Sam Chammas owns The Whistle Stop bar in South Park, and co-owns The Live Wire (North Park) and The Turf Club (Golden Hill). When not in a bar, Chammas can be found sobering up at his recently opened Krakatoa Café or managing his liquid empire with a cell phone (when he doesn't forget it in the keg cooler) from the saddle of The Green Machine, his trusty 1973 BMW motorcycle.
An enthusiastic supporter and promoter of local music, his bars have featured bands like Rocket From The Crypt, Frank Black, Dragons, Deadbolt, Creedle, The Fremonts, 7th Day Buskers, Pocket, Al Howard & K23 Orchestra and Ursula 1000.
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A forest fireman.
Well, you're not. So what happened? Was there a traumatic event that triggered a change in your career goals?
I remember crying in a bakery in 29 Palms, California because I wanted a bunny-head cookie.
Are you saying the unsatisfied need for a bunny-head cookie changed the direction of your life?
Well, maybe it explains why I used to collect things.
You collected bunny""head cookies?
No. Vintage radios, little plastic TVs with Viewmaster pictures inside. Tilty pens, Speed Racer cars. But a couple years back I had a freak out. I boxed it all up. I haven't been to a garage sale since.
Now you seem to be collecting bars. How did that begin?
I worked for other people and always made a mental list of how to treat-and not treat-people. The whole, "If I was the boss I would..." thing. After a while, I broke out. I put my list to work. I started Live Wire in "92 with Joe Austin. But I kept my day job, making plastic tubing for a medical device company. Eight years later I got laid-off. And by that time I felt, "Hey! I'm better at being a bar owner than making plastic tubing anyway!"
What exactly is your job now?
I just love turning people on to new places, new things, new people. So what's that make me? A host? A tour guide? A fun-maker? A routine-breaker? I get to be around people who are happy, celebrating, going out. I love introducing people. Surprising people. I absolutely love breaking down barriers between people and types of people. The grill at Turf Club is the best icebreaker in San Diego.
If someone wanted to stop Sam Chammas from doing what he does, what would they have to do?
Easy! Put me poolside, in 100-degree weather on a lounge in the shade with a cooler of Tecates. I would stay there seven days straight. But... maybe on the eighth day, I would rent a bus, hand out fliers and get a bunch of people together for a bar tour.
So you're living the life you want?
Well, I do have a secret dream. I want to be the writer and performer of an international one-hit wonder. Doesn't matter if it's big in the U.S.-just big everywhere else. Then I would tour a summer in Europe, U.K. and Latin America, playing all these festivals, but I would just play that one song. Hundreds of shows and interviews later, when the press had moved on to the next New Thing and the public was burnt out on my one-hit wonder song, I would come back to San Diego, sit on a barstool, and play Galaga.
One last question. An easy one. Does God exist?
Can we talk about the bunny-head cookie some more? Okay, okay. I believe in an omnipresent force that sometimes makes good or bad things happen. I want to believe in magic, even though it may not exist. I mean, unexpected things happen. The bar business has more unexpected things happen than a job in a cubicle does. You've got people and you've got alcohol-the world's truth serum. Almost all the time the unexpected things that do happen are good. But once in a while you get a knucklehead. Or you get an overflowing toilet. Even if there is a God, or magic is real, you still have to deal with knuckleheads and overflowing toilets.