In 2010, famous Chicago steakhouse Morton’s opened its first outpost in mainland China at the IFC in Pudong, Shanghai as part of an effort to double down on growth in Asia as U.S. business slumped. Two years prior, the financial crisis had caused Wall Street expense accounts to tighten purse strings, and suddenly a $55 steak seemed out of the question. On top of that, surging beef prices eroded margins for the legendary steakhouse, leading to years of consecutive loss.
Morton’s initial pivot to Asia wasn’t enough—in 2012, it was taken over by Landry’s Inc. CEO Tilman Fertitta, who bought the company in a $117 million cash deal.
Landry’s, which went private last year, owns casinos, restaurants, across the United States, including Landry’s Seafood House, Rainforest Café, McCormick & Schmick’s Seafood Restaurant, and Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., and brought in $2.5 billion of revenue in 2012. Fertitta is known for having a keen eye for consumer demands and experience modernizing struggling brands. Since taking the helm at Morton’s, he has systematically refreshed the 70-plus locations across the globe, updating the menus and ambience to reflect a lighter, hipper concept including more affordable options aimed at attracting a younger crowd. In Fertitta’s words, “It’s not going to be your daddy’s steakhouse.”
In China, Morton’s has seen stunning success in its IFC location, the world’s largest, as well as Morton’s Steakhouse on Beijing’s Jinbao Street. With this foundation and a wealthy clientele that is generally open to new concepts, Morton’s recently unveiled its second Shanghai restaurant, the world’s first Morton’s Steak and Seafood Grille, a debut concept marrying the original steakhouse with Landry’s established seafood expertise. Located in Shanghai’s prestigious iapm Mall on Huaihai Road, it is the group’s sixth restaurant in Asia, featuring an eight-meter-long fresh seafood bar showcasing daily imported seafood in addition to Australian grain-fed beef. The nautical-themed ambience replaces traditional leathers and wood paneling with white-painted walls and opal mosaics. The menu is an eclectic mix of steakhouse classics and pan-Asian flavors like Ahi Tuna Poke and Fried Chili Squid.
Jing Daily recently caught up with Morton’s Asia Regional Director of Operations Steve McCrimmon about the new concept and the company’s plans for the future.
Can you talk about the company’s decision to appeal to a wider audience since the Landry’s takeover?
From the company’s point of view, we wanted to explore new opportunities and new ideas but still be able to reassure and commit to the guest’s expectations on quality, so we kept the name “Morton’s”. We also kept our commitment to offering the best quality available while introducing a grille menu with a much wider selection of menu items in all areas, which are not necessarily priced the same as a piece of top quality steak. The response we have received has been tremendous in both the United States and Asia and we are able to offer very new and exciting dishes which would not normally be in the traditional steakhouse realm.
This is the first Morton’s Steak & Seafood Restaurant in the world. Can you talk about the concept and why you chose Shanghai to debut it?
We did not want to offer something exactly the same as what we are offering in Pudong. We also felt that Shanghai is a mature and exciting dining market where people are very open to new ideas and concepts. There is a huge array of fresh seafood and shellfish available in Shanghai which is top quality and would very much fit our new design, so we created an oyster bar offering a minimum of eight different types of oysters each day. We put Kaluga caviar on the menu, which is great quality Chinese caviar, and we have a lot more daily fresh seafood items on the menu prepared in several different ways. In order to correctly portray our new menu concept we came up with a restaurant design that does reflect that but at the same time keeps some signature Morton’s elements like a focal bar with Happy Hour and booth seating, plus we still have two private rooms and a great terrace.
The menu departs a lot from original Morton’s. Can you talk about the inspiration and underlying Chinese consumer trends that influence the new dishes?
We wanted our menu to contain the signature Morton’s dishes that have made our company famous and successful but also wanted to use some of the fantastic menu items from our other restaurants in the company like “Oceanaire”. We want to ensure that our menu reflects our American and Morton’s steak heritage and expand on that with vibrant seafood creations from our sister concepts, using the fantastic fresh product that comes into Shanghai every day. It is a testament to the city and the people living in it on the excellent variety and freshness of all the different types of food products coming in. We also feel very confident with our menu as we feel that our guests in Shanghai are very open and very much excited about our food. Again, in keeping the name “Morton’s”, we are guaranteeing the quality of our food, service and presentation, which is vitally important as our guests understand and appreciate our commitment to excellence and consistency.
How has business been in the three years since opening in China, and what can we expect from Morton’s in the next three to five years?
We are always looking for new opportunities in Asia. We have had great success in China with Morton’s, we have been greatly received in Shanghai and Beijing and obviously would like to continue and build on that success. It is more of selecting the right location. I am sure that there will be more restaurants in China in the future.
Based in Shanghai, Jenny is a freelance writer, producer and photographer. She has been published in Conde Nast Traveler, Epicure, Time Out, CNNGo, and has appeared on BBC’s documentary “Exploring China: A Culinary Journey” and “Fresh Off the Boat”, an award-winning food show on Vice.com. She writes the blog JING THEORY, a website about Chinese food culture.
She was born in Chengdu, a UNESCO City of Gastronomy.