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.