Tom Sweeney, San Francisco’s famous Beefeater-cloaked doorman who greeted visitors at the threshold of Union Square’s Sir Francis Drake Hotel for over four decades, said he is hanging up his red coat, and closing the door on his long career.
Sweeney, who’s been a fixture out front of the Sir Francisco Drake since 1976, plans to retire in January, capping a long career as Union Square’s most recognizable figure.
"I’m on third base heading home," Sweeney said on a recent day above the din of Powell Street. "But it was a good run."
The legendary doorman is known for greeting everyone who walks by the hotel, while lugging as many as 500 suitcases a day, posing for as many photos, hailing taxis and rattling off directions to legions of tourists. Friends are greeted with an, "Oh yeah," punctuated with a finger snap.
He’s rubbed elbows with movie stars and sports figures and had meetups with political honchos, such as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who requested to meet the legendary doorman. Actress Sharon Stone once auctioned off his hat for charity. And he’s given thousands of visitors from around the world an encounter with a true old-school San Francisco eclecticism.
"He’s so much more than a doorman," said Kevin Carroll, director of the Hotel Council of San Francisco. "He’s one of those people that when you go home you’ll talk about how special he made you feel when you arrived at that hotel."
Sweeney’s path to working with the public was laid even before he donned the red coat. He spent several years working as a vendor at Candlestick Park. He originally intended to follow his classmate chums from San Francisco’s Archbishop Riordan High School into the police or fire academies. But his mother knew the general manager at the Sir Francis Drake and helped him land what he thought would be a temporary doorman gig.
"I was just planning on doing it for a summer job and ended up staying 43 summers, which is pretty bizarre," Sweeney said.
Sweeney witnessed a myriad of changes in his decades on the job. He used to hail around 200 taxis a day, but these days he says most of those runs have been replaced by Uber and Lyft.
He described it as a big blow for bellmen when suitcases started coming equipped with wheels, which meant visitors had less need for their services.
Sweeney estimates he gets asked where the cable car stop is 25,000 times a year. Second most popular is the 15,000 requests for directions to Fisherman’s Wharf. These days he also gets asked some 5,000 times a year where to find an ATM machine.
"It’s just an amazing job where you have to be on stage all the time," Sweeney said. "But best job in the world."
Sweeney packed many memories into his hotel tenure. He once made headlines after tackling a pair of robbers who’d stolen a visitor’s suitcases. He was wearing his Beefeater costume at the time he made the collar. Afterward he was given an award in a ceremony by then-Mayor Diane Feinstein, alongside 49ers greats Joe Montana and Dwight Clark following their miraculous play known as "The Catch."
"So they got it for the catch and I got it for the tackle," Sweeney laughed.
As a reward for breaking up the heist, the hotel sent him on a trip to Hawaii where he ended up making headlines again by swimming out to save a drowning woman. But perhaps his most memorable night on the job was when he spotted the woman who would become his wife.
"I was working a night shift and she was waiting for a cable car to go home to North Beach," Sweeney said.
The couple has two children and four grandchildren who Sweeney plans to spoil in retirement. Sweeney’s post-retirement plans also include pursuing his passion for long-distance running, having run some 31 marathons, including the Boston Marathon. He’s also run in the annual Bay to Breakers in perhaps the most unique costume of all.
"I’ve done 43 Bay to Breakers,” Sweeney said. "Forty of them in my Beefeater outfit, which weighs 40 pounds. Not your everyday running outfit."
Sweeney’s Beefeater outfit cost $600 when he first started the job. Today, the same suit costs $3,000. He has 46 of them stashed in closets and storage. He said he owes a lot to the iconic red costume, which descends from uniforms worn by guards at the Tower of London.
"They opened a lot of doors for me," Sweeney said, holding up one of the uniforms emblazoned with a gold crest. "Without this my career would just be another guy on the street."
Sweeney’s red uniforms are crafted in New York. The black felt hat with its ring of fake flowers is made in Los Angeles. He finishes off the outfit with a pair of bright red socks he buys at a soccer store in the city’s Sunset District.
But even without the bright red wrapper, Sweeney is as colorful as the costume — greeting passengers on cable cars that pass down Powell Street in front of the hotel every nine minutes. He happily poses for pictures and doles out directions, even for tourists who aren’t staying at the hotel. For years he hosted an annual luncheon to recognize the city’s doormen, the unsung heroes of the hospitality industry.
Sweeney said he’ll miss the visitors from around the world he meets on the job but figures he can always walk by the hotel whenever he feels pangs of nostalgia.
"I’ve accomplished more than I ever imagined and I think I have a lot to show for it," said Sweeney, who will be 62 when he retires. "I’ll just remember the memories and the great people from all over the world that made my day."