By Kevin Crossman
The Search for the Ultimate Mai Tai was honored to speak with Trader Vic’s grandson Peter Seely on August 26, 1998.
Along with cousins Ted Hittell and Anne Fortuna, Seely runs Trader Vic’s Food & Beverage Products from offices (where we met) located in the East Bay city of Emeryville, just down the road from the original restaurant where Victor J. “Trader Vic” Bergeron, Jr. invented the Mai Tai in 1944. Our conversation ranged from great Mai Tais to stories of The Trader himself.
What’s your opinion of Mai Tais made with juices, instead of “classic ingredients”?
Most of the Mai Tais made in Hawaii are more like Planter’s Punches than true Mai Tais. Even though many people use our almond-flavored Orgeat Syrup as a major ingredient, they use white rum or cheap rum. At the Royal Hawaiian (Sheraton), bartenders make a Mai Tai with a dark rum that’s not the same very high quality one we use, but it does bring the taste closer to our recipe. It’s served in the same size glasses that we use at Trader Vic’s (a large 15-ounce glass that complements the cooling process) and costs $12. Mai Tais which taste more like the original can also be found at the Four Seasons in New York.
Even the Mai Tais at the 25 Trader Vic’s restaurants around the world vary, since most are franchise operations. The manager at the Chicago restaurant has been with the company for 35-40 years, so he stays very close to the family recipe: instead of using the rum the hotel tells him to use, he still uses Appleton rum. My grandfather’s original Mai Tai was made with a bottle of 17- year-old J. Wray Nephew rum, which came from the Appleton Estate in Jamaica.
You can get close to that original taste with present-day Appleton Gold and Dark rums. At the Waterfront Restaurant on Maui — in a little harbor near the aquarium, not far from the town of Kehei — owner Gary Smith and his family have been doing a Mai Tai promotion. He bought Appleton’s Dark 15-year old rum because that was closest to the original. But it’s very, very expensive. So I said, “You don’t have to go that far, Gary. Just buy the Gold and the Dark regular Appleton rum and you’ll have a great Mai Tai!”
Do they not make the J. Wray anymore?
No. They make J. Wray white rum, which is also called a silver or a clear rum, but not a dark rum. The J. Wray dark has been replaced by a rum bearing their estate name, Appleton.
Back in the old days, even 25 years ago when I learned to tend bar, dozens of rums came out of the Caribbean. The reason my grandfather’s drinks were so great was because they used all those different rums, and all of them had different flavors. As large distillery companies bought up the estate rums, and merged them, much of the distinctiveness was lost. They wouldn’t export them to the United States because they didn’t want to compete in a market like ours. So, over the last 25 years, the number of different rums available has declined from about 30 to only a handful today. That really affects the way you make a drink. Everyone always says, “They’re all made with rum.” Well, yes, they are, but there can be a great difference in flavor. Rums can be as distinctive as chardonnay wines.
I noticed you use a Mai Tai mix in the restaurants?
In order to make a uniform Mai Tai around the world, the restaurants all use a concentrated, commercial-grade mix that we manufacture strictly for them. It’s dark, almost black in color. Each drink is made by combining 3/4 of an ounce of our mix with two and a half ounces of rum, one ounce of lime juice and shaking all ingredients with crushed ice. That way, it doesn’t matter whether or not the bartender is experienced; as long as he or she knows how to measure, Trader Vic’s Mai Tais should taste similar everywhere you go.
Long-time customers know they can order a Mai Tai that way or “the old way,” which is made from scratch . The “old way” formula includes 1 ounce of fine Jamaican Rum (15 or 8 years old), 1 ounce Martinique Rum (St. James), 1/2 ounce Orange Curacao, 1/2 ounce Orgeat Syrup, and the juice from one fresh lime (about 3/4 ounce).
Trader Vic’s Food Products also makes a Mai Tai mix available for retail sales and for sales direct to consumers via our new free catalog and our new Website (www.tradervics.com). It was originally reformulated from the restaurant mix for use with ice cubes, rather than crushed or shaved ice, so that it could easily be used on plane flights to the Hawaiian Islands. This formula calls for shaking 4 ounces of our mix with 2 ounces of fine Jamaican Rum, the juice of one large lime and ice cubes.
When you use this recipe at home — and I do serve it to friends at my parties, right out of the bottle — you get a pretty good Mai Tai! I think it’s great, and I’m a pretty fussy guy.
For a long time, there was only one bartender who could make a Mai Tai for me that I liked in our restaurants. When I would have a party there, that bartender came and took care of it for me. I wanted it just the right way. That bartender just passed away and I’m desolate because I’m never going to get a Mai Tai exactly like that any more. But, the retail form is pretty close. Well, we all have our favorite bartenders, don’t we?
Do the drink menus differ within each restaurant? Are the drink specials run at all restaurants?
When we create a drink special, we make it available to all of our restaurants around the world, but not every manager takes advantage of every opportunity. Some restaurants that are huge and busy, like London, just stay with the same menu because they simply don’t have the time to focus on something else. At other restaurants — in Dubai, Chicago and Atlanta, for example — they’ll do everything.
How many drinks do you serve?
A huge number. We have “up” drinks, little tiny drinks and drinks for four or two people. We make the bulk of all the “foo-foo” drinks, as I call them — fun, tropical cocktails which are all great. Plus, we have hot drinks — our hot buttered rum and Tom & Jerry drinks are classics — and after-dinner drinks. There are four pages of them in the menu; our Recipe Samplers tell how to make dozens of them.
Who comes up with the new drinks?
We keep up constant communication with all 25 (or so, more are being added all the time) of the restaurants. Twice a year, all the bartenders in all the different restaurants are put to the task of coming up with several new drinks, usually two non-alcoholic and two with alcohol. They’re all brought into one place so those of us who understand drink mixing and have some history with the company can all taste the new concoctions at the same time. Some of them are awful, but some of them are really good — then all we have to decide is when to put the good ones on the menu.
The drinks seem very, very strong. Is that a trademark?
Absolutely. My grandfather always said, “If you’re going to make a drink, make a good drink.” Which meant make it strong. So, when you have a drink at one of our restaurants, whether it’s a Martini , an old-fashioned or one of our rum drinks, you’re always going to get an ounce-and-a-half to two-ounces of liquor or more. It’s not intended to get you drunk — because I’d rather have you order more drinks over a longer period of time.
As my grandfather wrote in his 1946 “Book of Food and Drink,” we at Trader Vic’s dedicate ourselves “to those merry souls who make drinking a pleasure; who achieve contentedness long before capacity; and who, whenever they drink, prove able to carry it, enjoy it and remain ladies and gentlemen.”
When customers go into a restaurant and order a relatively expensive drink like a Mai Tai for $7.25, they pay the same whether they get a weak drink or a strong one — but they expect to get a good drink for that kind of money. It’s always been our philosophy to not gyp the customer. When you think about what one of our Mai Tais has in it, which is two ounces of expensive Appleton rum which costs about $125 per case wholesale, that drink is pretty expensive for us to make as well.
When was the peak of popularity for the restaurants?
In the 1960’s and 70’s and even into the mid-80s, the majority of our restaurants were located in the United States — but they were world-famous. In 1983, the Queen of England ate her only American restaurant meal in our San Francisco restaurant. That was a very big thing, because so much had been written about how the Queen had never gone to a restaurant, ever, and then she went to Trader Vic’s and ate and drank Mai Tais. That catapulted Trader Vic’s U.S. operation into another six or seven years’ worth of tremendous publicity and business.
Today, only 4 of our 25 restaurants worldwide are in America and only one (in Emeryville) is family-owned. The reason a number of the American restaurants closed was not because their popularity waned. It’s because many of them were built by us for hotel chains like Hilton. The hotels would pay us a certain amount of money to build a restaurant and 7% of the gross to manage it. They owned the restaurant, but not the name or the recipes. In the early days, they were relatively unsophisticated about restaurants and didn’t understand the food and beverage business or their traveler’s needs; they franchised out nearly all of that. About the only thing the hotel ran was a 24-hour restaurant that served ham and eggs, sandwiches, and that sort of thing. But as the hotel chains got more sophisticated, and saw that they were paying us several hundred thousand dollars a year in fees, they decided that, at the end of our contract, they would try it on their own. So, that’s what basically happened.
In Europe and Asia, we can’t build restaurants fast enough. We’re building another one in Japan so that we’ll soon have three there. The Middle East will have seven by the end of next year. As people in America are getting more into having a good time at a restaurant, and not just having pretty food, we’re anticipating a tremendous resurgence in the popularity of Trader Vic’s here in the U.S. In fact, starting next year, we’re planning an aggressive re-population of Trader Vic’s here.
Everything old is new again, as Generation X-ers are discovering cocktails and island-style foods. Mixed drinks are attracting a younger crowd today as they discover how whipping up a batch of margaritas or Mai Tais can create a fun party. We’re introducing a whole new generation to specialty drinks, as well as bringing back fond memories for those folks who toasted their 18th or 21st birthdays or prom nights by sipping a drink with a gardenia in it.
We recently reformulated our entire line of drink mixes and syrups — adding more juices and natural flavors to appeal to today’s young, more health conscious consumers.
We also repackaged all of our products with brightly colored labels and an evocative island scene to catch their eyes as they scan store aisle; we have an 800 number available to take orders by phone (1-877-7-MAI-TAI) and a new mail-order catalogue available. Young folks today want things now!
Did you see the (San Francisco) Chronicle today? It has an article how to do interior decorating Hawaiian style; people around the world are into that. There’s a restaurant in Oahu called Don Ho’s Island Grill that’s probably the first restaurant in Honolulu to offer a tropical Trader Vic’s style again. There seems to be a real resurgence of interest in this kind of atmosphere. I think people want to go back to having a good time at a restaurant. And if there’s one thing that you can get at Trader Vic’s, it’s a hell of a good time.
It seems as though the Emeryville location is a bit more classy, not really gearing itself to the Planet Hollywood crowd.
If anything, in other parts of the world they’re even more formal. In London, men wear a coat and tie, and the ladies wear dresses. It’s very high-style, not touristy. At least 75% of the customers there are London-based.
In Europe and Asia, they’re very formal restaurants. In Germany, they’re formal but they have open kitchens that add a feeling of informality with all the action going on. Plus, people there can really drink. Ladies go right up to the bar and order for themselves. Most Germans don’t like to have ice in their drinks, so they drink a Mai Tai, Scorpion, Navy Grog or whatever, shaken up with the full amount of alcohol, down it and have three or four of them. They can really hold their liquor. They might be wearing ties, but they’re having a great time.
The restaurant here (in Emeryville) and those in Chicago and Atlanta are a bit more casual. Beverly Hills is probably our most popular restaurant in the United States right now. It still has the movie stars. I was there not long ago and sat next to Barbra Streisand and her husband, James Brolin. It’s tremendously busy there on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights: we have attendants, but they’re actually bouncers — we need four of them just to control the line of people going into the bar. The place is popular with USC and UCLA people who stop there and drink their brains out and then go on to somewhere else. So, that restaurant is just an incredible sight, but again, it’s more formal.
The hours seem to be catered to dinner hours. They’re not open until 2 in the morning.
None of our restaurants offer drinking until 2 a.m.; generally, when we close the dining room we close the bar. We are a restaurant with a big bar mainly because we like to serve all our funny appetizers; our aim has never been to be considered a bar or a nightclub.
Is there anything else you want to mention regarding Trader Vic’s?
We’re excited about the restaurants we’re building right now in Hakada, Japan; Beirut, Lebanon; and in Bahrain and Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates We’ll also soon have three restaurants in one hotel complex in Cairo: a Trader Vic’s, a Senor Pico, and an Inakaya restaurant.
You told me earlier about the expansion of the Trader Vic’s Web site.
I know about as much about Web sites as I do about flying to the moon, but I know what I want to accomplish with ours, which is to let people know that Trader Vic’s is alive and well — and that they can get products from us that enable them to duplicate all the fun of going to one of our restaurants in the comfort of their own homes. I do know it will include some funny quotes from my grandfather; he was a pretty irreverent guy, a real colorful character. He had a wooden leg that he would joke about a lot.
Some of my favorite stories about him involved him tending bar. When he was in his twenties or thirties and the original restaurant was on 65th and San Pablo Streets in Oakland (it’s now an empty lot with a palm tree on it), he loved mixing cocktails for the lady patrons who would sit at the bar. One night, when two of the ladies were a little on the feeling-good side, and he was wearing his usual white shirt and pants, he propped his leg up on the bar and stuck an ice pick in his leg! Both ladies fainted and fell off their stools. He would do that routinely.
When we were kids, we were afraid of him. He was into rock climbing and he often carried one of the those pickaxes (with a pick on one side and a hammer on the other side) in his belt-loop. This was back when wooden legs were wooden legs; his had a hinge and a button he would push to release the hinge so the leg would bend when he sat down. In the wintertime, the wood would swell or the hinge would rust or I’m not sure what, and he would take out the pick ax and bang his leg with the hammer side. We would just run from the room like there was no tomorrow.
My grandfather was handicapped from the age of two on, but he did a number of great things. He loved tall tales. He lost his leg by breaking it as a child; the doctors set it wrong and he got gangrene and had it lopped off during the 1906 earthquake. But he told everybody that it was bitten off by a shark when he was swimming in Hawaii.
I read in some places he started out working for Don the Beachcomber.
The real story of how he got started begins when my great-grandfather had a grocery store across the street from the corner of 65th and San Pablo. My great-grandmother took care of the grocery store and my great-grandfather was a waiter at the Fairmont Hotel. My grandfather married a Swedish woman whose brothers were all carpenters. With $700 of my grandmother’s savings, they built the original one-room restaurant, Hinky Dink’s, across the street from the store. It had a pot-bellied stove to keep it warm, which they had moved from my grandparent’s apartment to the restaurant. My grandmother saved money because she wanted to buy a house, but every once in a while my grandfather would say, “Gee, I wish I could go see Don the Beachcomber” or whatever and my grandmother would fork over the money. Somewhere around 1934 or 1936, she gave him money to take a train down to Florida and then travel on to Cuba. He came back with recipes and all sorts of stuff , and announced, “OK, you’re going to call me Trader Vic tomorrow.” He hung fishnets and blowfish from Cuba in the restaurant, and told his employees that “We’re going to be Trader Vic’s now.” He basically went from the original Hinky Dink’s, which was a hamburger joint, to Trader Vic’s, which was also hamburger joint, and just went on from there.
Thank you very much for sharing all your stories for our readers.