Joe Weiss moved from New York to Miami Beach in 1913. Miami Beach was incorporated in 1915. For 80 years, Joe’s has been an integral part of the City. Joe’s Stone Crab Restaurant and the city of Miami Beach grew up together enjoying good times and suffering through bad ones. The restaurant is family owned. Many of the employees think of themselves as part of the family and some have been there as long as 30 to 40 years.
A book titled, Eat at Joe’s, written in 1993, by Joe Ann Bass (who is Joe’s granddaughter) and Richard Sax, provide many of the facts about the history of Joe’s. Joe Weiss suffered from asthma while living in New York. His doctor suggested a move to a warmer climate. At the time, Joe was a waiter and his wife, Jennie, was a cook. They had a son, Jesse, who was born in 1907.
In 1913, after borrowing $50 from his life-insurance policy, Joe headed for Florida. Before long, Joe began to operate a lunch stand. He soon sent for Jennie and six-year old (daughter) Jesse, who arrived in Miami by train. In 1918, they bought a small house on Biscayne Street where they lived and set up their own restaurant simply called Joe’s Restaurant.
The early 1900s were a boom time in Miami and Joe’s restaurant flourished. For eight years, it was the only restaurant on Miami Beach. In 1913, the Collins Bridge was built, which connected the beach to the mainland. At the time, this was the longest wooden bridge in the world. The township of Miami Beach was incorporated on March 26, 1915. By 1920, the permanent year-round population was 644.
When the County Causeway was built in 1920, it opened the floodgates to the beach, which became known as “America’s Winter Playground.” Between 1920 and 1925, the population grew 400%, reaching 15,000. Developers such as Carl Fisher, John Collins and the Lummus brothers were creating a land boom and Joe’s became the place to meet and enjoy great fish sandwiches. Mosquitoes were a great nuisance, and employees of Joe’s tried to keep them away with smudge pots. The heat in the summer months was almost unbearable, so ceiling fans were installed. The season was short, only about twelve weeks long. But Joe and Jessie persisted through all of the problems.
Two events really catapulted Miami Beach into becoming a major destination. One was the opening of the Hialeah Race Track, west of Miami; the other was the start of the motion picture industry. Palm Beach was the winter residence of many of the tycoons at the time and they would take the train to Miami for the races. They often went to Miami Beach for entertainment.
Stone crabs were abundant in Biscayne Bay, but were considered inedible. However, in 1921, James Allison built an aquarium on the bayside and Fifth Street. He invited an ichthyologist, a researcher from Harvard, to visit the aquarium. One day, this man brought a burlap bag full of stone crabs into Joe’s Restaurant and asked Joe if he ever served them to his diners. Joe said that no one would ever eat them.
He did experiment with cooking them. He eventually threw them into a pot of boiling water and tried eating them hot. No good. They were too mushy. Next he tried them cold, and the nice firm meat was appealing. Joe created a mustard sauce and that was just right. Stone crabs became a great success.
The personalities of Joe, Jennie and later, Jesse, permeated the atmosphere at the restaurant. Jennie was known as a tough person, who either liked you or didn’t. She was known to refuse service to people if she objected to their values. If a man came in with a woman who was not his wife, Jennie would not let them stay. On the other hand, some of her favorites were of dubious character. She favored Al Capone, (who went by the name of Al Brown) the gangster, since he was always polite. He sent flowers to her on Mother’s Day.
Jesse Weiss, Joe and Jennie’s son, was a colorful man, who loved horse racing and women. He had seven marriages, finally settling down with wife number seven, Grace, for more than fifty years. Grace became mother to Jesse’s daughter, Jo Ann, from his first marriage. At the time, Grace was in her early twenties and Jo Ann was fourteen. It took a while, but they finally became close friends.
When Jesse took over the restaurant in 1945, it was close to bankruptcy. Grace worked with Jesse to pay every bill. There were also some old gambling debts that Joe had incurred. It took four years until every bill was paid. During this time, the name was changed from Joe’s Restaurant to Joe’s Stone Crab.
Jennie died in 1988, and then Jesse was left to run things. Starting in 1985, Jo Ann has been running the restaurant. Jo Ann’s two children have assumed major roles. They represent the fourth generation. The season lasts for seven months, but the restaurant is now open year round. About 2,000 pounds of stone crabs are served every day during the peak of the season.
Joe’s Stone Crab is one of the most profitable privately-owned restaurants in the country, ranking in the top six. It is even more remarkable that the restaurant has lasted for eighty years.