Nearly every day, as he’s done for five decades, Willie Grandison dons a crisp black tuxedo and sets out on a mission.
“I come out every time to make someone happy,” he said.
In his 50 years as a Kansas City bartender, that mission has earned him a loyal following of regulars and out-of-towners who make a point of stopping in at “Willie’s Bar” in the American Restaurant at Crown Center. He’s usually there, six days a week, unless he’s on vacation — and oh the letdown if he’s gone.
But June 27 will be last call for the last original employee of the American Restaurant. Crown Center plans a private ceremony for him on June 28.
“I need a break,” soft-spoken Grandison said. “My customers say they are going to miss me, but it’s a two-way street. I’m going to miss the people. Some of these people I’ll never see again.”
What’s so special about Grandison’s bartending?
His customers said he not only makes a fine drink, he remembers them and can talk to anyone about anything. When one regular struggled to remember the exact year he became a customer of the American, Grandison quickly and rightly put it at 1985.
“He’s classy, and he makes you want to be a good bar patron,” said longtime customer David Moore of Kansas City.
Grandison, 74, started as a bartender at Putsch’s 210 on the Country Club Plaza in 1964 and worked for the company for 18 years. In 1974, the then new American Restaurant in Crown Center recruited him. He worked days at Putsch’s and nights at the American at 200 E. 25th St. Neither restaurant wanted to let go of him.
Grandison raised five children on the pay and tips (along with side jobs) and has been written up in such magazines as Playboy and Cheers for his signature drinks, such as the Stinging Bee, a hot pink, rum-based concoction. But don’t ask for the recipes.
“I hope you don’t think I’m hardheaded. But my daughter, she’s in marketing in Dallas, wants me to write a book, mostly on drinks,” he said.
Bill Lucas, president of Crown Center Redevelopment Corp., which oversees the American Restaurant, said Grandison has set a standard that others would aspire to for years to come.
Indeed, customers from all over the world remember him by sending back pins that he rotates on his tuxedo lapel — a Texas boot, a Burma map. He gets a kick out of those, but his favorites are the Mobil Four Star and AAA Four Diamond pins for the American Restaurant.
“I never had any problems from anyone,” he said. “If they got a little loud, I would tell them, ‘You know you can’t do that in here.’ After I got to talking to them, they would be fine.”
The bar isn’t as bustling as the days when patrons had big expense accounts, he said, and it also is becoming more and more food-driven. He would rather stick to mixing and serving drinks.
Grandison planned to spend part of his retirement traveling with his wife, Katie, but she passed away in late November. So he’ll continue to garden. He has a parcel of property bigger than the American Restaurant.
“I grow a garden that people raise in the South — turnip greens, mustard greens, collard greens, okra, spinach, green beans, corn, tomatoes and radishes,” said Grandison, a Louisiana native.
And while some regulars have offered to buy him a drink once he clocks out, it’s just not something he considers proper.
“But I love the American and always will,” he said. “I enjoyed what I do and would do it all over again. In a heartbeat.”