For 50 years, Mel Ah-Yun has been a presence at Swiss Buda, a south Sacramento bar with Hawaiian hospitality.
For five decades, Ah-Yun has provided a place for neighbors to chat over beers. He has poured drinks, listened to tales of woe and even given customers rides home when necessary.
How did you come to work at the bar?
I came to Sacramento in 1962 when I was 24. I was born and raised in the Hawaiian Islands. I was in San Francisco waiting to work on a merchant ship. But I wasn't in the union. Some Hawaiian guys I knew suggested we go to Sacramento where some Hawaiian guys were playing music at a Japanese dinner house. I was offered a job by the owner even though I never tended bar. I said I would learn. It worked out.
How long have you owned the bar?
I bought the owner out in 1972. I had a partner for 35 years, Pete Rossi, who I bought out in 2007. It's just me now.
How did the bar get its distinctive name?
I'm the one who named it. Pete Rossi was Italian Swiss and the other owner's Japanese slang name was "Buda head." They talked about Jade Buda, Buda this, Buda that. I suggested Swiss Buda.
Has the neighborhood changed?
Yeah, it has. Fewer old-timers. They were all working guys, the plumbers and electricians. They owned their own businesses and were in there all day long. Long lunches. In those days the cops were pretty lenient. Now, the cops watch closely. I take keys away. Call them a cab. In the afternoon, we still get workers from Campbell Soup. And on Friday and Saturday, we get young people for karaoke. We still have breakfast on the weekend.
What are the prices on drinks?
Our drinks are $3. It's good stuff; $2.75 for domestic beer in a can. Most people like the canned beer stays colder. I wipe the top of the beer can with a clean napkin before I serve them. Corona and Heineken are $3.50.
What mixed drinks do you seldom serve anymore?
We served a lot of martinis and gin gimlets before. At night, my two bartenders come up with a lot of handshaked drinks.
They say a good bartender is also like a psychiatrist, is that true?
Yeah, oh yeah, they come in and want to talk to somebody. The wife left them, the kids are bad, they got a bad deal at work. The everyday stuff. I just lend an ear. I don't give advice. When I'm busy, I tell them I have to keep moving.
How do you 86 (kick out) a rowdy patron?
In the old days, it wasn't any problem. You just said get out of here. And the other customers would back the bartender. But with these younger people, you don't know what they are going to do. Luckily, I don't have too much of that in my place. Once in a while you have somebody who had too much to drink. You have to play it by ear.
Do you ever go on vacation?
Occasionally, I go to Hawaii, but I haven't been there for about six years. I've got two older sisters and a bunch of nephews there.
My grandfather came from China and settled in Hawaii. He married my grandmother, who was pure Hawaiian. Then, my dad met my mom who was from Portugal. So I'm Chinese-Hawiian-Portuguese.