April 29, 2022 – Before Chef Mercer Mohr’s mother married, she made certain her fiancé knew she did not cook. But that did not mean she lacked interest in the household’s hub of activity. “My mother was an artist. She designed kitchens. We did get a new kitchen like most people get new cars. Every two years we had all of the latest toys. We liked playing around with the latest microwave and JennAir,” Chef Mohr, co-founder of the Wild Thyme Restaurant Group, founder of Mercer’s Kitchen Restaurant Group, and Chaîne member, said to Chaîne during a March 8 telephone interview.
Now 64 and semi-retired, Mercer continues to professionally play around in his home kitchen where he produces and bottles his popular “Chef Crafted and Chef Tasted” hot sauce used in all of his restaurants. In addition, Mercer remains busy creating menus, supporting his staff and above all, staying current and on top of the culinary industry. “Teaching is everything,” he said.
Accumulating vast experience working at fine hotels and successfully transitioning from the corporate world to the unique world of culinary entrepreneurship with a home base in Sedona, Arizona, he is a sage for young chefs. “Make sure you have a retirement plan because chef is not a retirement job. Either work for yourself or have a plan,” he advises. It’s the reality of the profession that after age 50, job offers slow down and after 60, job offers are nonexistent, he added.
Mercer’s passion for the profession is evident as he speaks fondly of his experiences over the years and the many friends he has made. He has been cooking and grilling with friends since he was a teenager growing up outside Buffalo, New York.
Early Years and Culinary Education
Mercer, his two siblings and his dad made good use of their state-of-the-art kitchens, courtesy of his mother’s design expertise. His dad especially liked to cook breakfast. Immersed in German cuisine and Buffalo’s famous chicken wings, Mercer’s high school friends would often come over to grill outside. His family and friends firmly planted his roots in the culinary world but he did not think of it as a career until he was a college student majoring in business at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina.
Washing dishes and mowing lawns to earn money, the Chef at the restaurant where Mercer worked took him under his wings and then literally asked him to take a stab at carving wings on a swan from a block of ice for their weekly Sunday brunch. Mercer’s mother sent him a book with pictures and instructions on ice carving. His second sculpture was far better than anything the chef had created to date, Mercer said. He became the restaurant’s ice carver, a task the chef was more than willing to relinquish since he had just two carvings in his repertoire, a swan and a basket.
Soon the restaurant Chef where Mercer had been working had some advice for his precocious ice carver. He said: “You really should go to school. You are kind of good at this.”
After researching culinary schools, he informed his parents he wanted to enroll in the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York. His father was not keen on the idea as he thought Mercer would have a lonely life as a chef. His mother supported the switch and convinced his father. Mercer’s culinary career was firmly rooted.
After graduation, Mercer accepted a position in the first three-year Hyatt Culinary Training Program, a comprehensive hospitality experience through which professional trainees worked in every department at three hotels of varying size. “It was a great experience,” Mercer said as he chuckled when he added that his training in the laundry department could have been shorter. At the time, Hyatt had about 45 hotels in the United States with aggressive expansion plans that added another 50 hotels in the next few years. After graduation from the Hyatt program, Mercer began his corporate culinary career as part of the Hyatt opening team and in four years, they opened 36 restaurants.
What launched his culinary career path continued as he honed his ice carving skills during this time. A large Hyatt hotel could require four to five ice carvings per day so Mercer became the Dallas Hyatt’s ice carver. The hotel had one freezer just for their ice sculptures. Back then one block of ice cost $30 to $45 but today, each block is $150 so not many customers are willing to pay $1000 for the mercurial amenity, Mercer said. The cost of ice, and its labor intensive nature, have combined to make ice carvings cost prohibitive today.
As a CIA graduate and three years of Hyatt training, job offers poured in. He first worked in Dallas and then became the Executive Sous Chef at the Park Hyatt in San Francisco. From Hyatt, he went to the Four Seasons as the Executive Chef for the 5-star Clift Hotel. A unique job opportunity then opened up with the vendor from whom he was purchasing caviar while at the Four Seasons.
In 2000, Mats and Dafne Engstrom, owners of Tsar Nicoulai Caviar, offered him a job supervising their sustainable fish farm and planning special events to market their caviar. “That was the best job I ever had,” Mercer said. “One day I would be knee deep in mud on a fish farm and the next week I would be doing a caviar dinner at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. It was just fantastic.”
The company opened the Caviar Cafe in San Francisco’s Ferry Building, which has recently reopened as the Tsar Nicoulai Caviar Cafe after being closed for a period of time.
After being invited more than three times to prepare dinner at the James Beard House, in 2002, Chef Mohr received the James Beard Foundation Certificate. Julia Child presented him the honor and the two spoke briefly about wine pairings. “I had my three minutes of fame with Julia Child,” Mercer said.
Mercer spent five years working for Mats and Dafne. “It was the best time in my life,” he said. After the business was sold through a hostile corporate takeover, Mercer decided he would move on. While playing golf in North Carolina, he met Ken Erickson who owned a small shopping complex in Sedona, Arizona. They hit it off right away. Ken explained his anchor restaurant was losing $20,000 per month so he was about to close it. Mercer and a friend had been looking to open a restaurant. Because of their serendipitous meeting on the golf course, Mercer told Ken he would have someone look at it. After hearing Ken’s Creekside Restaurant in Sedona was packed, Mercer committed to moving there to operate it, sight unseen. Within one month, the Creekside American Bistro was paying rent. And the rest is culinary history.
With the Creekside success, Mercer and his partner eventually developed a portfolio of 12 restaurants across multiple states within their Wild Thyme Restaurant Group.
Now a successful culinary entrepreneur, calls for job offers changed to calls to purchase the business. In 2016, Mercer sold Wild Thyme Restaurants and started Mercer’s Kitchen Concepts in Sedona. Mercer retained ownership of Creekside American Bistro and the Mesa Grill. Mercer’s Kitchen Group then started Rascal, a modern diner concept in The Wilde Resort & Spa, as well as Rene Restaurant & Wine Bar. After they had three restaurants, Mercer’s Kitchen Group began a profit sharing program with their employees. “We have very little problem getting people to work here. We treat them right. We pay them more. They’re worth it,” Mercer said. Mercer’s Kitchen Concepts focuses on local, fresh, and organic ingredients in his farm-to-table menu of comfort food.
“Hamburgers have never been more popular,” Mercer said. As the Slow Food movement gains traction again, he has healthier options with less carbs and smaller portions on his menus. Mesa Grill offers three different types of veggie burgers.
His young diners are also embracing non-alcoholic and craft cocktails without questioning price. “I’m so amazed people pay $20 for a cocktail. They don’t even flinch or question it. I think that’s odd. To me, I did not see that coming,” he said. “We sell a lot of them.”
Rascal also sells a tremendous amount of wine with 18 wines on tap and a Captain’s list of 28 wines that can be purchased by the bottle. Arizona vintners are making themselves known both nationally and internationally. The 2022 San Francisco Chronicle American Wine Awards recently bestowed on Arizona’s Pillsbury Wine Company two Double Golds and a total of 13 awards. Pillsbury’s 2019 Petite Sirah “Reserve” and their 2019 Shiraz ‘Guns and Kisses!’ won top honors.
Because of his long focus on high-quality comfort food and his location in Sedona, he weathered the pandemic storm. After being closed for six weeks in 2020, his restaurants have been open continuously since summer 2020. “Mercer’s Kitchen Group did more business during COVID than we ever did before,” Mercer said. Sedona attracted droves of residents from Florida, California and many other states who hopped in their cars for a road trip and a break from the pandemic. It created traffic problems and resulted in long lines at restaurants but Mercer quickly adapted. To handle the surge, Mercer streamlined his menus and constructed a large tent in the back of Mesa Grill for his event and catering business. “It never slowed down,” he said.
Mercer mentors his young chefs to help them on their path to a successful career. He tells them to “make sure and hire people to do what you are not good at. If you are not comfortable with numbers, hire a numbers person and treat them well.” He said he is fortunate in that he made good decisions and made a lot of friends during his career. “I’ve had fun all the way along.”