Trader Vic's And Don The Beachcomber, A Tale Of Two Tikis
Interior of Trader Vic's in San Francisco. Source: Cardboard America
The tiki trend that ran wild in mid-century America, fostered by restaurants Trader Vic's and Don the Beachcomber, was sort of a booze-soaked version of the theme-park culture that flourished in the era. Kids who flocked to Disneyland didn't necessarily believe that Mickey Mouse was anything more than a person in a costume but they suspended their belief for the fun of it -- adults at Trader Vic's didn't necessarily believe they were partaking of authentic Polynesian culture, but they had fun nonetheless. The temporary escape to a tropical saloon featuring giant wooden idols, Chinese food and fruity rum drinks with exotic names was just the thing for a public who wanted to visit exotic lands without really leaving the cities where they lived.
Two Men With A Similar Dream
Some fads come and go. Others stand the test of time and become cultural staples in their own right. Tiki bars fall into the latter category thanks to two men: Victor "Trader Vic" Bergeron and Donn, Donn Beach, aka Don The Beachcomber. These two men with varied backgrounds invented tiki bars and all the funky island flavored accouterments that come along with them.
If you’ve ever enjoyed a mai tai or a rum punch, you can thank these men for bringing them to the forefront of American culture. Naturally, some contention arose over who invented the mai tai and made tiki bars a go-to imbibing motif. Donn the Beachcomber began in Los Angeles while Trader Vic started his tiki empire in Oakland. You could say they are the Tupac and Biggie Smalls of tiki bars, waging their own battle for tiki supremacy within California.
Donn The Beachcomber
Born Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, the Beachcomber’s life story reads like a Robinson Crusoe novel. After years of living in the South Pacific and the Caribbean, he landed in Los Angeles as a rumrunner and illegal bootlegger. During Prohibition, he made moonshine and provided people with a vital service: alcohol. Once prohibition ended, he opened his own bar and decorated it like the tropical paradises he reveled in as a youth.
Umbrella drinks, fishing nets, and a bamboo bar adorned Donn’s first establishment that he ran with his then-girlfriend, Cora Irene “Sunny” Sund (who became an important figure later). Together they became the founding couple of tiki bars and innovators in the bar business. Besides a fresh idea, the pair also created a gift shop, rum shop, and strangely, a Chinese grocery within their burgeoning bar.
Beachcomber’s Island Flavor And Business Savvy
More than anything, Donn knew his liquor and how to name his fantastical drinks. The Missionary’s Downfall, the Vicious Virgin, the Never Say Die, the Cobra’s Fang, the Zombie, and allegedly Frank Sinatra’s favorite drink, the Navy Grog, all came from the Donn. He guarded his recipes closely, for good reason, as many bars attempted to poach his bartender and learn his mixology secrets. He eventually became most famous for inventing the mai tai but obviously, they don’t name ‘em like the Donn did. In order to keep his customers drinking, he installed a sprinkler on the roof so they would think it was raining and down another cocktail.
When World War II came a calling, Donn served his country, leaving the bar to his capable wife, Sunny Sund. She expanded to 16 locations while he fought Nazis. Unfortunately, upon his return, they divorced and she gained full control of the business. The terms of the divorce meant Donn couldn’t operate within America, so he shipped off to Hawaii, which wasn’t a state yet, and started over in paradise.
By all accounts, Trader Vic, born Victor Jules Bergeron, came after Donn the Beachcomber. Even his granddaughter Eve Bergeron admitted, “After he visited Don the Beachcomber’s and tried some of his tropical drinks, my grandfather thought he could ‘build a better mousetrap.’” Nevertheless, Trader Vic’s story remains incredibly impressive. After losing his leg at the age of 6 to tuberculosis, Vic worked for his aunt and uncle in their struggling saloon. After earning about $800, he found a vacant lot and asked the owner, “How much of a building can you build for $500?” The answer was 22’ x 26’ which was the start of Trader Vic’s, first known as Hinky Dinks.
'Booze And Chow'
In the beginning, Vic filled a void for East Bay residents looking to eat and drink at reasonable prices. Since whiskey went for 15 cents, beer 10, and lunch 20, “the place was filled morning, noon and night.” He also instituted the revelatory idea of “open mic night.” Hinky Dinks did well enough to expand his building. After visiting bars around the country, Vic decided to revamp the place so “we could tell a story.”
So down went the hunting lodge decor and up went the tiki design along with Chinese food. They say the Chinese food was decided upon after careful consideration of Oakland’s demographics but it seems pretty suspicious that both Donn and Vic would separately decide on Chinese fare. Thanks to his proclivity of trading drinks for odd pieces of ornamentation brought in by patrons it was rebranded as “Trader Vic’s.” The gregarious Vic recalled that “once in a while I’d stick an ice pick in my wooden leg for laughs.”
Unlike Donn, Vic never lost his business due to divorce, and his empire outgrew Don the Beachcomber with more than 25 locations worldwide at one point. Of course, the everlasting debate raged over who invented the mai tai. As Trader Vic said in an interview with The New York Times, “I originated the Mai Tai. Anybody who says I didn't create this drink is a stinker.” Based on the facts that seems dubious but in fairness, there’s more than enough room for two tiki masters.
Tags: Don The Beachcomber | Exotica | Tiki Bar | Trader Vic
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