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The Jewish Empire Built on Trayf

Joe’s Stone Crab celebrates 100 years in the crustacean business

Dina Weinstein
January 13, 2014
Florida stone crab claws. (Shutterstock)
Florida stone crab claws. (Shutterstock)

Hungarian immigrants Joe and Jennie Weiss were among the first Jews to settle in Miami Beach, FL, in the early 1900s, drawn to the location because a doctor said the tropical pioneer town would be good for Joe’s asthma. They opened a small seafood restaurant there, and in 1921 a Harvard scientist asked Joe to cook stone crabs as an experiment. The crustacean was a new and unknown find, without even a Latin identifier. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The item was a hit. “They were great,” reads the caption under a black and white image of the serious, portly couple outside a clapboard building with a striped awning and a bold sign reading ‘SEAFOOD A SPECIALTY,’ found in Marcia Jo Zerivitz’s 2009 book, Jews of Greater Miami.

Today, Joe’s Stone Crab’s Zagat review reads: “Rob a bank, sell the house, [do] whatever it takes” to afford the “succulent” stone crabs at the “legendary” South Beach eater. The restaurant is currently celebrating its centennial year in business, serving up the crustacean that the Miami New Times says “seem to taste a little fresher and sweeter here.”

A Miami Herald article about the stone crab milestone notes the long list of celebrities, from princesses to presidents, and actors to musicians, who have dined at the institution, which is to this day owned and operated by the descendants of the original pioneering Weiss couple. What the article doesn’t note, however, is the irony of a Jewish family cashing in on—and making a legacy out of—trayf gobbled by tourists and locals alike. Kashrut upholders may wince to see Steve Sawitz, Joe and Jennie’s great-grandson and the restaurant’s current owner, chowing down on the delicacy with the Travel Channel’s Man v. Food host Adam Richman.

Regardless, the delicacy has become a success beyond the immigrant Weiss’ wildest hopes. The white tablecloth restaurant has 400 employees, serving as many as 1,800 guests nightly at the South Beach flagship and newer locations in Chicago and Las Vegas. They ship their delicacies—a trayf-a-palooza of stone crab legs, crab cakes, Alaskan King Crab and lobsters—all over the world.

The stone crab’s scientific name is Menippe Mercenaria. The restaurant’s web site explains that in order to maintain the species, only one claw may be removed when it’s caught so the crab can continue to defend itself. Egg-bearing females are prohibited from being declawed. The crabs are captured in baited traps, with no spears or hooks allowed. The claws make up half the weight of the whole crab, and are removed by carefully grabbing from the rear and twisting. The crab is then returned to water and the claw regenerates, taking between 12 and 24 months to reach legal size again.

Joe and Jennie Weiss’ seafood shop has transformed in the century it’s been in business, growing from a beachside outpost into a Miami Beach staple. And that’s not all that’s changed: In 1963 stone crabs cost 30 cents a dozen wholesale. This year, a plate of seven medium claws costs $30, and a plate of five large claws cost $54. The only similarity, it seem, is the signature chilled mustard sauce accompanying it.

Dina Weinstein is a journalist based in South Florida.

Dina Weinstein is a journalist based in South Florida.