaurant, you can." It touched him. Every Mother's Day, up pulled a truck with flowers, a horseshoe reading, "Good Luck Mother Joe's." She never realized who he really was but she had heard somebody mention, that's so and so.
By this time, Joe's was off and running. "We got the 'in-crowd; the society crowd,"; Jesse remembered. "At that time, we could seat maybe forty or fifty."
But stone crabs were yet to come. In fact, no one then knew that this local crustacean was even edible.
In 1921, James Allison built an aquarium at the foot of the bay and Fifth Street. "He got all hopped up on having marine research done," Jesse said. "I used to go up in the lab and watch them work."
Allison invited a Harvard ichthyologist down to do research. One of them came down one day and said to Joe,
"Have you ever used these stone crabs, these crabs from the water?"
At that time, Joe’s was serving crawfish, all kinds of fish-but not stone crabs.
"Nobody will eat them," Joe said.
That was at breakfast. That day when the ichthyologist came down for lunch, he brought a burlap sack, full of live stone crabs. He and Joe went around and around about how to cook them. Do you broil them, or what do you do with them?
Jesse remembers, "My dad threw the stone crabs in boiling water and that was the beginning of it. The bay was full of them! When we started serving them chilled and cracked with hash brown potatoes, cole slaw, and mayonnaise, they were an instant success. We charged seventy-five cents for four or five crabs, twenty-five cents for potatoes and twenty-five cents an order for cole slaw. And this is the way we have been serving them since. We hit the jackpot with that one!"
His parents started Joe's, but Jesse Weiss was the key figure in consolidating the prominence the restaurant still enjoys. "Jesse was a character," says one longtime Miami resident. "He was a scoundrel, a womanizer to the hundredth degree, a gambler. But everyone who came into Joe's wanted to see Jesse. He knew everyone- movie stars, journalists, politicians, sports people, gangsters. He would come by your table and it was a big deal. He was a Damon Runyon character."
Runyon himself, not surprisingly, was a longtime friend of Jesse's.
"It was Jesse's disposition that brought Joe's so many VIP's," said his wife, Grace. "Because he had that personality. And he never burdened them with anything but a gift of love."
Like all once-in-a-lifetime personalities, Jesse is almost impossible to describe (and some of the descriptions, while accurate, are hard to believe). Seldom without a great story, a cigar and a welcoming embrace, Jesse was indeed the character behind Joe’s success.
His own recollections, as well as those of his family and many friends, give a pretty fair idea of the man, who enjoys a place among legendary twentieth-century American restaurateurs.
When Jesse Weiss was seventy-five, Miami anchorperson Ann Bishop spent many hours recording his memories. Here's how Jesse concluded the interview: "I want to be remembered as trying to live my life with as little aggravation for others than I have for myself. Unfortunately, I'm a Hungarian, and I'm hot-headed... I think my daughter tells people, don't pay attention to that, and she's smart about it. She's my pride and joy. She's a great mother, she's a great gal, she's got an awful lot of class. She's not money-hungry, she's fast to do for others. I'm proud of what others have done keeping Joe's going, which I consider a monument to myself. The family all do a hell of a job. I've had a good life. Now I want to say one more thing. I'm the most fortunate man in the world, for one reason! My daughter Jo Ann. She has my hot Hungarian temper, but like me, she forgets what she got angry about five minutes after she got angry... and I love her dearly."
Anyone well known who came to Miami Beach, from anywhere in the world, would stop in at Joe's. A list of Jesse's acquaintances, several of whom became lifelong close friends, forms a veritable Who's Who of the twentieth century. Will Rogers. "Will Rogers was Will Rogers," Jesse remembered. "As homespun as anybody could be-I liked him a lot.") Amelia Earhart. ("She was down to earth. You knew where you stood with her, there was no pretense.") The Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Gloria Swanson, America's closest thing to royalty. (Jesse: "I thought she was this little doll. She used to come in here with Joseph Kennedy, who was her great love, but I didn't know it then! Hell, I was worried about my own sex life.") J. Edgar Hoover. ("I was closer to J. Edgar Hoover than I was to anyone else. I used to call him Gatling Gun Joe.") Walter Winchell and Damon Runyon, who both helped fan the flames of the Joe's Stone Crab legend.
For more than 100 years, no visit to Miami has been complete without stopping in at Joe's Stone Crab. From the beginning, it has always been the love of food, family, and friends that has brought in customers and kept them coming. Again and again, Joe's owners and employees credit the restaurant's success to its family solidarity.
They're referring not only to the Weiss family, of which Jo Ann is the third generation, her children, Stephen and Jodi, the fourth, Stephen’s daughter, Julia and Jodi's children, Jessica, Lauren, and Blake, the fifth, but also to the extended family of Joe's employees, many of whom have been with Joe's for as long as fifty years.
Some have even seen their children enter and stay with Joe's. You really can't understand the great feeling of love and kindness that the family of Joe's has for all of the employees, unless you are one of the lucky ones who work there. All the employees have a kind of a common bond of success here, where everybody works together. It's the family touch that's made Joe's as successful as it is.