I’ve heard of couples in the industry who manage to successfully open and run a venue together. This is a rarity to be respected. So, when CW ‘wine country wonder’ rep Sherri Barrows pitched the idea of CW Magazine covering dynamic duo Terri and Mark Stark, who, if you didn’t know, own and operate seven dynamically killer venues in Sonoma County, my mind was blown. Surely she was exaggerating.
Once I settled down and did some research, I discovered that not only do Terri and Mark Stark own and operate seven venues but that the seven venues-Willy’s Wine Bar–Californian comfort but deceivingly complex, (2002); Monti’s Californian–
seafood forward with authentic exotic twists (2004); Stark’s Steak & Seafood–elegant, classic, upscale (2008); Bird & The Bottle–dynamic, and whimsical (2015); Grossman’s Noshery & Bar–modern Jewish deli-diner (2020) in Santa Rosa; Willy’s Seafood (2003) and Bravas–one of a kind killer tapas, voted Top 20 Tapas restaurants in Healdsburg, were all award-winning in their own right and distinctly different from one another. Not to mention that the Starks are James Beard Outstanding Restaurateur Semifinalists.
One thing I became certain of prior to interviewing the Starks, with all the literal plates, venues, ingredients, and employees they’re juggling, was that they must be crazed lunatics and not very accessible and/or fun people. Well, darn it if they didn’t prove me wrong again. Not only are Terri and Mark exceptionally easy and fun to talk to, but for their ‘unicorn’ level of success they are astonishingly humble, get this: happily married and even…How dare they? Funny.
Check out the following taster of CW Mag’s conversation with one-of-a-kind power couple Mark (Executive Chef) and Terri Stark; (Front Of House), brilliant examples of the talented, hard-working, awesome humans CW is so proud of to work with.
Where do you source your ambition and energy?
Mark We just start with a conversation that usually begins with one of us saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if…?’ Everything with us has always grown organically in this way.
Terri And the location. What that location kind of says to us.
Mark Yea, that’s a big part of our motivation.
What is your secret for making a marriage and business partnership work so well on this level?
Mark Pinot Noir and a sense of humor.
Terri We met back in 1995 while working at the same place.
Mark When both people are involved in a restaurant it can take a toll on a marriage. We really love what we do so this makes it easier.
Terri Clear lanes are important, no crossing lanes. When we do, we are quick to remind one another. Still, the separation of church and state can get tough sometimes. Setting boundaries is really important.
Mark We have conflict code words. Terri’s is ‘Shut the F-k up. Mine is, ‘Yes, honey.’
Did you set out to own and operate seven venues?
Mark and Terri NO!!
Mark The plan was, we’d open Willy’s wine bar. Terri would work in front, I’d work back. We’d take a break at 2 pm each day to have an espresso, and then go back to work for dinner. The plan was we would do this for ten years and then
Terri We were pretty successful right out of the gate. Three months after opening Willy’s we were approached about another location for Willy’s Seafood. We were just getting used to having one venue! We ended up opening three venues in under two years.
You have a lot of long-term employees and offer your team supportive employment opportunities. Do you credit this for part of your success?
Mark We have always thought about our employees’ happiness first. We never worried about the customer because if your people are happy, the customers will naturally be happy.
Terri We learned early on that the key to retaining people is to provide the opportunity for them to enjoy work, pursue future goals, make a nice living, get married, go back to school, buy a house, etc. Creating this kind of support system for employees who stay allows you to open new venues. This also allows you to help extend your staff’s knowledge and advancement, which all feeds into the success of our venues.
Keeping one restaurant alive during the pandemic has been greatly challenging for restaurateurs. You have managed to keep all of your venues alive? What do you credit for this?
Mark Our venues being so well received in the community really helped.
Terri And the fact we have all of the venues within a 15-mile radius.
However, Grossman’s opened the day before the shut down so it wasn’t eligible for PPO support.
Mark All the stores except for the steak house had outdoor dining facilities. The steak house had none. To pivot for this, we created a Brazilian Churrascaria (steakhouse). Built a huge wood grill in the parking lot. All you can eat. People still ask for it to return!
How do keep everything firing on all cylinders?
Mark We promote from within.
Terri What that means is that people and culture stay alive in each store. We also have an E.M.T (External Management Team).
Mark Or as many call it, ‘Extra Mark and Terri’s!
Terri EMT assistance greatly supports us across all seven of
our venues. We have been in a relationship with most of them for over 25 years. This extra support allows us to foster greener
employees with learning support for their culinary careers.
Mark The EMTs also help us with external challenges; our present challenge is everything costing too much.
Terri They look for opportunities to control our costs without affecting the guests.
Mark They also help maintain consistency, from the big stuff to little stuff, like making bread crumbs, it’s a small detail but when we noticed our bread crumbs weren’t up to snuff, our EMTs could support this and get everyone on the right track. It’s the little details that matter.
Terri EMTs can also fill in so chefs can go on a vacation and so people don’t get overworked. It’s important for everyone to get a break from time to time.
Which one of your venues currently exemplifies you the most?
Terri Bird in the Bottle. It’s located in a 1906, beautiful two-story building that used to be a doctor’s office in downtown Santa Rosa. It boasts tons of character with a restored wood floor and bespoke design elements.
Mark We love places that used to be cool spots but got worn down by time and neglect and then we bring them back to life in a new way. Like Stark’s Steak house (a Landmark building in Santa Rosa’s Historic Railroad Square in Sonoma County. Built in 1934) was the oldest freestanding building in the area. We’re kind of like venue flippers.
Terri Like Bravas used to be a small old burger joint. When we decided to take it on I asked Mark what we should do there and he said:
Mark Something very small.
Terri So we decided on tapas vis a vis small plates.
Mark Really small plates!
It is deceivingly difficult to maintain a high level of excellence with tapas. And yet you do it so extremely well; so unique and authentic at the same time. As good or better than I’ve had in Spain. How do you make this look easy?
Mark We went to Spain, ate tons of croquettes, read a lot of books and studied.
Terri It’s funny the first day we opened Bravas a man walked in and sat at the bar. Right away he shared that he’s just gotten back from four years in Barcelona.
Mark We were like, Oh great. This is just what we need!
Terri But after his meal, he said he enjoyed our tapas just as much if not more than what he had in Barcelona. He said we assimilated extremely well. Was such a relief!
Healdsburg has become one of the hottest hubs for North America killer cuisine; kind of like a high-end amuse ‘bouchement’ park. What is it like to have such a prominent stake in this culinary mecca?
Mark We were initially nervous to open Willy’s in Healdsburg in 2003 when there were only about, 11,000 local residents. Our inspiration was to appeal to the locals who would also be here during the winter. Then Charlie Palmer opened and put everyone on the map, things started shifting.
Sonoma County is palpably overflowing with vibrant culinary talent who happen to also be nice people. Is there something in the water here?
Mark It is in the water. The restaurant community is a small town. Everyone knows everyone.
Terri The community here is very vibrant and real. They still have a ‘Future Farmers Parade every year. The whole town sets up chairs; very Americana in a very sweet way.
Finally, with seven incredible venues and massively full schedules, is it possible you guys have future plans for a new venue?
Mark You know, we were just talking the other day…
Terri And we were saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be