It’s hard to imagine Emeryville without Trader Vic’s. For many including myself, their first association with Emeryville was either the mudflat sculptures or this fabled Tiki establishment. An establishment that is credited with inventing the Mai Tai and the fusion restaurant concept. An establishment indelibly linked with our history and our rise from an industrial wasteland.
This may very well happen according to restaurant management if an ordinance amendment passes that would require them to obtain an annual cabaret license in order to host live music at private events. Something which might prove difficult given the opposition from some nearby Watergate residents.
A dispute with neighbors that has been bubbling for nearly two decades is finally set to boil over if the city can’t reach a compromise that allows the establishment to host live music for private events within its banquet rooms and patio and satisfies neighbors who have grown weary of the noise they generate.
Many Watergate residents’ balconies overlook the establishment that was built in 1972.
Trader Vic’s moved to Emeryville from Oakland in 1972 and the Watergate complex that surrounds it was completed shortly after in 1974. The restaurant has expanded its banquet accommodations in the mid-80’s to include the disputed patio that overlooks the picturesque Emeryville Marina. Trader Vic’s has been hosting private events with live music for decades but recently they were notified they would have to cease providing live music since they did not have a “cabaret” license. The current cabaret license on our municipal code does not prohibit live music at private events and the amendment to the ordinance that is being considered tonight is intended to add private events to the cabaret ordinance. A license seemingly intended to regulate night clubs, something Trader Vic’s attests it not. “We’re a fine dining establishment and in no way a night club.” noted Trader Vic’s president Kier Fullmer at the November 3rd meeting shown in the above YouTube video.
A group of Watergate residents has organized around controlling the noise by revising the Cabaret Ordinance and the city will bring this to a vote tonight. At the 11/3 Council meeting, the proposed urgency interim ordinance that would establish a 45-day moratorium on the issuing of “Cabaret” licenses was defeated needing a 4/5 supermajority. Staff was instead asked to come back with amendments to the cabaret ordinance that would include establishments like Trader Vic’s that have live music at private events in commercial spaces within the definition. A cabaret is an antiquated term for an establishment that supports music and dance that dates back to prohibition times. The existing ordinance is vague and archaic and effectively provided no distinction between a live music venue and a coffee shop with an acoustic performer.
If passed tonight, the ordinance amendment [PDF] would require Trader Vic’s to apply for either an annual license (It seems unlikely this would be granted) or daily permit that would allow for only one event every three months. There are no current establishments in the city that hold a cabaret license with the most recent that the staff could recollect being Kitty’s which closed in 2011 after a well publicized brawl and became Prizefighter in 2012. This isn’t the first time a business has been targeted for noise disruption. The Emeryville Taiko drummers were pushed out in 2012 after an ongoing dispute with neighbors. Moving an establishment with 80 years of history is not as easy a task of course.
Trader Vic’s thinks it is being unfairly singled out by the ordinance amendment and have reached out to the community for support by circulating the following newsletter and asking for public support:
A history with some apparent Bad Blood
The group of residents have described a scene of raucous crowd of screaming, urinating and vomiting drunks, which is something that has been denied by the Emeryville PD Chief Tejada. “We have not received calls for service about people urinating, lying on the lawn or screaming that I am aware of. If we have, I’m confident that the officers have responded to that and taken appropriate action.” Tejada also notes that Trader Vic’s has been responsive and complied when they’ve been asked to respond but without an objective noise threshold “it’s difficult for us to assess if the noise is ‘unreasonable’ “.
“We’ve worked as hard as we possibly could with all the Watergate residents.” noted Trader Vic’s president Kier Fullmer at the November 3rd meeting. “We’ve gone beyond the noise ordinance, we’ve closed the deck an hour earlier, we’ve had our vendor deliveries come in an hour later, we’ve done everything we know how to do to be good neighbors.” Fullmer also noted the 20% neighbor discount that her establishment provides to Watergate neighbors.
This is refuted by 41-year Watergate resident and former Planning Commissioner Joe Lutz who has helped organize the group of Watergate residents. “The issue with the noise has been going on for nearly twenty years and lately it’s gotten worse. We’re happy with many of the positive initiatives that Kier and Trader Vic’s has implemented over the years but we’ve reached a stalemate with the noise.”
Longtime Councilmember Nora Davis has been supportive of the ordinance amendment noting “nobody wants Trader Vic’s to go away, we want the noise to go away”. Davis of course resides in the Watergate area and counts her neighbors among her political base of supporters. The large population of Watergate accounts for approximately 20-25% of the city’s population.
Organizers including Lutz have attested that Trader Vic’s has not gone far enough to mitigate the noise from their establishment.
A shifting Demographic, an increasingly challenging business environment
The Watergate complex, once described as home to the “affluent & trendy” in the 80’s, has transformed to a more senior demographic that has been aging in place over the decades. Many of the mostly senior residents that spoke in opposition of Trader Vic’s hosting live music and events lamented the Trader Vic’s of decades ago criticizing their menu changes and for straying away from what made them successful. There seem to be some assertions that the direction of the restaurant and attempts to recruit a younger generation is no longer compatible with the neighborhood.
The 2011 remodel seemingly brought Trader Vic’s back from the brink after a slow decline and they appear to be in the midst of a renaissance as a new generation rediscovers the tiki culture that they helped define. One thing that is not being discussed is the impact of the recent Minimum Wage Ordinance, something Trader Vic’s did not publicly oppose. Despite being family-owned, Trader Vic’s falls under the MWO defined “Big Business” 55 employee threshold and subject to the overnight 60% minimum wage increase.
Councilmember Dianne Martinez noted after its passing that she thought the businesses in Emeryville were “creative enough to make this work”. “Creativity” in this case means finding a way to generate the revenue needed to offset the large increase in labor costs. TV’s did not dramatically raise prices but has instead leaned on hosting private events. Trader Vic’s attests that the private events held in its banquet facilities such as weddings, receptions and anniversaries are integral to its survival and it doesn’t sound too far-fetched if you understand the business predicament that they’re in. Vic’s V.P. Fullmer noted the impact this is having on them currently was coming “at the busiest time of our year when we generate the most revenue.”
Can a Compromise be reached to save Trader Vic’s?
One thing that everyone seems to agree with is that nobody wants Trader Vic’s to leave but finding an appropriate compromise represents a formidable challenge to the city. An earlier curfew, sound mitigation, additional security … these are all options that are on the table. Trader Vic’s has pledged to continue to work with residents to address their concerns “I do want to reiterate that we are fully committed to working collaboratively with our neighbors, and with City Hall, to protect this family-owned community asset while always being sensitive to those around us.” noted Kier through email.
Joe Lutz noted the same openness to compromise “I would be willing to meet again with the Owner of Trader Vic’s and the owner of the building to discuss the issue. I have met with enough managers to know that it is not an effective way to get a message to the top levels. Others would need to be involved. There has to be an understanding that the party noise is unacceptable and a commitment on TVs part to mitigate it. I am not sure that either of those represent TV’s position.”
Trader Vic’s is clearly an institution of the city and I think few would argue that Emeryville would be a better city without it but I do sympathize with the Seniors and families and hope a compromise can be reached. It’s clearly upsetting to both parties involved and it’s concerning that it has come to this. Recent legislation by our Council seems directed at turning our city into more of a bedroom community … but arguably few of us moved to Emeryville because we wanted to live this way.
Emeryville’s history and identity is as a mixed-use area and there are plenty of neighboring options for those that prefer a more tranquil bedroom community atmosphere. Politicians continue to attest they want a vibrant, mixed-use community but recent decisions seem to belie this notion. If the unintended consequences of this ordinance amendment combined with other legislation in fact lead to the closure of Trader Vic’s … it would be hard to argue that Emeryville is more “vibrant” as a result.