Beyond the blue horizon, perhaps another Trader Vic's to tempt diners
New York — Victor J. Bergeron, better known as Trader Vic, is a man of many talents, legends, philosophies -- and enormous success. He is head of the Trader Vic's restaurant chain, or as he prefers to call it "group," which he started in Oakland, Calif., in 1930 with a borrowed $500.
Last year, as the recession cut into budgets for "eating out," his 21 restaurants girdling the globe -- from New York to Dallas to San Francisco to Munich -- registered sales of nearly $50 million, up more than 15 percent from the previous year.
"We're always hoping we're going to have one more," says Keith Hardman, Vice-chairman of Trader Vic's and former manager of seven of the 21 restaurants, restaurants noted almost as much for their decor as their unique brand and blend of Polynesian, Tahitian, Hawaiian, and Chinese cooking. Exotic artifacts such as dugout canoes, paddles, and palm fronds festoon the restaurants.
One of the places "the Trader" would most like to expand is in China. But to date there are no active negotiations in this direction. In any case, most of Mr. Bergeron's chefs are Chinese.
In an interview on a rare trip east to New York -- he lives in San Francisco -- Mr. Bergeron said, "Our food is not 100 percent Chinese. It's a Chinese adaption to the American taste and that's why people like it." But his own favorite food, which he says he eats every Saturday, is "sauerkraut -- Chinese-style. You know, the Chinese originated sauerkraut."
His original restaurant was called Hinky Dinks. It was known not only for good food but its promotion gimmicks. "On Friday nights I gave away half a roast chicken to anyone who came in", he recalled, "and to promote business I called it amateur night . . . Crowds of a hundred, sometimes 200 people would crowd into Hinky Dinks for amateur night."
Hinky Dinks measured all of 22 feet by 26 feet. Today, his restaurants encompass many tens of thousands of square feet.
Back in 1930 Mr. Bergeron devised another "trick" to lure customers. "I had an egg-flipping trick when someone ordered ham and eggs," he said, "I'd put the ham on the griddle, the eggs in the frying pan. Right over the middle of the stove was a big beam that went across the ceiling and kept the sides of the building up. Well, I'd flip the egg out of the frying pan, over the beam and catch it back in the frying pan. Well, almost always, but from the butter that dripped down from the beam, I must have missed about 25 or 30 eggs over the years."
But it wasn't long before Hinky Dinks became Trader Vic's -- the name was suggested by his wife -- and ham and eggs gave way to Chinese food.
Mr. Bergeron next built into his restaurant a feature that has remained all through the years: a "Chinese oven," fueled by oak of hickory wood, in which food is cooked. Now, these ovens are a highly visible fixture in all Trader Vic's restaurants.
Although Mr. Hardman is chief executive officer of Trader Vic's and Mr. Bergeron is technically "retired," Mr. Bergeron stays in constant contact with his network of restaurants by phone and occasionally in person. His associates say that he is forever patting his chefs on the back -- and blasting those who fall short of their own high standards. He's also extremely active as a sculpture and landscape artist. Each year his art, sold at the restaurants, grosses over $100,000.
And while many of the top restaurant critics have made it a habit to bypass the "ground old dame" of Polynesian cooking in their reviews for trendy newcomers, Trader Vic's clientele has remained enormously loyal over the years. On some weekends in his San Francisco flagship restaurant there are long lines. In New York, on almost any night of the week, his restaurant in the Plaza Hotel caters to celebrities of the brightest magnitude. Former President Richard Nixon is also a frequent patron.
But success, although making him a multimillionaire, has done little else to change him. He says he enjoys eating best, not in one of the 21 Trader Vic's restaurants, or any other restaurant for that matter, but at home with his wife.
And as opposed to all the elegance money can buy, he loves being outdoors on a lake, or beside a stream, or in the middle of a 300-million year old canyon in Colorado better than in the plushest of hotels.
There's something else about Trader Vic that makes him stand out. From early boyhood, he's had only one leg but has never had the time or inclination for self-pity. Although the won't talk about it, he's helped numerous so-called "handicapped" people realize that the only thing that can stop them from succeeding in life is their own lack of initiative.
He is no more ashamed of having only one leg then he is of his prices, which, in comparison with many restaurants, are considered high. But people can always afford quality, he insists, and he personally taste-tests many of his restaurants' new dishes.
"I have always enjoyed learning and trying new things," he says, "and I have found over the years that everything I do is more fun if I make money doing it."
As for his paintings, he adds: "It's not just the money, but if people are willing to pay for my paintings, or my jewelry, it makes me feel that they take it seriously and really like it."