STOCKTON – Willie Chan entered through the back door of Mr. D’s Pizza and Sports Pub.
Like Norm from the classic NBC sitcom Cheers, he’s greeted by the few luncheon patrons of the Stockton bar last Thursday.
They utter his name in unison, “Willie.”
Chan, 65, was the longtime bartender for Sampan. This once popular Chinese restaurant and bar was the gathering place where the locals along with City of Stockton and San Joaquin County employees rubbed elbows, from 1959 to its closing in 2003.
He began there as a busboy in 1973. About two years later, his boss, Sam Louie, gave him two choices – the kitchen or the bar.
“I tried the kitchen but it was too hot,” said Chan, who, instead, was shown the ropes of bartending.
He handled a slew of regulars during those years. Included were court house workers and a few police and correctional officers.
The Sampan regulars remembered Chan for his jokes. They also enjoyed the array of his concoction of mixed beverages – Mai Tai, Hurricane, and Alabama Slammer, to name a few.
After the closing of Sampan – the owners opted to retire – Chan worked at Centro Mart for the next eight years while waiting for Social Security benefits to kick in.
Sylvano Garcia was once a regular at Sampan and now at Mr. D’s.
“His personality was a big asset along with his non-stop work ethic – it’s amazing,” he said.
Chan found himself back behind the bar on a part-time basis at the historic building at 122 E. Oak St.
Mr. D’s is housed in the 143-year-old building that was once home of the Pacific Tannery. Established in 1856, this building is all that remains of one of the major industries that produced leather goods – shoes, harnesses, saddles – occupying the entire block with 100 employees.
Stockton’s legendary pioneer Capt. Charles Weber deeded the land for tannery to the family of Charles and Jacob Wagner.
The bar area of Mr. D’s was first an office and then engine room of Pacific Tannery, according to Joyce Boda in her 1997 book, ‘Pioneer Leather Tanners: A History of the Wagner Family.’
Pacific Tannery ceased operation in 1928.
In 1973, the building was established Stockton Historical Landmark No. 14.
The original Mr. D’s was in business back then, with its previous location located about a block away. The place was also a taqueria and another pizza joint before again becoming Mr. D’s.
Garcia and others were able to bring Chan out of his “retirement” as bartender. With it came many of his loyal followers from the Sampan days.
Chan mixes drinks such as Cherry Bombs, 50-50 – a flavored drink reminiscent of the 50-50 bar from an old ice cream – and AMF.
“You have to come by and find out what’s in an AMF,” he said.
Garcia is amazed by Chan’s memory.
“Willie can still remember a person’s name and their favorite drink – even after all those years (after Sampan),” he said.