Top Table

The founder of Dan Ryan’s, Hong Kong’s famed themed restaurant, is a man who knows what’s truly at steak

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Even if you haven’t heard of Merritt Croker, chances are you would have been one of his many patrons. The American have been running a string of prominent themed restaurants for the past three decades.

Croker’s most notable establishment is Dan Ryan’s, a family restaurant famous for its Midwestern comfort food. The former restaurant consultant co-founded Dan Ryan’s with Chicago banker Paul Christenson and a group of local investors in 1989.

“When we opened the first Dan Ryan’s at Pacific Place, I was a very young guy,” the Philadelphia native recalled. “I came to Hong Kong in 1988. I was 32. We opened the restaurant in June 1989 – the same week as (the) Tiananmen Square (crackdown).”

“It was a very interesting and emotional time. That first week, I went look out the front door to Queensway near the UA Cinema. There were a million people marching down the street.”

Dan Ryan’s achieved instant success – to some surprise, as the Midwestern dining culture was such a foreign concept. On the menu were Milwaukee bratwurst, Vienna beef hot dogs, barbecued baby beef ribs, Reuben sandwich and Miller’s beers.

And adding to the culture shock was the ambiance. Interspersed with the jazzy tunes in the background were speeches by the former mayor of Chicago Richard Daley.

An article in the Chicago Tribune written five months after the restaurant opening reported that a Chinese patron asked what English was Daley speaking. After being told it was “Chicagoese, but with a Daley accent,” the patron said: “I didn’t realize they spoke a different kind of English in Chicago. It must be an interesting place.”

“Back then, Pizza Hut and McDonald’s were doing okay, but we were very, very successful. That restaurant was making money within three months. A restaurant with a new concept usually takes about six months to a year to become successful,” explained Croker.

“There was something new, not only about the food and the decor, but about a themed restaurant, the service and how we did everything.”

The first Dan Ryan’s remained hugely popular until it closed in April, when its lease expired. It was pity as the restaurant recorded US$6 to US$7 million (HK$46.8 to HK$54.6 million) in annual sales at one point.

In August, Croker’s company, Windy City International Group, was acquired by Bayshore Pacific Hospitality, a Taiwan- based company which has ventured into the restaurant business since 2013.

Croker now acts as president and chief operating officer of Bayshore Pacific Hospitality. He has also become one of three founding partners of the company.

He and his partners manage five chains in Asia: TGI Friday’s, California Pizza Kitchen, Texas Roadhouse, Dan Ryan’s, and Amaroni’s, an Italian- American cafe and restaurant.

By consolidating the five brands, the company can maintain a consistent dining experience and avoid internal competition.

“For example, in Taiwan, the per person spend at Texas Roadhouse is about 30 percent higher than TGI Friday’s,” he said. “Our aim is to do a few things, and do it well and consistent. We believe a brand is a promise to the customer of delivering a certain dining experience.”

For the past three months, the company has renovated or opened four restaurants in Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Taiwan. For example, Amaroni’s in Festival Walk was reopened in September with an evolved store design and a new menu.

These were part of a two-year expansion plan with the aim of reaching a goal of US$100 million in sales.

“We focus on three key areas – Taiwan, east and south-east China,” he said. “If you add all those up, you are talking about a population larger than Europe.”

A new Dan Ryan’s will open in Cityplaza in Taikoo Shing early next year to replace the Pacific Place flagship. The new restaurant will feature an improved menu and a more female and children friendly environment.

Around 40 percent on the new menu will be the classics. Some will come with a twist, such as potato skins with upscale cheese, apples and smoked bacon. The new items include hand- tossed salads and seafood.

His restaurants mean more than business for the family man.

“I know that as a father, if I can get great food, a cold beer, and my wife can get great food and maybe a glass of wine, and the restaurant welcomes and takes care of my children, then I am a happy person,” he said.

The article first appeared in the Standard on December 9, 2016.

Razzle Dazzle

How Carat London grew to become a mega global jewelry brand

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In the eyes of an outsider, Scott Thompson, a long-time Hong Kong resident, had a pretty good stroke of beginner’s luck when the former pilot decided to dive into jewelry retail without any relatable experience.

Even the Briton himself agrees.

“Piloting does not set you up for doing any businesses,” he said. “In fact, pilots are the worst investors next to doctors when they retire. They usually lose most of their money on some crazy business ideas.”

Lucky for Thompson, he was an exception.

His jewelry brand – Carat London – has grown to become a global name today. The brand has more than 250 retail locations worldwide today, employing 140 staff across three countries.

In the last two years, it has opened in over 40 new locations worldwide. It has also ventured into travel retail in Asia after signing up the Hong Kong-based DFS Group. Another achievement is that pop stars Rita Ora, Ellie Goulding, Lily Allen and Lady Gaga all wore Thompson’s pieces.

Thompson, the son of a pilot and a realtor, founded the jewelry brand in 2003 when he was 28. His first retail store was installed in the street of Lan Kwai Fong.

“I saw a sign on the door. So I called up the landlord and did the deal directly. I did not use a real estate agent,” he recalled. “My mother is a very successful entrepreneur. I learnt from her about how to negotiate.”

Not long after he rented the three-story space, the SARS outbreak ravaged Hong Kong. Although Thompson was able to negotiate the contract down to HK$100,000 a month plus a big rent-free period, his friends thought he had gone “completely bananas.”

That’s because he was building the appeal of Carat London on three seemingly discordant propositions: women’s jewelry designed by a man, fine jewelry at affordable price, and laboratory-created diamonds, not natural ones.

“When we first launched the business, everything we did was in 18-karat gold because, back then, gold was quite cheap at US$220 an ounce,” he recalled. “And we were doing very high quality, hand-cut stones.”

Lane Crawford was the first major business customer. In 2008, the brand opened its first overseas shop in Covent Garden. Shop-in-shop deal with department stores Harrods and Selfridges quickly came.

And when wholesalers approached for partnership opportunities, he thought it was time to open more free-standing locations in Canary Wharf and Burlington Arcade in Mayfair.

Good times did not last. As the financial crisis came, Carat London struggled like everyone else. “I saw a lot of retailers going out of business during that time,” Thompson said. “I remember in one particular shopping mall where we had a shop, almost every shop around us went bust, starting with HMV.”

Britain, where 70 percent of its revenue comes from, is a major market. Thompson believes there is still room for the firm to grow there. However, Asia is a different story. While Thompson does want to build a bigger presence in Hong Kong and the mainland, he remains cautious, calling the two markets “an experiment and a proof of concept.”

“The Asian market, and Hong Kong in particular, has been difficult,” he said. “China is okay, not doing quite as bad as Hong Kong.”

This month, he opened his sixth local store in the V City shopping mall in Tuen Mun. The move signifies a new model of operations – venturing into non-core tourist districts to tap “regional opportunities.” A similar strategy will be deployed in the mainland.

Also, the brand has been trying to hasten production, building in faster and trend-driven product cycle to drive customers’ spending. At the moment, it releases six to eight collections – 300 to 400 pieces – every year. That’s almost one item every day.

Thompson has since designed more accessible collections, such as Heroines and Stella, to woo younger women. His wife Heidi, who manages marketing and public relations at the firm, helps out as a sense checker.

“We can’t rely on a single purchase to make our budget. Our business is about agility and tactics,” he said. “We try to be not ahead of a trend, but when something is trending, we hit it right.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on December 2, 2016.