Since 1992, North Park native Sam Chammas has opened — and reopened — some of San Diego’s most beloved neighborhood bars and restaurants. We asked him about the secrets of success, the importance of neighborhood businesses and his next move.
What’s your connection to the 30th Street corridor?
I was born and raised in North Park. Most of my life has been spent within a five-block radius of the Jack in the Box at 30th and Upas.
It seems you saw the turnaround of the area before most of us did. What was the catalyst for opening your first neighborhood bar?
I went on this road trip through Austin to the South by Southwest festival, just me and my VW bus that I have to this day. I saw this rad scene of young people who were opening up shops and bars and restaurants. It was an eye-opener. Like, you could be in your 20s and open up a business? I came back with a love of local music, good jukeboxes and good beer. We opened Live Wire in ’92, and it took off like a rocket, man. It was one of the first bars in San Diego at that time to be opened and owned by people who were the same age as the customers.
And then the rest was history?
[Then] we brought Turf Club [in Golden Hill] back to life; that was also a boarded-up bar. And being a local kid, I knew about the old Whistle Stop [in South Park]. Again, that was a boarded-up, abandoned bar. I just love bringing things back to life.
Both of those neighborhoods were fairly blighted at that time. Weren’t you wary of diving in?
Bars are the gutsy pioneers to go into an area people are kinda afraid of. If there aren’t independent places that open up, and little mom-and-pops, then the chains take over, and the whole country kinda feels the same. The independent businesses define a neighborhood’s personality. You hear people say, “I love the vibe here. I love the personality.”
What advice would you give others looking to open up a neighborhood shop or restaurant?
Do something that’s unique. Go a little off on a tangent. There’s a ton of copycat restaurateurs out there.
What’s different about the 30th Street corridor now compared to when you first reopened Turf Club and Whistle Stop?
It’s kinda bittersweet when neighborhoods get better, and then neighbors attack the place that made it good . . . As soon as an area’s really full, I start looking where else I can go with low rent that I can do something.
What’s your next project?
I’d love to create cool retirement homes. With a comfortable lounge and a dive bar, it’d be quirky and fun — and needed.