May 2, 2007

Trader Vic’s Becomes Trader Meh

Filed under: Los Angeles,Tiki,Trader Vic's — Humuhumu @ 5:04 pm
Entry at the Beverly Hills Trader Vic's
Entry at the Beverly Hills Trader Vic’s

This week’s closure of the Trader Vic’s in Beverly Hills has caused widespread sadness — Trader Vic’s closure may have been quiet, but the reaction has not been. The reaction has ranged from sadness to anger, which I suppose is to be expected. But what was not expected was the classless way the closure happened — under cover of night, with an utter lack of pomp. Trader Vic’s deserved a full state funeral and a raging wake; instead, it was buried in a cardboard box under an unmarked grave. I’ve heard more than one person use the phrase “chicken-shit,” and that about sums it up for me, too.

(Speaking of “chicken-shit” — the “relocation” in the hotel is complete horse shit. Trader Vic’s knows it, the Beverly Hilton knows it, and anyone with two brain cells to rub together knows it. This will not be the Beverly Hills Trader Vic’s. Period.)

What has happened to Trader Vic’s? They were once the masters of bridging the exotic with the elegant, now they are neither. They give no appearance of caring … and they conveniently don’t realize that if they’re going to drop everything else about Trader Vic’s, they’re going to have to drop their prices, too.

The new Trader Vic’s have all been disappointments: Palo Alto, San Francisco, Bellevue, Scottsdale, Destin… only Dallas is up to the previous Trader Vic’s standard, and that’s only because it had the good fortune of being hermetically sealed for 20 years. I haven’t heard from anyone who likes this new, bland Trader Vic’s better than the Trader Vic’s that made Trader Vic’s famous. There’s lots of apologizing on their behalf, lots of “well, at least I can get a good Mai Tai there” and “well, at least they’ve got some good tikis.” At least, at least, at least, ad nauseum. Yes, there’s a lot of “least” going on with Trader Vic’s these days.

Some of the apologizing comes in the form of remarks about how expensive it must be to decorate in the old style. I’m sorry — did bamboo suddenly become an expensive material? Is tapa cloth more expensive than the wallpapers they’re using? Would it kill them to choose a space with a ceiling that doesn’t feel like you’re in a conference center foyer? A location with a little intimacy? I don’t think their lighting budget is Home Depot-scale, and I know of several sources of really fantastic birdcage lamps, float lights and other more appropriate pieces that would easily fall within their budget. Forbidden Island was decorated with a budget that was undoubtedly only a fraction of the per-square-foot decorating cost of a new Trader Vic’s.

No, the Trader Vic’s are plain because they want them to be. I will never be able to wrap my head around that. When the new Trader Vic’s locations open, they spur a round of articles in the local press that invariably spend a lot of time enthusiastically describing the Trader Vic’s of old… with Trader Vic’s, their history is everything! Why on earth are they casting it aside? They certainly can’t keep up on the merits of their outdated and unspecial menu. Without the immersive environment and the drinks, Trader Vic’s is nothing to write home about.

The recent closure of the Chicago and Beverly Hills Trader Vic’s locations are seen as a massive loss by apparently everyone but the Trader Vic’s organization, which tries to spin it with pathetic-reading press releases about relocating, and no apparent thought to the loss of something they have actively demonstrated they are unable or unwilling to recreate. PR-shaped statements about respecting what the “loyal customers” love about Trader Vic’s ring quite hollow. They seem to think that the public will swallow anything with the Trader Vic’s name on it. They’ve completely lost touch with what makes them interesting and unique.

My enthusiasm for supporting Trader Vic’s is swiftly dwindling.

The Beverly Hills closure is the loss of a major jewel in the Trader Vic’s crown, which more and more is looking like it is made of tinfoil.

33 Responses to “Trader Vic’s Becomes Trader Meh”

  1. MrBaliHai Says:

    Very eloquently put, Ms. Hh. As much as I have enjoyed all my visits to TV, I’ve never been quite able to shake the feeling that They Just Don’t Get It.

  2. Humuhumu Says:

    Thank you, Mr. Bali Hai. What’s especially frustrating is that not only did they used to “Get It”, they used to be it.

  3. justin case Says:

    Great points made,we were very dissappointed upon visitng the re-opened TV in San Francisco..Decor was very SAFE and BORING,like a token-summer-tiki layout in a Pottery Barn catalog…it was at least HALF FULL and the bartender told us it was a BUSY NIGHT for them..he was imported from the Germany location,and said he was equally DISSAPPOINTED !…With The Royal Hawaiin in Laguna now gone,guessss its just DAMONS…

  4. Dave Says:

    I went to Trader Vic’s in Beverly Hills for the first time last May, and have to say i was disappointed. The food was poor, the service was so-so, and the drinks seemed pretty weak. I’d say they gave up on the place a long time ago. Really sad the way that Los Angeles just tears its legends down (Ambassador Hotel for example) and builds a piece of crap in their place.

  5. Swanky Says:

    I have to disaggree with some of what you are saying. I have talked with Sven Koch, then President of Trader Vic’s, about opening a Trader Vic’s Mai Tai bar. He knows who I am, and yet was very adamant about the fact that it must look like a Trader Vic’s. He also said that the decor is a very small part of the budget, which it is. For people doing this at home, on a small budget, it may seem like a lot, but when you are spending millions to open restaurant, no. And in the case of a Mai Tai bar, you are spending $500,000 and the decor is about $25,000. No.

    What you are failing to see is that Trader Vic’s is a franchise and does not make decisions like, what location closes. The owner of the franchise decides that. And they do so based on economy, not sentiment. Trader Vic’s are very big businesses and not usually owned by some old guy who thinks about the old times. It’s generally a corporation and run like one. If Trader Vic’s closes, don’t blame the HQ, blame the public that is not supporting it. Maybe times are still a-changin’. And they are. That’s why we have the Mai Tai bar concept. A new concept for a new time.

    TV is a business. A very tough business. Your head chef at TV is costing you over $100,000 a year in salary and that’s just that one guy. You have a lease and a large staff and it’s just a demanding business.

    The new Mai Tai bar look is not the old tiki bar look. But, it’s not an old tiki bar. They are integrating with their environment more, concentrating on open air and beach resort areas. They are making a very lean restaurant. They are making what could be the best thing going. It will not be the dark tiki bar of the past. But it could meld the two together in a great way. If I was going to open my bar today, it would be a Trader Vic’s Mai Tai bar.

    Trader Vic’s did not close the Beverly Hills location, the owners did and the people who didn’t support it did. And the press that spends time comparing new Trader Vic’s lovingly to the old TV, also are the asshats who walk into an old TV and talk about how tacky it is.

    I would not be surprised to see more TVs closing. I will not be surprised to see a dozen more Mai Tai bars open. The time of the classic tiki bar is fading. Forbidden Island does not count. Nor does Tiki Ti really. Why? They are not classic tiki bars, because there was never a classic tiki bar! There were Polynesian restaurants that had bars in them!

    That said, Forbidden Island and the Tiki Ti are the blueprints of the future. Tiki Bars with great drinks and a bit of food. That’s what Trader Vic’s is going to.

    Stop blaming Trader Vic’s. There are a lot of places closing. It’s the times and at least Trader Vic’s is holding on and remaking itself and we will likely be able to continue to enjoy a good Navy Grog at a lot more locations than we previsouly did, though we won’t go there for the ambience we used to.

  6. Swank Blather » Trader Vic’s Beverly Hills closing Says:

    [...] 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. [...]

  7. justin case Says:

    tanx

  8. Dave Says:

    After the crappy meal I had last year, I wouldn’t have paid the TV chef half of what he was getting. No wonder they went out of business.

  9. Humuhumu Says:

    Go back and re-read my post, Swanky. Nowhere am I criticizing Trader Vic’s for closing the Beverly Hill’s Trader Vic’s — I’m well aware that it wasn’t their decision, and I feel for them in that regard — I’m sure they didn’t want to be banished to the pool area. My criticism is their public reaction to the closure. Those inane press releases came from Trader Vic’s, not the Beverly Hilton.

  10. Swanky Says:

    It sucks for sure. That is a magnificent building. But Trader Vic’s has supported us tiki fans, and still does. They sponsored Hukilau and I think Exotica and Tiki Oasis. Heck, if not for Trader Vic’s the first Hukilau would not have happened. They have worked with Sven Kirsten and Otto has a good relationship with them.

    It just seems there is a lot of anti-Trader Vic’s sentiment here and on TC, that I think is no justified, and short sighted. I dare say the TV office that put out those press releases was nearly as in the dark as the rest of us.

    We will soon see at least two new Trader Vic’s in Hawaii and the one in Las Vegas, when it was discussed with us a few years ago, was supposed to be the largest and the most traditional in years. Looks like Don the Beachcombers is coming back.

    We the tikiphiles do not represent the loyal Trader Vic’s customers.

  11. Humuhumu Says:

    I couldn’t tell you how much money I’ve dropped at Trader Vic’s over the years, but it’s easily in the 5-digits. Heck, I flew from Los Angeles to Atlanta one weekend just to go to Trader Vic’s (but you know that, ’cause you were there!). I’ve created many Trader Vic’s converts by dragging my non-tikiphile business associates there. I know I’m not representative of all the loyal Trader Vic’s customers, but if I’m not one, I don’t know who is. I want to keep loving Trader Vic’s, I really do.

    If I set aside the question of how much effort is being put into the feel and ambience of the new Trader Vic’s, they still don’t measure up. There’s no mistaking that the food & service quality is not commensurate with the prices. I can spend that much in just about any other restaurant in the area and have a much finer meal. So something just isn’t working.

    I agree with you that there is hope possibly in the new bar-focused approach. If that’s what it takes for them to restore their glory, I’m all for it. But all I can base my opinions on is what exists today, and what exists today is sub-par. (Re: Vegas — I would love it if it turns out dark & traditional, but what I’ve heard most recently is that it’s not. We’ll have to see when it opens, and going by Trader Vic’s recent track record, I’m not holding my breath.)

    I can’t help but wonder how our relative nearest Trader Vic’s locations are coloring our opinions: you have the gorgeous Atlanta Trader Vic’s, I have the Palo Alto and San Francisco Trader Vic’s. If I had the option of popping into the Atlanta Trader Vic’s every now & then, I’d probably be feeling a lot warmer towards the franchise right now.

    I’m just not going to lie and say that I think the new locations are great, when I think they’re not.

  12. virani Says:

    I flew to LA from Paris in 2003 just to drink at the Trader Vic’s. And that was great.
    I even booked a cheap hotel walking distant from it.
    Even if on that trip, I prefered the Tiki-ti.

  13. Reever Says:

    I only have 2 Trader Vic’s experiences to compare. I was in LA on vacation a couple of month’s back and got to go to the famous, now-closed Beverly Hills location for my first TV experience. The wait staff was fantastic and the drinks great, but the food was so-so, the prices outrageous, and the decor had clearly been stripped down a layer or 2 back in the 80′s to be more nautical than tiki. Fast-forward to 2 weeks back, when I got my first chance to spend an evening with friends at the newly-reopened TV’s in my hometown of Dallas. THIS is what I’ve heard about all these years…. exactly like stepping back in time. Not only the decor, but the food and drinks, were worth every single penny. Today’s TV interior designers and chefs should come to Dallas and take notes. There’s no reason in the world our tiki-starved town should be setting the standard of what Trader Vics should be (by being exactly what they used to be.) If the powers-that-be are concerned that folks wouldn’t be interested in the old-school tiki style, just note that you have to book reservations 2-3 weeks out right now just to get a table. I hope all of you can make the trip here to experience it. In my opinion, it’s still no Mai Kai (I’m a sucker for a floorshow) but it was a proud day for Dallas our dear old TV reopened for business.

  14. HulaBoy Says:

    I’m not saying alot of these comments aren’t without merit, but anyone who is in business has got to know that franchise agreements are about as sensitive to negotiate as an arms control treaty. When someone owns a franchise of a restaurant, the corporation has no control over it if it closes.

    On that note, I found the press release on line, and it was put out by the Beverly Hilton….not Trader Vic’s.

    Humuhumu, Why don’t you put your energy into getting a group of passionate tiki-loving folks together to buy a TV franchise to help ressurect the brand instead of bashing TV. From the sounds of it they could use your help.

  15. Humuhumu Says:

    Again, some more: I’m not railing against Trader Vic’s for closing the Beverly Hills location, I’m well aware that they did not. My beef is with their continuing commitment to underdeliver.

    The press releases I read were issued by Trader Vic’s, and contained quotes attributed to Trader Vic’s President and CEO, Robert Davies. It’s likely that the Beverly Hilton owners issued a press release, too. Don’t take my opinions here as a sign that I’m placing blame for the Trader Vic’s closing on Trader Vic’s — I’m not. I’m extraordinarily displeased with Oasis’ decision to close Trader Vic’s. But this post isn’t about that, it’s about Trader Vic’s and their decline.

    Re: putting my energy into buying a Trader Vic’s franchise — it is not my dream to run a tiki bar, it is my dream to drink in one. I’m much better at that. And my energy is hardly in need of an outlet — I’ve got so many projects in the works that are dedicated to the world of tiki that even I have trouble keeping track of them. But as a consumer, I’ve got opinions, and I’m not going to ignore the elephant in the A-frame: Trader Vic’s could really use a turn-around. If they’re in the middle of one, bless ‘em, and I can’t wait to see it. But right now, they ain’t lookin’ so hot.

  16. Reever Says:

    If Trader Vic’s doesn’t care about the opinions of tikiphiles, then whatever Hh or any of us like-minded folks might complain about won’t affect TV in the least. If TV is such a strong supporter of the tiki community, it’s because someone somewhere appreciates these opinions and should continue to hear our compliments and our criticisms. Any good steward of any type of brand would want to hear what their core base has to say. The brand of Trader Vic’s is deeply rooted in what used to be, and it doesn’t hurt to remind them of that.

  17. justin case Says:

    Went to the new TV MAI TAI bar last night..same bartenders..decor somewhat intact.. the Pool-Side Open Air vibe was kinda cool,cept for the view of the Corrporate Hilton guests and families in there bathing suits…even had a DJ spinning sum Quiet Village!!

  18. justin case Says:

    Not a bad compromise..

  19. Humuhumu Says:

    See… more of the “at least.” “Not a bad compromise” is what I thought at first, too, when the new San Francisco Trader Vic’s opened a couple of years ago. Or at least that’s what I tried to tell myself. But we’ve now seen city after city after city of compromises taken. At what point do they become bad compromises? At what point do they damage the brand?

  20. Baked Pajamas Says:

    You hit the nail squarely on the head when you said Home Depot. Trader Vic’s has a name brand to exploit and to do that successfully you must standardize then mass produce.

    McDonald’s would be another example. Regardless of where you go, you always know what to expect at a McDonald’s. Same inside, same outside same menu, same toy in the happy meal.

    People feel comfortable with things they know, and to find a Trader Vic’s in Las Vegas that is exactly like the one down the street back home in Georgia, helps people decide where to go and what to do, because they can go some place they “know”.

    Acoustical ceilings, fluorescent lighting , beige wall paint, throw in a few tiki’s here and there, maybe a plant and karaoke machine and BAM! you have a Trader Vic’s. Duplicate in the next hotel.

    The hotel lounge atmosphere will completely destroy the spirit and primal feel of a true tiki bar. Corporate hot shots, sipping herbal tea, high above a concrete jungle will redefine tiki in their own likeness, and Trader Vic’s, like a zombie, will roam the earth soul less, begging for a merciful death…

  21. Swanky Says:

    Um, no. The franchise owner has authority over the decor. They can’t make it completely plain and indistinct from any other restaurant, but they can decide to what extent the Trader Vic’s Beverly Hill looks like Trader Vic’s Munich or Trader Vic’s Destin. It must still be a Trader Vic’s, but, tastes are changing and new owners are moving it in a certain direction.

    And you are complaining that you can go into any Trader Vic’s and know what to expect? They do train the staff at the corporate office. The menu is theirs. The quality of drinks is a damn good standard.

    Every Trader Vic’s in the world looks different! And when you know when they were built, you see a deEvolution from the height of the Poly Pop era to today. This is not some sudden change or treachery.

    And, by the way, the McDonald’s down the street from me does not look like the first one. And you’d be sad to go back in time to Hinky Dinks.

  22. tiki attack Says:

    All very interesting dialog on this subject, which a quickly skimmed through. In the appreciation of history throughout this country, I’ve seen towns big and small rip out beautiful historical icons and replace them with parking lots. All the reasons are different, yet the same. Modernize, move on to something that can make more money. There are less than half a dozen tiki bars left in LA. In February of ’07, the Lava Lounge closed. It was a run as a rock venue in a place about as wide as a trailer and maybe twice as long. But the decor was beautiful. Sad loss and I’ll make sure it’s on Critiki. And I have been yet, but the Trader Vic’s of BH is now re-opened as a lounge. So we at least got to save something of it. Now, just imagine what a pain parking and access to will be with whatever new Waldorf they put up.

  23. Bamboo Ben Says:

    Asshat?

    Awesome!!

  24. beachbum berry Says:

    Humu,

    I am in complete accord with your eloquent rant. Remember that old saw, “The customer is always right”? Well, as customers we have a right to object when we’re being short-sheeted. And aside from skimpy corporate decor, TV is doing us all another disservice: By charging premium prices for their drinks, and using non-premium rum in them — namely, their own brand. Their new line of rums is awful, and these are the rums they’re pouring in their Mai Tais in LA and SF. Moreover, they’ve changed the recipes of their once state-of-the-art passion fruit and orgeat syrups, which as of this year are entirely artificial and entirely unpalatable. As you say, they’re cheaping out — all while waving the banner of their former glory, kinda like another corporation we could name. Oh all right, I’ll name it: Disney.

    Mahalo, Bum

  25. Humuhumu Says:

    Yer darn tootin’!

    Trader Vic’s does actually have something it can learn from Disney, by looking at what happened with Tokyo Disney Seas and Disney’s California Adventure. Both debuted at about the same time, but only one was developed under all that makes Disney great: eye for detail, immersive theming, quality imagineering. The other had off-the-shelf rides installed with slipcover-theming, and was designed more by marketers than by imagineers. One did incredible, boffo business, and the other was such an abysmal failure that it redefined my idea of “abysmal failure.” That’s a very expensive lesson that Disney learned, and now they’re spending untold billions in a better-late-than-never attempt to fix California Adventure.

    Disney has an uphill battle in trying to not just shine their DCA turd, but in winning back the respect of those who have been turned off by its utter lack of charm. I’m not sure that Trader Vic’s even has the right people in the organization to get their turds polished.

  26. Sushiuniverse Says:

    I just got back from the new place. Alfred is now bartendering in the main lobby bar, but Ben, Tannit and Ming are still pouring their awesome drinks. Since there is no “restaurant area”, the bar is actually quite a bit larger than before. There is a little bit of tiki stuff, but it’s more of a 1958 bachelor pad…with tiki accents. 1/3 of the room is wide open to the pool area (very cool) and the bar is a double-sider in the middle of the room. They were playing Les Baxter music and there were 4 TV’s showing Endless Summer. I wish there were nets and glass floats…it has a very clean look, but it’s nice. I like it much better than the boring sparse nautical drabness it had before. As far as the drinks… they are more expensive than before… a Mai Tai is $14 and a Navy Grog is $15….yikes! If you get to know the bartenders, they will do very cool things for you. I always get my Mai Tai made with Mount Gay Golden and Lemon Hart Demerara. Also…on occassion, they have sold me a bottle of their Mai Tai mix….it’s not the junk you can buy online from Trader’s, which is really not good. The label actaully says “not for sale” and has arabic writing on it, too. Take a trip over there and support the legendary bartenders there! :-)

  27. Frank Gillette Says:

    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.

  28. Chef Juan Palerm-Trader's Destin Says:

    Some interesting remarks from both sides of the aisle, with both sides offering some valid and some moot points. I trained at the san Francisco store and was there during the reconstruction of the great Dallas location. There has been a change at the corporate level to make Trader Vic’s competitive and welcome to as many as possible. I see some shortcomings, but I also see the successes. In Destin, which I am sure most have you have never been to, it is a very different clientele. We don’t have the old clientele of TV, the business clientele in the big cities, nor the chic traveler. We have family tourists to deal with. They are a totally different market and we are trying to attain that market while reataining the old charm of Vic himself. I have read his books from an era bygone and I know that there is a change in the restaurant culture. Not all TV’s are going to be like the old. It isn’t a compromise, but a change. If you don’t like the direction, then there is no point in trying to please you. I think our location is great. It accents the beautiful Florida sunshine, tropical setting of our resort and it doesn’t diminish what Vic Bergeron set out to create. You have to go after your market and we have. Our drinks start out at 2ounce pours!!! That is unheard of in the bar business. I have to follow many corporate recipes, but am given freedom to create as well…and I do a damn good job. If you don’t like the calamari, go to Vic’s grave and tell him…It is his recipe. The Bongo Bongo soup, his recipe. Are we going to change these because you don’t like it? No because it is part of the culture. I think it is short sighted to think that Trader Vic’s is going to remain static and keep entirely to the old standard. Why do you think so many TV locations have closed in the past? This is a rebirth and with that comes change. We still have the 70 year old water taxi from Indonesia hanging from our roof. I still cook out of the old style Chinese oven, Tiki guards still watch our every move and we still have a kick ass bar menu that no one can rival. Fault us for what you like, we stand by what we are and we don’t apologize for it. I do invite you to come to Destin and try our food, our drinks and enjoy our atmosphere. If you think it totally sucks, I will buy your dinner. Just come with an open mind. I hope to see all of you, whether you are on our side or not, because I, frankly, love to cook and want to treat you to something special. And like I said, you will only get the best from me and I can guarantee I will always put my best spatula forward to create a memorable experience for you.
    Sincerely Chef Juan

  29. naenae Says:

    Perhaps nostalgia, great food and drink along with the enviornment of old is a recipe that only the trader himself could master. In today’s world the double digit cocktail tends to be purchased from the pocket of the somewhat hip & trendy… The restaurant world is “chained” nowadays. Multiple outlets are the answer to branding and controlling costs, although they tend to be formulaic. Only Mom&Pop shops have the ability to do exactly what they want in a venue because the payoff is partly emotional and can be afforded. When a franchisee invests $ captial into a concept they want the security of a brand that will give them success and yet they still maintain their own ideas about how things should be done, or look, or taste. They are also looking to make money. It’s a tough game and fit only for those with the true passion for food, beverage and aesthetics… or for people who are simply crazy. Thanks to the people like chef Juan for being about the “spirit” of the experience. After all, that’s what it’s all about.

  30. J. Hart Says:

    I cant help but agree! I was in Seattle two weeks ago, and a group of us made the trip to T.V’s in Bellevue. All I could muster up was “Trader Weak!” the ownership apparently has no idea of what their heritage means. The atmosphere was generic, the wait staff had no idea they were in a tiki bar, the food while good, was over priced, and what finally nailed it for me, my drinks were second rate, in the wrong glasses, with too much ice. That killed it for me. I would have been better served to drive 3 hours south, back to Portland, so I could go to Thatch, and have good drinks, and good food.

    Sadly, the trader vic’s of old is now just a memory I think. I dare say that Vic would be saddened.

  31. Lava Rocks Says:

    I love everything about the famous Mai-Kai in Ft. Lauderdale. I’m working to duplicate the “Moloka’i Bar” hopefully next year in Houston, Texas. I think Houston is ready for an Island fever. So, if the Trader Vic is having this much problem why not duplicate the next big thing? The Mai-Kai Moloka’i bar.

    Let me hear your thoughts?

  32. Jontiki Nui Says:

    The “New” Trader Vic’s is a prime example of corporate ingnorance. Trader Vic’s has a very speciific brand, tampering with the “look and feel” of this brand can destory the institution that is Trader Vic’s. As the old saying goes, “If if ain’t broke why fix it.”

  33. Humu Kon Tiki : Trader Vic’s Emeryville: A New Hope Says:

    [...] while Trader Vic’s has had some very obvious stumbles in recent years, it turns out it has not been for naught. They’ve been paying attention, they’ve been [...]

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