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Behind the Scenes at the Famous Clevelander on Ocean Drive

March 07, 2008 By Matt Meltzer in Miami: Local News  | 1 Comment

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ABOVE: Sunset on Ocean Drive. A blue Bentley cruises past the Clevelander. Photo by Osprey.

This article was submitted by a one-time bartender who formerly worked at the Clevelander and wishes to remain anonymous on the grounds that he may like to tend bar in South Beach again someday.

Miami, among other things, is a tourist town. Thanks to the deftness of the convention and visitors bureau in hiding the banana republic that lies west of I-95, millions come here each year to enjoy our warm weather and permissive culture. And if there is one establishment that has been the icon for South Beach tourism over the past 20 years, it is the Clevelander. Every Super Bowl, every major convention, and every Spring Break, it always seems to be the center of the action.

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Miami, among other things, is also a service industry town. The wealth of hotels, restaurants and nightclubs makes Miami (or, really, Miami Beach) a Mecca for listless slackers looking to make fast cash in warm sun. And if one is not from South Florida, and one wants to get a job where they think they can make the most money, well, there is nowhere better than the Clevelander. Nowhere exemplifies the nastiness, the incestuous nature and the sheer brutality of the Miami service industry quite like “The Cleve,” as it is called by those who call it a paycheck.  And during the brief time I spent working at this South Florida landmark, I learned that everything you expect is true, and if anything, understated.

REPLACE “FLAIR” WITH “THONG” AND YOU’VE GOT IT

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One thing you may be surprised to learn is that the Clevelander has an incredibly corporate atmosphere. It is kind of like working at TGI Fridays, except instead of the Happy Birthday song, you get a hot booty competition. When I was there, training was conducted by a woman named Stepanie who, if you didn’t known better,  you would assume was smoking her body weight in crystal meth before every session. Not because she was strung out or had bad teeth, but because when training started at 9 a.m., an hour when most self-respecting South Beachians are still in a coma, she conducted training with all the brainwashed enthusiasm of a Mormon cheerleading captain on anti-depressants.

As anyone who has been to the Clevelander can tell you, the food is about the last reason anyone goes. It’s about a half-step above McDonalds and six flights below “good.” But to hear Stephanie tell it, we had Emeril Legasse working in the back. She used superlatives like “fresh caught” and “delicately seasoned” to describe what looked like the cheapest frozen cut of unnamed fish they could find in the Sysco catalog. Every drink was a “unique blend,” even such “unique” specialties as well vodka mixed with RC Cola.  Some of the younger, more impressionable people (see: 18 year-old waitresses who were not exactly hired for their brains) bought into the excitement, and I guess that is for whom it was intended. For some of the saltier, more experienced (see: old) folks, well, we were just there to collect our $6.75 an hour until we could go out and make drinks for drunk tourists.

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Stephanie spent the better part of the day teaching us the fine art of making an $8 hamburger a $15 hamburger by convincing them it was inedible without excessive amounts of bacon and cheese. This, I suppose, was true, but kind of put a crimp in her credibility when she attempted to describe the burger as “Omigog, you guys, like, the BEST hamburger I’ve ever had. And I’m form California.” No idea why Stephanie thought anyone had a perception of California as being the world-renowned home of first-class hamburgers, but then again being in touch with reality was, evidently, not her strong suit. She then instructed us how to sell people shots for dessert and encourage them to have one for the road. Well, it was nice to see that at least the corporate folks at The Cleve had caught on to the South Beach tradition of overserving EVERYONE.

HOOKERS NOT WELCOMED AT THE CLEVE

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Training at the Clevelander was not much different than training at any other bar I’d worked at, except that they kept a file on you and made sure you could name every ingredient in the Clevelander World Famous Nachos (a unique blend of day-old tortilla chips, canned jalapenos, processed chicken and an unnamed cheese) before they let you pour any drinks. What I had not expected, though, was that training not only included teaching you how to work the vaunted Aloha computer system, but also how to overpour and not get caught, how to charge someone twice, and how to get rid of hookers. These, perhaps, are the most valuable skills any Clevelander bartender can learn.

My first day training, I rang up a guy who decided to close his tab, which at this point was up to about $150. I printed his check, which included the summary 18% automatic gratuity, imprinted his card on the receipt (this is standard practice at The Cleve) handed him a pen and walked away. Another bartender picked up the check and walked up to me with a look on her face like I’d just inadvertently kicked her in the teeth.

“What the Hell did you just do, new guy?” she demanded.

“Was I not supposed to give him his card back or something?” I asked

“No,” she sighed. “Look, these drunk asses don’t bother reading this shit before they sign. Especially when it’s dark. So when you imprint the credit card, always make sure you do it over the part of the check that shows the auto gratuity. We all do it. Everyone here walks with about and extra hundred a night thanks to that. So don’t fuck it up for us.” I learned quickly that tourists, while the lifeblood of the business, were definitely the enemy.

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Actually, the real enemies were the hookers. It was not like Las Vegas where the girls sitting at the baccarat bar playing video poker alone are given free drinks until they can find someone to take them upstairs. It may be because your typical Vegas working girl is slightly classier than your average South Beach street walker, but hookers at The Cleve are treated with a hospitality usually reserved for Arab visitors at customs.

One of my first nights I was working with a longtime bartender for whom the novelty of hookers sitting at his bar had long since worn off. So as soon as one sat down he screamed at them to leave. They offered up some sexual favors in exchange for the bar space, but again he refused and they moved on to a spot in front of a more benevolent bartender. I watched as the entire night they would find an unsuspecting drunk tourist (usually foreign) surround him, and make like they wanted a date. My coworker told me to watch the bar.

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He walked over to the foreigner and, right in front of the working girls, said “Hey, you know these are whores, right? They gonna charge your ass then rob you. I suggest you leave now.” The paunchy middle-aged German who just assumed that women in Miami were as easy as he’d seen on Travel Channel Europa, looked shocked and disbelieving. The hookers just looked pissed off and irritated. This continued for several nights, and I began to notice that on nights when that particular bartender was there,  the hookers were not.

TAKING THE CHRIST OUT OF CHRISTMAS

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As it happened, the Clevelander threw its annual Christmas party for all its employees a few weeks after I started. Now as hard as the Cleve was on its employees, they spared no expense on the celebration. They rented out B.E.D. and had an all-night open bar with copious amounts of food. This sounds rather normal for a large company to show its gratitude to its overworked staff, but when you consider that B.E.D. routinely charges upwards of $15 a drink, and that your average service industry worker can put down 9 vodka-Red Bull’s like they’re water, it was certainly not an inexpensive endeavor.

Now, when you go to your company Christmas party, despite the open bar, you are always cautious of over-imbibing lest you become “that guy.” You know, making an ass of yourself in front of coworkers, hooking up with that fat girl from accounting or, even worse, confessing to a coworker you’ve always had a crush on them. At the Clevelander Christmas party, “that guy” is the guy NOT doing that.

I arrived late and what I stumbled into looked like some sort of Roman orgy. Boys were making out with girls, Girls were groping each other in a bed. Guys were all over each other on the dance floor (this IS South Beach) and nobody was anything short of three times the legal limit into the night. Unfortunately, I didn’t really know anybody, but the few folks who did recognize me were quick to buy me shots. I guess it’s easy to be a baller at an open bar.

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It is always nice when your first impression of your supervisors is of them falling down in the middle of a club because they have had too much to drink. Or have the female ones paw you like an inexperienced sorority girl. Or see one of the male ones praying to the porcelain god as you relieve yourself next to his head. After that night, it was hard to take orders from any of them. “Aren’t you that girl I saw making out with four people at once? And you want me to mop the floor now? Riiiiight.”

THE PRINCE OF THE CLEVELANDER

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The owner was an incredibly laid-back guy from San Diego named Neeley. This was his last name. At any rate, he would come by every few weeks and hang out at the bar and shoot he shit with me. He liked that I was one of the few guys there who actually knew about scotch (Spring Breakers not so big on the single-barrel Macallen 18, apparently) and, for better or worse, I never treated him any different than I did anyone else. But the reason I liked Neeley so much is because unlike some insanely wealthy parents, he made his son learn the value of money.

Apparently Young Neeley had gone a little too crazy with the old man’s money during his first semester at Loyola in Boston. Not that Old Man (I think all of about 45) Neeley was hard up for cash, but he got the idea his son was going to turn into a sort of male Paris Hilton. Maybe it was the all-expense paid weekend is South Beach. At any rate, in January Neeley decided to put his son to work. As a barback at The Cleve.

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Barbacking, for those unfamiliar, is a particularly nasty job where you basically are a bartender’s bitch. Many barbacks are more talented than the bartenders they serve, work harder, and make more money. But at the end of the day it is a nasty job. They live off the percentage of the tips the bartenders decide to give them along with $3.13 an hour from the restaurant. And so Young Neeley worked this job the entire spring semester, sharing a dumpy apartment on 13th and Meridian and living like every other barback in South Beach. That is, flat fucking broke.

Never mind that at 19 this kid could get into any club he wanted. He didn’t have any money. I’d invite him to go out after work and he’d say, “Nah, I only made like $150 tonight and rent is due tomorrow.” He only drank when the GM took him out (after all, he WAS the boss’ kid) and I rarely saw him dressed in anything other than scrub clothes. He never got an attitude with anyone, and was always eager to get the bartenders whatever they needed. He was a good looking kid who probably could have done whatever he wanted with anyone on the staff and gotten away with it, but instead I rarely saw him even go home with a tourist. Whatever Old Man Neeley was trying to teach his kid, it worked. He was amazingly good-natured and humble for a 19-year-old, never mind one that was in line to inherit hundreds of millions of dollars.

CLEVELANDER BARTENDERS GET TESTED MORE THAN PORN STARS

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There is a stereotype of male bartenders in tourist locations that they are complete sluts and sleep with a different girl every week. And I am here to tell you that that is completely untrue. Most of them sleep with a different girl every night. And the women who work there? A lot of them aren’t much better.

There is a rule at the Clevelander that employees are not supposed to go into any of the rooms. This is about as respected as the non-fraternization policy they have, as most guys I worked with told me they’d spent at least a couple nights in the hotel. That week. On a lot of slow nights, you wouldn’t get much attention from the women who came in, but if a girl is on vacation, and she’s mildly lonely, there really isn’t anyone much better to talk to than the bartender. And The Cleve, well, they just don’t hire ugly guys. (the majority of the management when I worked there was female, and as such the girls who were hired were attractive, but by South Beach standards nothing to write home about. The guys, on the other hand, looked like an Abercrombie catalog).

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One guy told me early on that pretty much all you had to do was walk up to a group of girls by the pool, address them as “hot girls form out-of-town,” flirt with them for the duration of their stay there, and you’d more than likely be waking up in a strange hotel room the next morning. I didn’t believe it until I first saw it happen. Then again, and again and again. I had one female friend on the staff who would routinely ask me which guest she should hook up with that night. And while I didn’t talk to too many other girls who would be so frank about it, I’m also guessing she wasn’t the only one.

I had a girlfriend the first month I worked there, but I guess the stress of dating a bartender at a Spring Break spot was too much for her and we soon went our separate ways. So I was excited to see if it was really as easy as all the guys I worked with had told me.

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It is amazing how the combination of being behind a bar, alcohol, and vacation make women instantly more attracted to you, but somehow it does. A girl would come into the bar, often with friends, and flirt with me. Sometimes she’d have her friends ask if I was single, and if I was straight (agiain, this IS South Beach), and then often they would give me either their room number or phone number and tell me to meet up with them later. Sometimes she’d either hang out at the bar or move on, but come back right before I was about to leave. Now, in most situations, when you tell a girl you have to go and you’ll be back in 20 minutes, they move on to the next. But without failure every girl I asked to wait while I checked out was there when I got back. Spring Break may be fun to go on, but it is equally, if not more, fun to work.  Much like New Year’s Eve.

THE BEST KEPT SECRET ABOUT NEW YEAR’S EVE

I had the fortune of working New Year’s Eve. Some might say this is not a good thing, but when you are used to getting black out drunk on a Monday, taking amateur night off is a fantastic idea. Why? Well, if you work somewhere like the Cleve, you still get to get drunk, you will without failure have somebody to make out with, and instead of waking up down $500, you wake up up $500. That’s a thousand dollar swing, for those of you scoring at home. So you get drunk, you hook up, and you get money. Yeah, working NYE is definitely the way to go.

I arrived for work about 4 and my manager immediately told me he would be putting a bottle of Patron in a maintenance closet and to head over whenever I got a break. So I did. Liberally. We were too busy for anyone to notice the perpetual Stoli and 7 I had at the bar (it looked like water) and, of course, there was plenty of champagne to go around.

Around 12:30, my manager disappeared and the bar got nonstop busy. So busy, in fact, that everyone failed to notice that one of the sinks had overflowed and we were now bartending in about 2 inches of standing water. The manager magically reappeared about 1:15 and informed us we were almost underwater. We, of course, were too drunk and busy to know, so he made a vian attempt to clean it up.

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What I later found out was that when he had “disappeared” he had actually “passed out” in his office. I couldn’t really complain, though.  I’ll take some nasty water at my feet for a New Year’s Eve free from supervision any day.

S*&TING WHERE YOU EAT

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Aside from my New Year’s make-out sessions, I never did much with any of my coworkers. And aside from the married couple that had a baby shower while I was there, I never saw much going on outside of the Christmas party. I guess when there is a steady supply of willing tourists, Clevelander staffers prefer not to shit where they eat. Or perhaps not.

While I rarely witnessed any romantic interaction, I certainly heard about it. The checkout room on weekends sounded like a beauty shop during the week. Rumors were constantly thrown around about who was doing who, and when they did it. The gays were the worst, as everyone was pretty sure they were all sleeping together but, for some reason, were also the worst gossip mongers. The best rumor, though, concerned the manager who loved to make my life miserable. A lady named Kristin.

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If you look up “washed-up service industry trash” in the dictionary, there is a picture of Kristin. She was an obvious long time veteran of the business, sporting the ever-classy ankle-encompassing tattoo and skimpy, tight clothing that one expects from a lifetime of cocktailing. The problem, though, was that Kristin was 34. And looked it. And acted like she was about 19. I never saw her with a friend over 23, never saw her without her trademark knee-high boots, and never saw her with her alleged “boyfriend.” And did she love to micromanage. This is why Kristin and I did not get along.

Apparently I was not the only person who did not get along with her, as one of the male managers told me one slow night that she was looking to have me fired.

“Yeah, she’s a bitch, though,” he told me. “She’s just mad ‘cuz she knows you’re a better bartender than Terry. That guy couldn’t hack it anywhere on the Beach. The only reason he still has a job is because he’s fucking her.”

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Now, much as I would have loved to use this as blackmail against Kristin, apparently everyone in the whole place knew about it, including the General Manager. But for some reason, nobody did a thing. It was never acknowledged by anyone high up, perhaps because the GM was doing half the women who worked there and it was a sort of quid pro quo. I never found out, but shortly after I left Kristin was fired. And there was joy in Munchkinland.

Eventually, Kristin got her way and I was unceremoniously let go. I wasn’t overly concerned, as much of the management liked me and one even referred me to his friend at another bar, where I made twice as much and worked twice as long. But working at The Cleve is a rite of passage that all servers and bartenders in Miami should undertake. They have closed for renovation, and will not be up and fully operational again until next year. But when they do their mass hirings for their grand re-opening, I suggest those of you looking to move here and wallow in the hospitality industry slop should apply for a job. At the very worst, you’ll get a lot of stories (and possibly some diseases) and at the very best you’ll make a ton of money and have an impressive item on your service industry resume. 

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UPDATE: The Cleve is Closed!

Yes, so many of you who have heard from your friends who came here last year or the year before that the Clevelander was “the place to be” are no doubt planning to make this a must-do over spring break. But unless your idea of a fun spring break is pouring concrete or putting up drywall, you, my friends, are going to be sadly disappointed.

Shortly after I left the Clevelander, the place closed down for renovations. For a year and a half. This means that is you go by its famous pool expecting a booty-shaking contest, the only ass you are going to see will be coming out of the top of the plumber’s jeans. Sad, I know, but it does open up some other possibilities for Spring Break.

As I’ve said before, Wet Willie’s and Fat Tuesday’s are always good spots. Nikki Beach is a great outdoor venue, but a lot higher-end than what you went to last year in Panama City. And the city is full of interesting little dive bars you can check out.

But sadly, the loss of “The Cleve” means that Miami is missing that quintessential mid-price place with a pool, a dance floor and lots of drunk girls. I mean, we still have those spots, but the drinks are usually in the $18 range, and the girls are in the $1000 range.  So what you now have in the Beach, aside from Willie’s and Tuesday’s, are bars and high-end clubs and lounges. Or, what people who live here call “what there is to do in South Beach.” So maybe this year the Spring Breakers will get to see the Beach like a local. Or, at least, like someone who has to spend more than $20 to have a good night out.

Related Categories: Miami: Local News,

About the Author: Matt Meltzer is a featured columnist at Miami Beach 411.

See more articles by Matt Meltzer.

See more articles by Matt Meltzer

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1 Comments on

"Behind the Scenes at the Famous Clevelander on Ocean Drive"

Ralph says:

I have to admit, this is the best article I’ve read in a long time! I mean it was informative, comedic, entertaining, and 100% real. I’m moving to Miami in a couple weeks and plan on getting my bartenders license at a bar tending school. I enjoyed reading this and am hoping this bar tending gig is as fun and lucrative as it seems.

Posted on 06/19/2009 at 3:11 AM

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