Rich “Big Vinny” Lieberman talks pizza, profits and politics.
When you’re Rich “Big Vinny” Lieberman, living large is no accident—it’s his contractual obligation. As the official “man about town” for the Matier & Ross page on the San Francisco Chronicle’s www.sfgate.com Web site, Big Vinny’s job is to contribute bons mots gleaned from hangin’ at hot clubs and restaurants in the Bay Area and beyond. He also weighs in on sports, politics and anything else that comes to mind. Written in a Herb-Caen-as-blogger style, Lieberman also likes to take shots at favorite targets such as Beltway insider Tim Russert. On Russert’s penchant for penning tomes to his dad (“Big Russ”), Lieberman writes that the old man was clearly an inspiration to Russert, “especially to his pocketbook.” Oakland-bred, Lieberman started out in radio in the ’80s, eventually befriending and working for Larry “Sarasota, hello” King, but transitioned to selling cars to make some moola—something he still does for Good Chevrolet in Alameda. I met up with him recently at his back lot office where, between puffs on a Hoya de Monterey cigar, Lieberman held court and almost put me behind the wheel of a low-mileage Aveo.
Paul Kilduff: I know people look to you for political insights. Right now you’re a big proponent of a Gore/Obama ticket. Why?
Rich Lieberman: I think that’s an absolutely unbeatable ticket. To offset the fear amongst people with regards to Obama that he doesn’t have experience. He’s only a what? A first-term senator. Gore’s been there. I think he’s just having so much fun doing this global warming [thing] and he’s a rock star and he won the Oscar. To me, if he don’t run now he’s not going to because by then he’ll be in his 60s. I think he’s going to run. You know why? He’s takin’ the weight off.
PK: Shaved the beard. But, he needs to stop making jokes about how he’s so stiff. He’s not stiff. Ten years ago maybe. He’s actually very slick.
RL: Well you have to be. I think this is going to be a lot like ’76, because of Watergate, and ’92 when people were just so fed up with the first Bush and the economy was the shits so Clinton was going to win no matter what.
PK: How did you become Big Vinny of the Round Table?
RL: This guy just walked onto the lot. He was doing a documentary on Earth Day back in 2000 and thought I was funny and he was actually having a casting call. His name was John Crawford. Big advertising guy. He hired me. In fact I was going to New York for a couple of weeks of vacation and he says I’d like you to be in these commercials and I’ll even pay your way back from New York if you can cut it short a couple of days. I didn’t know how huge the guy was and I heard that he was like the Michael Jordan of ad guys. And I had never acted before. He wanted me because he thought I had this kind of Brooklynese type of shtick.
PK: So you kind of gave the California-based Round Table Pizza chain a much needed New York kick in the pants. But you kept selling cars. Why?
RL: That’s what everybody asks me. The car business—I love doing this because fortunately I’ve been able to work some real cool places. People equate this business with being a lawyer or digging ditches for cemetery plots. I love this. I enjoy what I do. I love selling. I don’t really particularly like LA, not because I’m the usual San Francisco “We hate LA” type. I couldn’t fathom living down there. It sounds very glamorous but that’s not my shtick. I wouldn’t feel comfortable. The only thing I’d like to do, if I could do it and dictate, I’d love to have Larry King’s job. Where I could sit and do an interview show and talk to the Pope or Bill Clinton or Barry Bonds. If I could do something like that I’d bite my tongue and hold my nose if I had to go to LA. Other than that, no. I don’t want to be in a casting call with a whole bunch of people who’re almost as insecure as I am. This is enjoyable. This is like being in theater. I dictate my own terms. I don’t have to worry about some consultant coming into my life saying, “You know, that guy’s a little too robust. His ratings are not doubled.” My ratings would be spectacular, modest man that I am. I like this because I’m in control.
PK: What’s not to love? Wood paneling. Air conditioning. Photos of media luminaries on the walls.
RL: They love me. I do my own car company’s commercials. I’m falling off chairs. They take good care of me.
PK: I’m sure you saw the A&E series King of Cars. That show makes it seem like such a pressure cooker. Why would anyone want to sell cars?
RL: There’s a movie kind of along that same genre called Suckers and that’s the epitome of everybody’s worst nightmare about car salesmen. That was a Hollywood production, as was that television show. Gone are the days of the guys in the plaid suits and the cowboy hats and taking your keys, throwing them on top of the roof. I wish it was like that because it would certainly be funnier and a lot more friendly, but the Internet has screwed [it] up, it’s affected our business. It’s taken the theater out of the transaction whereas now more people who come into purchase a car already know what they want. They literally know the price (except for used cars). So that image is a generalization. It’s a stereotype. Because in most of the car business right now you don’t have that type of skullduggery and hyperbole and people grabbing you and putting you in a little room and locking you up. First of all, that very rarely takes place. Again, most of it is caused by the Internet. Because you can go on a computer right now and know a price. You don’t even have to go into a dealer. You can literally call the guy up and say, “Hey, you got a car that I want? Here’s what I’m going to pay. Would you take it?” “Yeah.” So you go in.
PK: Used cars—that’s where all the money is, right?
PK: Because everybody knows what you paid for the new cars.
RL: But you know what, and I’ve said this before, not just to great journalists like yourself—there is no difference between this and, say, going into Sears and paying $500 for a refrigerator—with one exception. At Sears you cannot negotiate whereas with cars you can. Secondly, my cousin is involved in the jewelry business. Herb Cohen, who wrote You Can Negotiate Anything, laughs at people who walk into a jewelry store and buy a ring and routinely pay $2,000 for a ring when they can negotiate it. And when there’s 300 percent markup, which there is, so that $2,000 ring probably cost the guy $200. Where if you paid $1,000 it probably cost him $100. So the car business is only different in that it’s a bigger ticket. Therefore everybody thinks they’re getting screwed or that the pressure’s higher because naturally it’s a bigger ticket. That’s all. The car business is no different from you buying a loaf of bread or going out to dinner at Gary Danko with your date on a Saturday night. Talk about markup. Talk about being hosed. You walk out of there—if you have a bottle of wine—you’re talking about $500. You can negotiate that. People don’t know that. The theater’s a little bit different. The setup is a little different.
PK: Are you guys pushed to sell extended warranties?
RL: Nobody pushes me. I push people. This store is very heavily involved in warranties, yes. We do. I’m unabashedly up front about that. I tell people, “Look, you’re not buying a shirt at Macy’s where you can just bring it back the next day. The second biggest purchase next to a house is an automobile. So yes, get an extended warranty.” Now, is there a mark-up on warranties? Of course, there’s a markup on everything. We’re not a non-profit organization.
PK: If the car’s good, why would you have to get an extended warranty?
RL: Because you’re taking care of your investment. Would I buy one? It depends on the vehicle. If it’s a Toyota, chances are you’re not going to have any problems. But say after the warranty runs out if you buy a new one, let’s say your transmission goes out? It could happen. You want to pay $100 or do you want to pay four grand? It’s peace of mind. I’m very aggressive about that but I’m not going to let it prevent a sale.
PK: What’s the least you’ll take in profit on a sale?
RL: Oh, I try and nail people pretty much. No.
PK: As much as possible? $200?
RL: I don’t know. I do know. First of all, most cars are financed and banks will only finance so much. I wish there was as much profit as people think there is.
PK: You wrote recently that if girls were cars you’d be in a Ford Pinto for life. What did you mean by that?
RL: Ah, well. I usually get screwed in the back and my whole social life explodes like the Ford Pinto. Which by the way, you name it after a fucking bean, no wonder it explodes. Thank you. My joke. No, I feel like Richard Lewis when it comes to relationships.
PK: Settling down, wouldn’t that screw up the man about town/gossip-meister thing?
RL: Yeah, not to mention 50 percent of my livelihood. Look, Tony Randall was able to cultivate a relationship where he had a baby when he was 80. So, I think there’s plenty of time. God willing, my health stays the same or I improve it or lose my weight that I [gained]. I can always get married.
PK: You’re doing a gossipy thing. Are we gossip-deprived here in the Bay Area? I mean it seems limited to media personalities—Gavin Newsom and the odd sports star. Is Ron Dellums potential fodder?
RL: No, no, no.
PK: Is he too busy cleaning up Oakland once and for all?
RL: Well, no.
PK: All he does is travel to mayors’ conferences.
RL: I think he wanted the job so he could have a card and have a title. I don’t know. With him, let’s give him a little bit of a honeymoon. He’s had six months but this is a very tough town to govern so the jury’s still out on that one.
PK: What about Jerry Brown?
RL: I’m a sports fan. I think he had a tremendous opportunity to really do a lot of things with sports as kind of a mother ship. He could have really developed the downtown with a stadium even though he’s not a sports fan.
PK: That site is now under construction for condos.
RL: Which we need like a hole in the head. I’m not against housing.
PK: Isn’t that bullshit—downtown Oakland is where everybody should live? Just because he wants to live in the old Sears building—if he still is now that he’s Attorney General.
RL: He might be Ed Jew. Maybe he really lives in Sacramento where he should be.
PK: You will go from Oakland to San Francisco to hang out, but how many San Franciscans do you know who’ll come to the East Bay? It takes an act of God for this to happen (not withstanding my trip over here today).
RL: I think it’s changing now. You’ve got a lot of these little Rockridge restaurants.
PK: Snooty San Franciscans are coming to Rockridge?
RL: Well, this [is] Wood Tavern. These are people who had this thriving restaurant in San Francisco and they just opened up this place over on College Avenue in Rockridge. You have Doug Washington. He owns Town Hall and a couple of other restaurants over there, looking at a place in Oakland near Rockridge. You have Ozumo, which is next to Boulevard, opening up an 8,000-square-foot Japanese restaurant on West Grand and Broadway where they have that big condo. So I think the restaurant people are coming and not to just to see Alice Waters. But San Francisco, look it’s still the preeminent city in the Bay Area. We couldn’t even have our own fire. It was not the Oakland fire, it was the East Bay fire. But I think it’s changing to a degree. Let’s face it. The murders, the homicides, crime. But that happens everywhere. If you go back east, you go Newark, NJ, Oakland is like Shangri-la compared to those towns. It’s got crime. It’s essentially a pretty, beautiful city but there are pockets of urban wasteland.
PK: What about neighborhoods in Oakland that people think aren’t Oakland? Montclair, my homies in the aforementioned Rockridge, the area around the Claremont Hotel—that’s all Oakland but it’s the best-kept secret in real estate.
RL: That’s why I have a little bit of an issue with those people. They’re a little foo-fooish. When you go to DC people in Georgetown say, “I live in Georgetown.” Well, you live in DC. Same thing with Montclair. “I live in Montclair.” Where’s that? Oakland. If I go back east I say I live in Oakland.
PK: Do they feel sorry for you?
RL: They ask me if I have any crack. I remember when crack was part of your anatomy. No, hey, what can I say?
PK: Are you saying Rockridge- and Montclair-dwellers are snobs?
RL: Not so much that.
PK: I think you are.
RL: Maybe I might be. Maybe they are.
PK: Do the Raiders hurt or help the image of Oakland?
RL: I’ve had a metamorphosis about the Raiders. I actually think, other than the fact that they put Oakland on their location, they’ve become a detriment to the city. Al Davis is in failing health. He’s the last refuge to their storied past. I always used to tell people that at one point the Raiders were like the New York Yankees of the NFL. Everybody knew the Raiders. They had a booster club in London. But that mystique has changed. They suck. They don’t play inspiring football. And they attract a certain kind of ugly, thuggish crowd now. I’m only 45 years old but I remember in the ’70s going to games and you had blue-collar guys, but people would go to the game to have a good time. There were no fights in the stands. Now I wouldn’t go out there. They’re boring. The team is inept. The front office is inept. They have no community involvement in Oakland. Their front office is paranoid. They have no PR department and they’re the worst-run organization in professional sports. I get ashamed sometimes saying I was a Raider fan. I used to have a sticker on my car.
PK: So now what are you? Rich Lieberman, erstwhile 49er fan? Talk about snobs.
RL: No, I’ll never go down that road. No, I’m not going to root [for] the ’Niners.
PK: Thank God. At least we can be friends.
RL: The Forty Whiners with their stadium. Where are we going to play? Santa Clara? Hunters Point? Berkeley? Maybe they ought to go play in Irwindale. Or maybe they should go to Millbrae. Why don’t they play at the airport or whatever. I’m tired of hearing about where they’re going to play. The guy is worth a billion dollars—build your own damn stadium. I’ll never, never, ever root for the white wine-cheesers.
PK: Then what do you do during football season—mope?
RL: I go out and get coffee. Peet’s. Read the New York Times and try to get Al Gore to run. If the Raiders were to one day do well I would root for ’em. But I’m not as euphoric and passionate as I once was simply because there’s nothing positive about that franchise. They bring scorn. I don’t know if they’re going to even try and move again. Who knows? Their lease is up in 2011.
PK: Speaking of stadiums, why can’t the Raiders and 49ers share the Coliseum? It works in New York for those mortal enemies, the Giants and the Jets.
RL: That involves too much logic.
PK: It makes too much sense.
RL: It’s like putting a stadium for baseball in Jack London Square where there’s the 10,000th condo going up right now.
PK: You’re doing a Herb Caen-type column. The rumor was he never had to pick up a tab for anything—are you getting a lot of freebies out of your Matier & Ross gig?
RL: My mission in life is to have a free steak everywhere I go. I am a professional freeloader and I’m damn proud of it. So if you want to feed me a steak or give me some croutons for my salad or truffles, I am an equal opportunity freeloader. Absolutely. Give me free food. That’s my motto. Free food. Free booze. Women. Chicks. Everything. Robin Williams. Sit-downs with Paris Hilton. I don’t want to lift a dollar out of my damn wallet. It’s all free. Comp is [my] middle name. Praise the world.
PK: Your bud Larry King—does he really not read the books?
RL: People get on him because he tosses softball questions. And he doesn’t read books and he’s somewhat superficial and that’s the very reason he’s successful because people who go on that show, they know they’re not sitting down with Mike Wallace and that’s fine. He doesn’t claim to be Edward R. Murrow. He is what he is. It’s what CNN wants him to do. He’s just like a guy sitting at a deli eating a corned beef sandwich and drinking a cup of coffee and having a cream soda with it.
PK: Doesn’t he do a little too much ambulance-chasing, though?
RL: Particularly with Anna Nicole Smith, he did like 86 shows, but a lot of that was CNN.
PK: It’s not his fault.
RL: He’s going with what the story was. It’s just like Paris Hilton. That story is America. Scott Peterson. You think people cared about the CIA leak case? I doubt anyone in Walnut Creek even knows who the hell Valerie Plame is or what she was.
PK: Scooter Libby?
RL: Sounds like a guy that bought his bicycle at Hank and Frank’s in Oakland. More people voted for American Idol than they did in the last election. That’s what we are. God bless America. That’s what we’ve become, for better or for worse.
PK: So, most people aren’t policy wonks. They like gossip.
RL: Right. I take my National Enquirer and wrap it around a New York Times. But going into Rockridge, I do it the other way around.
Age: 45 | Birthplace: Oakland (but really NY in a spiritual kind of way)
Astrological sign: Do you really want to know? OK, I’m an Aquarius, but don’t start singing the Fifth Dimension to me.
First real job: I worked at a law firm in Oakland for some hot-shot personal-injury lawyer. He thought I was a pain-in-the-ass, but to avoid early termination, I helped him move his family’s furniture to a new home in Piedmont. I told him he was lucky—most Jews don’t do heavy lifting.
Favorite pizza topping: Cheese, lots of it, and not that gooey Velveeta crap, either.
Mideast Peace Plan: Free po rk-fried rice for everyone.
Do you compost? Only if I can get a hot date doing it with me.