Who Were the Elders of Tiki: Trader Vic

Who Were the Elders of Tiki: Trader Vic

{NOTE: This is part of a three part series of posts. The other Elder of Tiki, Don the Beachcomber, is profiled here. And my examination of which of these two really invented the Mai Tai can be read here.}
Trader Vic's SignAs we round into the home stretch of Tiki Month, I want to do some historical examination of the Elders of Tiki—the men who made the legend.
This post will concentrate on the man I personally always identified with starting Tiki, Trader Vic. His main co-conspirator/rival, Don the Beachcomber is up next, so hold your horses, Donnites. I grew up knowing of the Trader, because my parents were San Franciscans during the appropriate point in history. While the Tiki in their souls was buried deep, it did erupt from time to time, and when it did, the name Trader Vic usually triggered the eruption.
Victor Jules Bergeron was the wooden-legged restaurant entrepreneur who built a reputation and an empire of his eponymous restaurants up from a crappy little bar in the wrong neighborhood of Oakland that he opened in 1934.
Vic contracted tuberculosis before he was four, when the San Francisco Quake of 1906 drove his family to Oakland. Within two years, the tuberculosis cost him his leg. Throughout his life, the disease would slowly take other bits and pieces of him. But the kid with one leg was a walking lesson in the American Dream; his hardships, and his mother’s treatment of them, made him the force he was.

I guess she could have made me a cripple instead of a successful man. Suppose she had pampered and petted me. I wouldn’t be worth a damn.
-Trader Vic

He made money catching wild birds to buy his first wooden leg at age eighteen, and at age thirty two, he bought a run-down property in Oakland and built a one-room bar with the unfortunate name of Hinky Dinks. Victor was a one man show behind the bar and swiftly built a clientele. He soon took inspiration from Don’s Beachcomber in Los Angeles, as well as his own Caribbean cocktail pilgrimage, and transformed Hinky Dinks into a tropical-themed paradise named for it’s owner, who was sometimes (and forever after) called Trader Vic. The restaurant rapidly transformed from successful neighborhood joint into wildly popular destination eatery, fueled by the bizarre decor, Vic’s personality, and especially the fantastic rum concoctions he served up.
Trader VicVic was a huge believer in cluttering his place with wild paraphernalia. It was all there to stimulate conversation, as he felt conversation sold drinks. And he sold a lot of drinks. And he fed a lot of people some terrific food, too. In fact, in 1941, the great Herb Caen wrote the unthinkable words, The best restaurant in San Francisco is in Oakland.
Vic went from successful restauranteur to genuine celebrity. Eventually, Vic expanded across the Bay to San Francisco, then across the land and ocean, assembling an empire of Trader Vic’s that survived the implosion of the Tiki age, has regenerated once again to around twenty restaurants, and sells vast amounts of supplies, equipment, and even liquors around the world.
Vic was an empire builder. He took his great success and built on it, keeping his eye on the business that got him where he was, nurturing it, and preserving it. He died at 82, leaving his family a business that was fading largely due to the whims of world fashion, but that was robust enough to survive and thrive again to this day.
The Trader was no saint. Divorce is a sad thing, but sometimes it happens and I understand that. But people (usually men) who become famous and decide they need a new wife as part of that package take a serious ding in my book. I hope Vic’s first wife took a big chunk out of him.
But his credentials as a husband aside, he was one of the two great fathers of an entire culture: Tiki.
He was not only a great entrepreneur, he was a hugely gifted bartender and drink crafter. He invented some of the greatest of Tiki drinks, and set the standard model to which many of the other mixologists of that era hewed. A large number of drinks I’ve already written about this month in my examination of Tiki were his direct inventions. And his model has been mine in most of my experimentations.
A lot of what I’ve learned about Vic comes from a combination biography, bar guide, and cookbook that was written at the behest of his descendants and the business: Trader Vic’s Tiki Party!: Cocktails & Food to Share with Friends It’s a beautiful book, with lots of gorgeous pictures, entertaining prose, and a gigantic helping of kissing the old man’s dead ass. It’s fun, and I recommend it.
Next up, I take on the Trader’s contemporary rival, the great Don the Beachcomber.


  1. perth coffee

    5 August

    Just wanted to let you know that your sidebar doesn’t look right in safari

      (Quote)  (Reply)

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