News Detail

Stephen Sawitz ’75: Tradition and Innovation

Stephen Sawitz ’75 slid into a chair in a private dining room – “Jesse’s Room” – named for his grandfather at Joe’s Stone Crab restaurant. Sepia-toned portraits of Sawitz’s great-grandparents, Joe’s co-founders, hung just behind his head. Down the hallway, preparations for the day were underway: Oven-ready dishes of lobster macaroni and cheese lined a stainless steel counter, vegetables steamed above huge vats of boiling water, and a handful of cooks, accountants, shippers – and Sawitz’s 86-year-old mother, wearing a cotton hoodie, jeans and comfortable shoes – started their shifts.
Sawitz peered through dark-rimmed glasses with delighted eyes. He told stories, pumping out memories with the same grinning energy that seems to drive everything he does. He recalled his days at the restaurant at age eight, trying to peel potatoes faster than the grown-up members of the kitchen staff. There were Sunday dinners at the restaurant’s family table, which included his parents, grandparents and “extended family” – by which Sawitz meant everyone who worked at Joe’s.
Sawitz recalled the discussions over decades – decades – about raising the price of the fried chicken, which has been, and, Sawitz acknowledged with a shake of his head, likely will forever remain, $6.95 (it sits on the menu under the $43.95 center-cut filet).
A man in a white chef’s coat opened the door and stepped into the room. “Can I interrupt?” he said. “Jon Bon Jovi wants to meet you.”
Sawitz, the restaurant’s chief operating officer, followed the staff member to the kitchen. Bon Jovi, assisting his son with the promotion of a new rosé just introduced to the market, offered a handshake and turned to his young business partner: “This is my son, Jesse,” Bon Jovi said. “My grandfather’s name was Jesse!” Sawitz responded, then ushered the pair on a tour of the restaurant.
Celebrity interactions are almost as common at Joe’s as the daily stone crab deliveries from Everglades City and Marathon, but Sawitz still marvels that a tiny, unpretentious fish shack that opened in 1913 and added stone crabs to the menu in 1921 has catapulted so far into Miami’s culinary consciousness that the rich and famous want to meet him. Today, more than a century after its founding, Joe’s Stone Crab remains family owned and operated, a Miami institution, an iconic meeting spot, an adored remnant of another era, and a magnet for tourists and celebrities.
And Sawitz, the family’s fourth generation, is at the wheel. He’s the latest to manage the family business, a labor of love and loyalty that nearly every day requires him to toe the line between tradition and reinvention, wisdom and passion.
“You’ve gotta be open to change, because if you don’t change, you’re not going to evolve,” Sawitz said. “But by the same token, you have to be consistent with what you do. Consistency is a very important practice here.”
A Joe’s tradition: Taking care of its employees
The consistency extends to the wait staff. Sawitz estimates that the average length of service of the 44 servers who hustle nightly across the expansive dining room in dinner jackets and bow ties is more than 15 years. Working at Joe’s is considered a major boon, not for the quality of the food, but the quality of the family. Staff members enjoy daily meals with the rest of the team at the start of each lunch and dinner shift. A covered staff parking lot erected next to the restaurant in 1995 offers convenient employee parking. Given the infrequency of staff departures, landing a job at Joe’s can seem as competitive as getting into an Ivy League college. Groups of siblings, generations of families and even husbands and wives have held jobs at Joe’s. The ashes of one former waiter are scattered on the restaurant lawn. “We do have every known benefit,” Sawitz’s mother, Jo Ann Weiss Sawitz Bass, said. “We had insurance plans, pension plans, profit sharing, all way back when when nobody knew what we were talking about. We have always believed we’re all in this together.”
Sawitz’s mother still toils daily – “I won’t work five days a week,” she said – overseeing staff, monitoring the dining room and approving all major decisions. She jokes that she has worked at Joe’s for every one of her 86 years. Her mother died when she was six months old, so she grew up in the kitchen, learning the business and, in many ways, raised by the staff. Her fondness for those who work at Joe’s is deep and highly personal, and has been passed down to her son.
“Steve and Jo Ann, they’ll give people the opportunity to work their way upward,” said Howard Zeifman, a manager who started at Joe’s in 1981 as a security officer. “It really says something about Joe’s. It’s a family, bottom line. It’s the family. Fourth generation, 104, 105 years going into next season. They take care of their employees.”
And they don’t particularly relish calling them “employees.”
A branding/media consultant was paid to assist the family during a dinner at Joe’s in 2006 with President George W. Bush. He was admonished by Sawitz’s mother for introducing himself as a “spokesman for Joe’s Stone Crab.” The consultant asked the family matriarch what title she preferred, then ordered new business cards that read: “Friend of the Family.”
Shaping up at the Ransom School
This is the world in which Sawitz grew up. He never knew staff as “staff.” He recalled employees by their nicknames: “The Rabbi.” “Gray.” “Sea Breeze.” Unlike his mother, however, he did not reside in an apartment above the restaurant. He lived in a home in Miami Shores with parents Jo Ann and Irwin Sawitz and sister Jodi Hershey.
Sawitz’s mother hoped her children would choose another career path. As much as she loved Joe’s and its employees, she understood the all-consuming nature of the hospitality industry. Putting one’s heart and soul into a restaurant requires working nights, weekends, holidays. She wanted to make sure her children had every opportunity to aspire beyond the walls of Joe’s, which is one of the reasons she pulled Sawitz out of his public middle school and sent him to the Ransom School in the eighth grade. She knew Ransom would position him to succeed no matter what career path he chose.
“He was making excellent grades, but wasn’t cracking a book,” she said. “I knew there was something wrong somewhere. Then he got to Ransom and he had to work. I loved it for him. I loved the school.”
When Sawitz arrived to Ransom from Horace Mann Middle School, he, too, fell in love. No one knew him as the kid from Joe’s. He was just Steve. “I didn’t even know Joe’s place in history,” he said. “I didn’t wear it on my sleeve at all.” He ran cross country. He played soccer under Jim Beverley ’62 on one of the school’s best teams ever. He listened whenever Dan Bowden held court. He knew everyone in his class of just over 50 students.
He also learned about effort and results. When his grade in algebra dipped below a B, then lower still, he started to worry, then began showing up for teacher’s office hours after school. He asked questions. He started to study. The results were immediate.
 “He was very hard-working, very intent on making the grade,” Beverley said. “It was the same thing on the soccer field. He worked very hard and very intelligently.”
When Sawitz turned 16, his parents bought him a car so they would be spared the long drives to Coconut Grove. But with that automobile came a condition: Sawitz had to work one or two weekend days at Joe’s Stone Crab, and on holidays when help was most needed. “I wasn’t being groomed to take over the business,” he said. “It was just: ‘You’re getting a car, so you’re working.’”
He cleaned and peeled shrimp and potatoes, served shifts in the pantry, or “the hole” as it was called, opening clams or oysters, and labored in the dishwashing area. Despite the long hours, he deeply appreciated the time with his maternal grandfather, Jesse, who still lived in the apartment above the restaurant.
“I look back at that time with zero regrets,” he said. “I got time to spend with my family, my grandparents and the grandfather I adored. Little did I realize, it was kind of a set up.”
Sawitz accepted an offer of college admission from Cornell University, where he majored in hotel and restaurant management and tried, for four years, to adjust to the frigid winters in Ithaca, N.Y. He spent his summers at restaurants or programs in the New York area, but instead of getting closer to launching into the world beyond the family business, he became increasingly determined to take back to Joe’s what he was learning in college.
“I didn’t know what winter was really about,” he said. “I’d seen snow before; I knew it was cold, but I had no idea what it was like to live there, to walk on ice, to fall on ice … Four brutal years of winter chased me back to Miami.”
A return home and new start
His return represented both a homecoming and a launch. His parents wanted to make sure there was enough work to support another full-time employee, so they decided to bring back lunch for the first time since World War II. Armed with a college degree and fresh ambition, Sawitz assumed responsibility for the new shift. Summoning the work ethic he had honed at Ransom Everglades, he was determined to prove himself up to the task – and more.
“I was jumping into a place with a well-established culture,” he recalled. “I didn’t just work lunch, I worked dinners. Every day it was a minimum of 10-12 hours.”
Sawitz toiled and brainstormed. He recognized that though the price of Joe’s fried chicken represented a slice of tradition that should never change, certain adaptations were imperative. On his watch, after decades of employing short-order cooks, Joe’s Stone Crab began hiring full-fledged chefs who expanded and improved the menu. And, after years of packing to-go stone crab orders in aluminum-foil-lined tomato boxes to honor the special requests of customers, Joe’s opened a take-out store in 1987.
In 1994-95, Sawitz oversaw the enlargement of the take-away storefront, relocation of the restaurant entrance, addition of a covered parking lot and construction of a large bar.
Sawitz also brought about the expansion of Joe’s fisheries in Marathon and Everglades City. He helped institute a now-thriving overnight retail and wholesale shipping option, which does non-stop business during the Christmas and New Year’s holiday. He spearheaded the launch of partner restaurants in Chicago (2000), Las Vegas (2004) and Washington, D.C. (2014).
“Plenty of students who get into the family business cripple the business,” Beverley said. “He tripled the business. But all the time, he was maintaining the structure of the old place.”
Sawitz isn’t sure precisely when he took command, in part because his mother remains so involved. “There is definitely a connection with Steve. We can almost read each other’s minds,” she said with a grin, “though he doesn’t always like what he’s reading.”
Even with the growth, the take-out, the mail orders and the expansions, dinner time at the Miami Beach location remains Joe’s core business. Joe’s Stone Crab and its partners serve 2,000 pounds of stone crabs daily. Even 100 years later, the majority of those crabs land on dinner tables on South Beach.
“That’s our priority,” Sawitz said. “That’s our big show. That’s prime time.”
Amazing days
The Joe’s Stone Crab family wants celebrities to feel as at home as everyone else, so the family has resisted the temptation to document noteworthy visits with photos. Guests will find no wall of stars at Joe’s, no room memorializing the famous who have walked through the restaurant doors. All Sawitz has are his memories. Even years later, they amaze him.
He has met Muhammad Ali, Coretta Scott King, Sandra Day O’Connor, Bill and Hillary Clinton, George H. W. Bush, Barack Obama, Paul McCartney, Don Shula, Dwyane Wade, Vince Lombardi, Jack Paar, Howard Cosell, Larry King, Gloria and Emilio Estefan, Billy Joel, Emeril Lagasse, Tom Brokaw, Billy Crystal, Tom Cruise, Will Smith, Sharon Stone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Madonna, Ted Kennedy, Andy Garcia, Martha Stewart, Bob Griese, Michael Jordan, O.J. Simpson, Siegfried and Roy, Robert Wagner, Warren Burger, Al Gore, the entire University of Miami football team under Larry Coker …
… and too many others to list here. And stories. He has so many stories.
He got a personal call in the mid-1990s from then-Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles, who explained that President Bill Clinton was about to announce that Miami had been selected as the host city for the Summit of the Americas. Chiles asked Sawitz to deliver stone crabs to the White House for the occasion.
“When do you need them?” Sawitz asked.
“Tomorrow,” Chiles said.
“But I’m in Miami,” Sawitz replied.
“You’re going to have to find a way to get them up there,” Chiles said.
It was past 3 p.m. “I’m thinking, I don’t have a hotel room, I don’t have a flight,” Sawitz said. “Am I going to have to charter a plane? This is like Mission Impossible.”
Yet within an hour, Sawitz had called his travel agent, packed a bag, fed his cat, and stopped at the restaurant to pick up stone crabs packed in styrofoam and stuffed in a Joe’s Stone Crab box. He raced up I-95 to the Fort Lauderdale International Airport with enough stone crabs for the president and first lady. As he trudged to his seat in the back of the airplane, a passenger seated in first class said glibly:
“How much can I pay you for those crabs?”
Sawitz, a bundle of nerves and adrenalin, clutched the box more tightly and kept walking.
“There’s no amount of money in the world that would get these crabs out of my hand,” he said.
That night, he slept fitfully with the crabs next to his bed. When he arrived to the White House, security eyed his package. “I’m just a messenger. I’m just a delivery boy,” he recalled pleading. “I have to get these crabs to the president.”
He remembers a rush of relief when he finally handed off the crabs, but the good feeling was short lived.
“There’s a problem,” Chiles confided after the event.
“What?” Sawitz asked.
“The vice president is upset,” Chiles said, “because he didn’t get any.”
The parallels: RE and Joe’s
Sawitz, who married Ross Sawitz in 2015, now has a daughter, Julia Michelle, who is 2½. He’s cut down his hours from as many as 70 a week to 40-50. Like his mother, he wants to share Joe’s Stone Crab with Julia without insisting that she take up the hard work of guiding it into its next 100 years.
He dreams that she, too, will go across the bay to Ransom Everglades when she is old enough. “I loved that school,” he said. “I feel even more in love with it now.”
Sawitz tries to stay connected. Beverley brings fellow RE Hall of Fame members and soccer teams for occasional meals. Head of School Penny Townsend is a frequent customer, often bringing special guests from RE. Sawitz was thrilled to dine with Sir Ken Robinson, the education guru who helped Ransom Everglades launch its REinventing Excellence campaign in the fall of 2017.
Sawitz can’t help but see the similarities between his alma mater and his life’s work.
“I think Ransom Everglades is uncompromising, and that’s something we strive to be,” Sawitz said. “We both have a responsibility to ourselves and the community.
“We have both evolved,” he said. “Both have a sense of family and both have a lot of tradition – but we are looking forward, too. We aren’t part of the past. We are a very relevant part of the present.”
Founded in 1903, Ransom Everglades School is a coeducational, college preparatory day school for grades 6 - 12 located on two campuses in Coconut Grove, Florida. Ransom Everglades School produces graduates who "believe that they are in the world not so much for what they can get out of it as for what they can put into it." The school provides rigorous college preparation that promotes the student's sense of identity, community, personal integrity and values for a productive and satisfying life, and prepares the student to lead and to contribute to society.