Pianist and manager of Rick’s Café Issam Chabaa
The Usual Suspects SA/Rick’s Café
Kriger recruited Bill Willis, aN American-born designer living in Marrakech, who drew up plans for everything from the tiled central staircase to the inlaid oak floors. She watched Casablanca repeatedly, taking notes about decor, costumes and lighting. She commissioned 42 beaded lamps, as well as the brass lanterns that now hang in the courtyard. And she decided that, like the original Rick, she would live in an apartment upstairs from the café.
It was all coming together. And it wasn’t.
Clockwise: Chef Rachid Cherkaoui, a view of the ground-floor courtyard and Mise en Place at Rick’s Café
Francisco Guerrero (4)
First, her major investor pulled out, forcing Kriger to solicit funds from her friends and colleagues. (“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world,” she wrote them, “I’d like you to buy into mine.”) The bank tried to rescind her loan. Some of the subcontractors skimped on Willis’ original design, and it was left to Kriger to manage them. Renovations ran 100 percent over budget, to more than $1 million, drawing Kriger’s checking account down to $40 at one point. And in the most crushing development, Benhima, the governor, was transferred away from Casablanca, costing her a powerful ally. “As they say in the movie: After that, there were vultures, vultures everywhere,” she recalls. Bureaucratic hoops popped up, and it appeared to Kriger as if some regulators were soliciting bribes. “I used canny naïveté,” she says. “I would just not even address, ‘Could I pay you something?’ ” When permits were delayed, Kriger complained and threatened to go public. “I had the spirit of Rick: tough and making his way.”
Nobody accused her of being easy to work with. But the result of her hardheadedness was an exacting renovation — and now a successful business.
“Kathy is very demanding from everybody because she’s very tough with herself,” says Chabaa, the pianist, who is also the manager. She has to be: The Bogart movie is always on first-time customers’ minds, and they arrive expecting a place that’s even classier than the studio set. A single mistake can snap them out of their nostalgia. “Because it’s a fantasy, the level of expectation is high,” he says. “People come in straight from Mexico, from Australia, without even checking into their hotels. We can’t disappoint.”
For one recent customer, visiting from Croatia, the fantasy effect was so strong that she thought Kriger might actually have some letters of transit. “Madame Rick? Madame Rick?” she asked, “My boyfriend and I are traveling through West Africa. Can you help us get into Senegal?” Telling me that story, Kriger paraphrases another line from the movie: “I didn’t want to be mean and say, ‘Take my advice and go back to Zagreb.’ ”