Thriving cities depend on the adventurous among us, who alter the urban landscape when they forge their own successful paths.

Each month, we ask an influential San Diegan: What was it like for you in the beginning?


Sam Chammas

Bar and Cafe Owner ,  Live Wire, Whistle Stop Bar, Station Tavern, Krakatoa ,  http://www.livewirebar.com/
http://whistlestopbar.com/
http://stationtavern.com/
http://krakatoacafe.com/
Live: Mt. Helix
Work: South Park, North Park, Golden Hill
How Long: 48 years, native North Park kid

What was the moment that propelled you to open your own business? 

Without a doubt, it was 1992. On a roadtrip  from San Diego, to Austin, Texas, for then new South by Southwest Music Fest. I was 25, just me and a 1973 VW Bus, aka “the green machine.” First stop was Tucson, Arizona. Walking around downtown Tucson I saw cool businesses owned by people in their 20’s; coffee houses, vintage clothing shops, the Hotel Congress. Previously I thought you had to be old to open a business – after working for someone else for 20 years. But here young people were doing it, making cool things happen, and doing it their way. Saw more of the same in Austin, Texas. I came back to San Diego pumped with the confidence to open up a business. I reunited with college friend, Joe Austin who I met at KCR, SDSU’s radio station. Joe knew the bar business, I had the location and the result was Live Wire. Celebrated 22 years in October.

What struggles did you face when opening Live Wire?

Getting approvals from the city, police and health department was a challenge. It still is a challenge, and it should be. But it was much harder to be taken seriously then, in the early 90’s, because there wasn’t a history of successful young business owners, especially in bars and restaurants, like there is now.

What was the riskiest business move you ever made?

It was a big risk to get Live Wire ready to open even though the chances of getting a liquor license were slim. We waited six months for the approval process.  I stopped going out because friends were always asking when it would open. It was a sad time. Thankfully our license was approved and the rest is history. Special shout out goes to then district council member Chris Kehoe. She believed in us and that gave us the confidence to see it through.

Other biggest risk was Station Tavern. That was such an enormous project -constructing a building and restaurant from the ground up. We ran out of funds, stopped construction, recession had begun. It was scary. My wife Peggy, sister Jeana, and architect/friend Lloyd Russell helped get that one to the finish line. But the risk was worth it. It has become one of those rare and special places that almost pleases everyone. 5 years now!

If you could change the past, is there anything in your career you’d do differently?

Maybe I should have watched my back more. You never know when bad people are waiting to take from good people. But I don’t want to live my life like that. I believe good people far outnumber the bad. Surround yourself with good people and your life will be ok.

Could you ever go back to a “normal job” working for someone else?

No I could not. And I have a funny story to prove it. My first career was making medical tubing for a company called Medtronic. Good people with a great product: heart catheters, something that improves lives. But after opening Live Wire, bar life was the better fit. A few years later I needed to raise more money to open Whistle Stop. A pay stub from a normal job would make it easier getting a business loan. So I started working for another tubing company. In just 8 days I left a water valve on and flooded the extrusion lab not once, but TWICE.  Water flowing down the halls, into the lobby, a mess. Thankfully I was let go, and they said they were doing it for my own safety. Lesson: don’t do something only for the money.

What personality traits must a successful restauranteur possess?

Wow, so many ways to define successful. I guess I’ve evolved into a sort of elder statesman because young folks with ideas for their first businesses have been looking me up. Personally I love encouraging them. This current, post-recession wave of young businesses is exciting. I feel like it’s their time.

Some of the things I say and believe are: don’t put money number one. Doing something cool and good is number one. Do that and usually the money will follow (that’s one I learned from Joe Austin on day one). An original idea combined with passion is a good start for success. I  have a test I call “the dozen.” If you have an idea for a product or type of business, and you can think of a dozen people that would dig it as much as you, then its worth going for. I’ve used that for every place I have ever opened.

Here is what I tell to every person that wants to open a bar or restaurant: have you ever thrown a party? Most say yes. Then I ask them to think of everything they did for the party- find a location, invite people, provide drinks, music, lighting, food, clean up. Then I say, “Do that that again, and again, and again, and again.” That is what having a bar or restaurant is like. That’s usually when they say, “Oh, now I get it.”

In the beginning, if you could have had a glimpse into where your work is today, what three words describe how you might have felt?

 “That looks cool!”