The Next Generation: Joe's Stone Crab

By Kathleen Squires  |  January 22, 2014

The makings of a perfect Miami meal: a pile of fresh, chilled and cracked stone crab claws with sharp, creamy mustard sauce for dipping, and a tart wedge of key lime pie. For a century, this has been the signature of Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami Beach. Founded in 1913 by Hungarian immigrant Joe Weiss, today the iconic restaurant is run by Joe’s great-grandson, Stephen Sawitz and Sawitz’s mother, (Joe’s granddaughter) Jo Ann Bass. Today, the brand is no longer exclusive to Miami - there are branches of Joe’s in Chicago and Las Vegas (through a partnership with Lettuce Entertain You), and on January 29, a third offshoot will open in Washington, DC. Sawitz shared the legendary restaurant’s history with us, including its unlikely start due to his great-grandfather’s asthma condition.

  • The family

    Joe Weiss suffered from terrible asthma while living and working as a waiter in New York City. His doctor suggested that perhaps Weiss would breathe easier if he moved to a gentler climate. Weiss chose sunny Miami; and lo and behold, his condition dissipated. The restaurant business was what he knew, so he settled in and started a small lunch counter at a bathing casino, serving fish sandwiches and fries.

    At that time Joe’s was the only restaurant on desolate Miami Beach, but he did a brisk business since he didn’t have any competition. It wasn’t until 1921, however, that Joe’s started to serve the dish that made it famous. Stone crabs were previously thought inedible. “The legend goes that a Harvard ichthyologist who was studying marine life nearby caught some crabs and brought them to Joe, as we were one of the only restaurants around, to find out if they were edible,” Sawitz says. Joe boiled up the sturdy crabs, cracked open the claws, and struck crustacean gold. The duo also discovered that the crabs were a sustainable food--the claws actually regenerated. Joe put the crabs on the menu and they were an instant hit - everybody who was anybody came to eat at Joe’s, from Amelia Earhart to Al Capone.

  • The legacy

    In 1930, Joe Weiss died and son Jesse, who had been practicing law, took over the restaurant. Sawitz remembers his grandfather fondly. “Jesse was a character - a very colorful man. He was very well read. And he was also a gambler, a womanizer, and a great storyteller,” Sawitz says. “He was a very charming and he had a great way with words and with people.” Sawitz experienced a lot of life “firsts” with his grandfather. “My first time on an airplane was with him. The first time I drove was with him. He would let us test drive his cars in the parking lot across the street when we were little. We traveled around Europe together and throughout the United States. He was just easy to be with, I guess how grandparents should be.” Sawitz especially loved meeting his grandfather’s A-list friends. “He knew people in the NFL. He knew George H. W. Bush. He was friendly with J. Edgar Hoover,” Sawitz recalls. “The FBI would escort us off airplanes.”

  • Family Life

    Jesse’s daughter, Jo Ann, who grew up living above the restaurant, officially joined the family business in the 1960s. Sawitz started working in the restaurant as a teen. After spending his college years weathering the brutal winters at Cornell University, Sawitz says he couldn’t wait to get back to Miami upon graduation. “I joined Joe’s because it was pretty much what I knew.”

    Joe’s began its popular takeaway adjunct in 1987, and started to ship claws across the country in 1995. A search for a GM in 1998 led to a partnership with the Chicago restaurant empire Lettuce Entertain You. Sawitz met with CEO Richard Melman with the hopes that Melman would share some good leads for a new hire. He walked away with an offer for a co-venture that led to the opening of the Chicago, Las Vegas and the brand-new DC branches of Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab. (It wasn’t the first time that Joe’s had expanded, however. They previously had two branches in Japan that enjoyed a two-decade run.)

  • The next generation
    Sawitz, 56, just had a baby girl, and he says it will be up to her whether or not she decides to join the family business, “I want her to respect the people and love the people at Joe’s and enjoy it. Joe’s is and always has been home to me - I'm more familiar with it than my own house.”

    Today Joe’s is one of the highest-grossing restaurants in the nation, and Sawitz seems certain that the original, and its offshoots, will continue to endure. “It's hard to compete with 100 years, authentically,” he says. He adds that family has everything to do with Joe’s success, as well. “With the same family involved, there is an element of consistency, versus when businesses are bought and sold. New ownerships have different philosophies and different management. I'd rather grow the same basic model. And there's certainly a high grade of expectation, I think, from a family member because you're the next generation and you're always thinking - am I learning enough? Am I doing the right thing?” Sawitz just lost his grandmother - Jesse’s wife - in November, making preserving the Joe’s brand even more of a priority for him. In honoring the memory of his ancestors, he hopes to provide for the next generation, too.