Occupation: Owner of Croce’s Restaurant and Jazz Bar
Personal: Born in Philadelphia. Lives in Bankers Hill with her husband, Jimmy Rock. Son is A.J. Croce, 40, also a musician and well-known performer.
Education: Attended Rhode Island School of Design and Moore College of Art and Design.
Professional background: Performed as a singer from 1963 to 1973. Opened Croce’s in 1985, followed by the Jazz Bar and the now-closed Top Hat Bar and Grill, Ingrid’s Cantina and Upstairs at Croce’s. Has authored three cookbooks, including the not yet released “Photographs and Memories: Recipes from Croce’s Restaurant and Jazz Bar.” Most recently has completed a biography, “I Got a Name, The Jim Croce Story,” which is not yet out.
Personal interests: Fine art, running, yoga.
It was 1973, and Ingrid Croce and her famous singer-songwriter husband Jim Croce, home after touring for two years, hired their first baby sitter to watch their toddler son and headed downtown to San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter in search of a fun place to eat. They were startled to find a gritty neighborhood devoid of any restaurants or people other than vagrants.
It was the last time Ingrid Croce recalls being with her husband before he died that same year in a plane crash. Twelve years later, her own career as a performer over, she opened a restaurant in the Gaslamp where she and Jim had envisioned one day entertaining their musician friends like Arlo Guthrie, James Taylor and Jimmy Buffett.
Today, Croce’s Restaurant and Jazz Bar is known as the historic district’s most enduring restaurant, weathering numerous economic ups and downs as the Gaslamp has undergone a dramatic transformation over the past few decades.
Now a successful businesswoman and author, Croce spent some time recently talking about her career, her late husband and strong passion for the restaurant industry.
Q: What inspired you to open a restaurant at all?
A: After more than a decade of litigation related to Jim’s passing, I had gone on the road and was ready to go out and promote my music, but I developed a tumor on my vocal cords and after two operations realized I couldn’t sing again. A friend came over, and we talked about what were my assets other than music. So I ended up making her blintzes that night, and she said this is what you should do. The next day I found a location at Fifth and University in Hillcrest. It was called Blinchiki. It was there for about nine months until the landlord gave me a month’s notice.
Q: Why open your restaurant in an area that had yet to revitalize and had far less foot traffic than today?
A: I envisioned a spectacular downtown, and I’d seen what the artists in SoHo (in New York City) had done. I thought, OK, I’d love to be in on the development of the Gaslamp, and what better way to have my tribute to Jim in the best location in the Gaslamp. It took me a year and a half to get a liquor license, and then we opened the jazz bar in 1987. That day my house burned down to the ground. It was like another omen. Everything but two photo albums had been taken to Croce’s. We were so lucky.
Q: How much do you think the name Croce has helped build the business?
A: The name of our new biography is called “I Got a Name, The Jim Croce Story.” When you build a brand, the brand will carry you if you carry it properly. Certainly, when people go by, almost 40 years after his passing, they ask if there’s any relation. The initial stopping of people at that front door certainly will bring people in, but the thing that keeps Croce’s alive is the American contemporary cuisine and the live music and the attention to detail, and most importantly, its authenticity.
Q: Many successful restaurateurs eventually will open many more places in other locations. Why have you not chosen to go that route?
A: So many people have asked, why don’t you open in Las Vegas, Philadelphia, New York? But I don’t think Croce’s would have been the success it is if I wasn’t there. It’s important to listen to people, to hear what Jim Croce meant to them, how the experience here carries on that memory.
Q: You’ve been very involved in the local Restaurant Association and helped launch the successful Restaurant Week program several years ago. What would you say are the biggest issues facing restaurateurs in this county?
A: I think experience is the most important thing any restaurateur can bring to the table. A lot of people think that opening up a restaurant is easy; they have money, and they make it look beautiful. Building a brand that will bring people to the market takes a lot of research, experience and a lot of luck. If you haven’t set aside a large amount of money for the months you don’t do well, you’ll fail right away.
Q: Restaurants went through a very tough time during the recession and some have continued to struggle. Are you finding people are now more willing to spend money on dining out?
A: I have seen it pretty steady for us. Eighty-five percent of Croce’s is conventioneers and visitors, so we did not feel what a lot of other restaurants felt. Right now we have a new GM who’s put a new cocktail and bar program. During recessions people will spend more on beverage than on food, so that’s helped us tremendously. The other thing we’ve done and which we’ll promote very soon are tapas, and we’ve put in a very strong beer program, so that’s been very helpful.
As mentioned at San Diego Union Tribune