Trader Vic’s Beverly Hills closing and the end of the classic tiki bar

Humu Humu has posted her feelings about the closing of Trader Vic’s Beverly Hills. I commented on that and wanted to bring it here and share my thoughts.

There is a thread on Tiki Central to send messages to try to save Trader Vic’s. You’ll notice I never posted. It was never going to get anywhere towards saving the place, and, it probably led to what happened, a very quick, quiet closing that did not allow a bunch of weirdos to make a scene.

What seems to be lost on everyone is that these places are businesses. When your business is losing money, you close it, no matter if that is painful or very painful. And often, before they close the business, they try a lot of things to fix it. Tiki bars are not an exception.

The forces at work that have closed 90+% of the vintage tiki places in the last 30 years, are still closing them today.

Getting conservancy groups involved is also a sure way to piss off the owners and get them to close a place sooner. They want to avoid government regulators from preventing them from doing as they please with their property. 

Writing letters and even going there yourself on a regular basis is not the answer, though your business helps. What can you do that will help your local or even, not so local tiki bar survive? Promote it.

You may be the most vocal and inspired advocate they have. I think the third Thursday get together at the new Hula Hula in Seattle is great. And their great reviews of the place and obviously their enthusiasm for it locally, are contagious. Such gatherings are happening all over. We need to spread a very positive message about tiki in general, and we need to put out positive things about locations specifically.

We in the Tiki community are, unfortunately, perhaps helping destroy a lot of places. If we venture to a classic bar, and then come to Tiki Central or our blogs and complain about the drinks and the beer signs, that may be the only description on the web for that place. And the young folks just discovering it search the Net first and see your negative comments. Though you may wrap it up with how great it is to go there, even though the drinks weren’t in tiki mugs, you leave an impression that no outsider is going to bother with, and is less likely to enjoy.

What we can’t do is make a bad place good, bad drinks good, or bad food good. You can’t save a sinking ship with good wishes. And when we are honest with ourselves, we will likely find we are only sad to see the facade go, and not the place where we complained about quality and quantity through our teeth.

Sucks doesn’t it?

The best tiki bars in the country are still A) Tiki Central member’s home bars, B) Trader Vic’s, C) a few old guard like the Mai Kai and Hala Kahiki, and D) the new generation like Forbidden Island. The ghosts are still growing in number as they have for the last 30 years. We are just painfully aware of them now and imagine that times have changed. All that has changed is the number of mourners and the depth of their sorrow.

p.s. To help out, go to this page, the second link when you search Google for the Mai Kai, and add a good review.

8 Replies to “Trader Vic’s Beverly Hills closing and the end of the classic tiki bar”

  1. Great post, Swankster. The lesson of the Kahiki and other tiki bars should be that they need patronage to stay open, not pressure from a bunch of die-hard tiki fans.

    Not all tiki bar owners have anything invested in the polynesian pop culture like many of us do, some of them just saw a gimmick for a club and ran with it. And if it dried up, then they go on and try something else. That’s how business works. These places don’t stay open just to appease a few tiki fans, someone is actually making a livelihood off of these places. If they can’t do that, then they need to do something else.

  2. I am really glad someone said this, particularly about the classic tiki bars. We try to visit the classic Polynesian restaurants in our area as often as possible and are grateful for them, but I doubt most contemporary die-hard tiki fans would like them, because they don’t precisely fall into the very narrow margin of what is acceptable in a tiki establishment. They’ve been there since the ’60s, they have lots of tiki and tons of old-school ambiance, but their mugs aren’t from Tiki Farm or Munktiki and perhaps they have (GASP) a parrot or something behind the bar. Never mind that these were the places our parents were visiting during the era many of us seek to recreate in our home bars. If they have a TV behind the bar with a game on (and I’m not a sports fan, but I understand you have to have a game on in most parts of the country if you want people in your bar) or the music isn’t Martin Denny or Arthur Lyman, then forget it, they’re cut. It strikes me as incredibly sad. Very few establishments can measure up to all the criteria that seem to need to be in place to keep some tiki fans happy. Unfortunately I live nowhere near the Mai Kai, so I’ve got to make do with what I’ve got!

  3. That — couldn’t’ve said it better myself.

    And I’m certain that you’ll get a bit of bashing for being all “Big Business” — from a few trendies who can’t think past their own little selfish ideals. The big question that comes to my mind is, if they’re going to all this trouble to keep it from closing now, why didn’t they try it before? You can be certain it wasn’t a decision that was made lightly…

    Even all that aside … It’s kinda like when Opal’s closed. It was her decision to close… I was sad to see it go, and bothered by the direction it went… but… She owned the place. What kind of Nazi asshole would I be tell her she can’t close her own bar?

  4. Swanky, you raise some valid points, and your adherence to free-market principles is admirable, but the BH TV didn’t close due to lack of patronage. It was packed every time I went there, and by all accounts, it was very popular with celebrities, locals, and tourists.

    It closed because a big-shot developer waved so much cash under the noses of the franchise and hotel owners, that they couldn’t resist caving in. He also blatantly bribed the BH city council by offering to add additional lanes to Wilshire Blvd. Enthusiastic patronage doesn’t stand a chance against that sort of full-frontal assault.

    I’d also argue that without conservancy groups, L.A. would’ve lost pretty much 100% of its historic buildings. Unless you’ve lived there, it’s hard to understand how beholden the entire area is to developers.

  5. Swanky stop being an apologist for a corporation that doesn’t know their head from their ass. First: They are not a huge company, hell a friend of mine started a chain of restaurants just 7 years ago that easily dwarfs their worldwide output. It a niche business, they need to do their research before they grant a franchise to someone a franchisee who is clueless. Sure, its a business not built on sentiment, Trader Vics needs to use a little more savvy & be more aggressive in the marketplace. In fact my restaurant friend had an interesting question, who owns the Don The Beachcomber name? Would it be possible to re-launch it.
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  6. The Don the Beachcomber name has been purchased a few years ago and I am told they are in the process of starting a place in Hawaii.

    Trader Vic’s is not huge in some respects. They do not have as many locations as my friend Robert McClenagan of Ruby Tuesday, but, it does not cost a million plus to open a Ruby’s and there are not any in London, Abu Dubai or Taiwan. It’s a whole other restaurant business.

    The fact that they have opened a number of new locations in the last year or two and will be opening a few each year for the next few tells me they indeed know their asses from their heads. Included in that is Trader Vic’s Las vegas which will be the largest ever.

    They have also come out with a new business plan for the Mai Tai bar which is very right for the times. That’s why they are opening several a year.

    Their franchise relationship with their locations is a solid one that gives lots of support and demands quality, but also allows for creativity and a uniqueness from location to location. I have considered opening one and would encourage anyone interested to do so.

    I have had the pleasure to do business with Hans and Sven at Trader Vic’s. They have supported me with Hukilau and Otto with Tiki Oasis and other tiki events. They are truly supportive of the community.

    I truly do not understand the negativity. But, they are not a small, lean and nimble company and the right person could put together a tiki bar chain that would rule the roost. I wouldn’t mind being that person, but, not today…

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