The doorman at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel in downtown San Francisco has seen the city change more than most people. He's hanging up his Beefeater costume after a career that transformed him into an icon to visitors and locals alike.
Another bit of old, quirky San Francisco will be no more when Tom Sweeney finally hangs up his white pressed collar and signature Beefeater jacket after more than four decades of opening doors at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel downtown.
Sweeney has taken the luggage of movie stars and shaken hands with every U.S. president from Gerald Ford to Barack Obama. Visitors from around the world have had their photos taken with him, often after he’s told them where to catch the cable car and how to get to Fisherman’s Wharf.
“It’s one of the best jobs in San Francisco,” says Sweeney, 62, as a cable car clanks by. “Working outside a landmark hotel, cable cars come by every nine minutes, it doesn’t get much better than that.”
The man known as a “San Francisco original” and “living landmark” retired [last Sunday] after 43 years in a changed city. San Francisco continues to grapple with homelessness, aggressive panhandling, and vehicle break-ins even as some residents have become wealthier amid a tech boom. The hospitality industry has also changed dramatically, making Sweeney a throwback to an era when doormen hailed cabs and wrangled wheel-less suitcases.
Today, most people hail rides via smartphone, and hardly anyone carries cash for tips.
Joe D’Alessandro, president and CEO of the San Francisco Travel Association, said Sweeney “has been not just an ambassador but the embodiment of San Francisco’s spirit — cheerful, helpful, upbeat, welcoming. He made visitors from around the world feel like instant friends.”
Last week, Sweeney stood guard outside the Sir Francis Drake, near Union Square, in his elaborate British-style Beefeater jacket and knickers, red socks pulled to the knees and black hat decorated with red and white flowers.
The 1928 hotel, named for the Elizabethan-era English explorer, has the costumes for its doormen custom-made. Sweeney’s latest gold- and black-trimmed suit cost $3,000 and weighs about 40 pounds (18 kilograms).
He tags luggage, waves to cable car passengers and grins for photos. Every now and then, Sweeney shoots his signature move: a finger snap accompanied by an “Oh, yeah.”
“I love your hat,” says a boy checking into the hotel with his family.
“I love the flowers around it,” says his sister, carrying a glittery pink backpack and a doll.
Jennifer Emperador, a 39-year-old hotel concierge at Fisherman’s Wharf, stopped by after her shift, determined to take a photo with Sweeney before he’s gone. She lamented the loss of another fixture in a city where beloved businesses have shut down because of rising rents and changing consumer tastes. Luxury retailer Gump’s, for example, closed its downtown doors in 2018, although new ownership may revive the store.
“It’s almost like, ‘What else is leaving in San Francisco?’ ” she said. “It’s just not the same.”
Sweeney is not the hotel’s only Beefeater doorman, although he is the best-known and the longest-lasting doorman in a city with about 100 of them. The San Francisco Chronicle toasted his 40th year on the job on its front page; he has his own plaque on the sidewalk in front of the hotel.
The third-generation San Franciscan never dreamed he’d make such a mark impersonating a British guard when he took the job at 19 because his mother knew the hotel’s general manager and they needed a doorman for the summer.
He fell in love with the job, and San Francisco treated him like royalty.
Then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein honored him with a special award in 1982 after he tackled — in full costume — two robbers fleeing with stolen suitcases. The other “Nick of Time” award winners that year were San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana and nimble-fingered receiver Dwight Clark for their role in “The Catch,” which led to the team’s first Super Bowl win.
Sweeney was frequently mentioned in the columns of Chronicle journalist and humorist Herb Caen, who memorialized San Francisco for decades. Getting a call from Caen, who died in 1997, was like getting a call from God, Sweeney said.
At his San Francisco home, Sweeney stores news clippings, Beefeater memorabilia from fans, and previous costumes — he’s had 46, one for every year plus some spares. The term “Beefeater” may refer to the guards who taste-tested food for French kings, or to the Beefeaters who still stand guard at the Tower of London, allegedly paid in beef chunks at one point.
Sweeney is an avid marathoner who regularly runs San Francisco’s annual “Bay to Breakers” race in costume. He has photos of himself with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, actress Sharon Stone, and U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Dolly Parton was “really cool,” he recalls, and Prince had purple suitcases.
And it’s not just the famous he remembers. Sweeney still cracks up over the guest from Texas who double-parked outside the hotel and waved at a cable car — which runs on fixed rails — “to go around” her.
“As a doorman, you’re a greeter, a porter, a guide, a ringmaster, a constable, a valet, and a concierge all in one gig,” he said. “I’ll miss it, the people. You’re dealing with positive people all day.”
He marvels at how San Francisco has grown, from 11,000 hotel rooms when he started to more than three times that today. He’s not as enchanted, however, with the panhandlers who trail after tourists.
“The homeless problem is out of control, car break-ins, we never saw that growing up here,” he said. “It’s just so sad to see this happening.”
Sweeney has been working since he was 14, selling soda alongside Tom Hanks at the Oakland Coliseum. He’s up for spending more time with his wife, Cindy, a hospitality executive whom he chatted up at a cable car stop about a quarter-century ago, and their four grandchildren.
Outside the hotel, cable car training instructor Tsombe Wolfe hopped off for his own photo with Sweeney.
“Tom’s the guy. Man, he’s the staple,” he says. “He’s an ambassador to the city, just like the cable cars.”
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Photo credit: Tom Sweeney in front of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco. Eric Risberg / Associated Press