The day after the motorbike incident, I sit with 64-year-old Kriger, a Portland, Ore., native, in the “drinking lounge” on the second floor of Rick’s, overlooking the port. In the center of the small room sits a roulette table, its top covered with glass, the chips permanently sitting on No. 22. (That’s the number Bogart’s Rick advised a Bulgarian refugee to bet on in order to win money for his and his wife’s transit letters.) Casablanca posters, including a Japanese one, blanket the walls, and the subtitled film loops silently. Downstairs, lunch is being served, and Kriger disappears once during our interview to greet the U.S. consul general and the Korean ambassador.
She was once part of that diplomatic corps. A former travel agent who ran her own successful company, Kriger moved to Tokyo in 1985 with her son and managed an executive office center for businesses new to the market. She loved Japan, where she had lived twice before, and enjoyed helping firms break into the Japanese market. But as her son approached his adolescent years, “I wanted to get back under the American umbrella,” she says. She applied to the U.S. Commercial Service, a federal agency that promotes international trade, assuming her familiarity with Japanese language and culture would help her win a position there.
“If you feel curious and open, and you’re willing to discover, it’s a country that will just keep feeding you,” she says. “The people are so hospitable and open.” Morocco is known for its cuisine, fine materials and workmanship. And Casablanca, a mostly 20th-century city that lacks the tourism draws of ancient Marrakech and Fez, suited Kriger well. She loved shopping for oysters and produce at the Marché Central, a walled open-air market in the city center. She appreciated local efforts to restore the colonial architecture. And she liked that Casablanca is a “real city,” chaotic and intellectually vibrant, with a powerful economy that doesn’t revolve around selling carpets to tourists.
What she didn’t like was working for the government. “I had too much entrepreneurial experience and independence to be happy working for a large bureaucracy,” she says. “I became known in Washington as someone who just wasn’t going to play the game.” When her Morocco appointment drew to an end and she was offered a transfer back to Japan, she declined.
She still wanted to be a diplomat, but in another form. “Rick’s Café could be a symbol that could stand for America: sacrifice for the common good, optimism, risk-taking and decency,” she says. It could also highlight Morocco, a modern, tolerant country and one of America’s staunchest allies. The fact that Rick’s Café Américain had existed only as a set on the Warner Bros. lot in Hollywood — where nearly all the movie was filmed — didn’t deter Kriger. And she remained undaunted despite knowing she would be tinkering with a silver-screen icon adored by millions of movie lovers. Kriger visited her friend Driss Benhima, the governor of Grand Casablanca. “You need to find a place in the old medina,” he said, envisioning that Rick’s could spur other investment there. Kriger had seldom visited the medina; she thought of it as the place one goes to buy counterfeit handbags. But Benhima walked her through a more architecturally distinguished section, and her interest was piqued.
Two months later, they visited a house that on first blush didn’t look very promising, with its bare bulbs, broken stairs and cracked plaster. Then the owner’s daughter opened an interior door — and Kriger saw the space was palatial. It had a central courtyard topped with an octagonal cupola, and a balcony overlooking the ocean. “It was totally, totally perfect,” she says — and available for only $175,000. “It was a sign to me that this was my destiny.” She watched the movie again that night — and in 2002, she quit her job to work on Rick’s full time.