When Mark and Terri Stark opened Stark's Steakhouse, their fourth restaurant, on New Year's Eve of 2007, their intention was to create a fine dining experience where people could enjoy a high-quality cut of meat. But within months, as their numbers began to plummet alongside the stock market, the restaurateurs were in a panic.
On a trip to Seattle, Mark watched an empty bar fill with people enjoying the cheap eats of an afternoon happy hour. Inspired, he brought the idea home and created the "Blues Buster Happy Hour Menu with Prices Good Until the Dow Hits 10,000." Soon the bar was packed, even overflowing into the dining room. Thanks to a traveling food blogger, Stark's happy hour gained a reputation from Southern California to Washington state as the best afternoon nosh on the West Coast.
"The day the Dow hit 10,000," Terri tells me, "the phone was off the hook with people begging us not to stop." Unwilling to let their customers down, the Starks revised their promise. "We said, 'We'll do it until your house value is back,'" Terri says, laughing. To this day, Stark's unchanged happy hour menu, arguably the best thing to come out of the bad economy, lives on.
Mark and Terri met at California Cafe in Palo Alto in 1995. Just a few years later, as Silicon Valley's dot-com boom went bust, business opportunities became as scarce as Twinkies this Thanksgiving. Doors were swinging shut. "Forget about even borrowing an egg from your neighbor," Terri laughs, "this was survival of the fittest."
In 2001, tired of trying to keep up with the Joneses, the Starks left Menlo Park, where they'd been working in restaurants for years—Mark cooking, Terri catering—and moved to Sonoma County. They were immediately plugged into the culinary circuit, thanks to Terri's well-connected mother, with roots in the county four generations deep. Within four days, acclaimed local chefs Michael Hirschberg and Lisa Hemenway were in their living room, chatting about possible opportunities. "The climate and the people really resonated with us," Terri says. Doors started opening.
Literally. One afternoon, in an effort to avoid the traffic on 101, Terri stopped for a glass of wine at the Orchard Inn on Old Redwood Highway. Charmed, she mentioned the site to Mark, who liked how "it's in the middle of nowhere, but it's also in the middle of everywhere." During a meeting with their real estate broker the next morning, they found out the building was for sale and immediately needed a thousand dollars to make a bid. "I wrote the check," Terri says, "and then called the realtor to ask when it might get cashed." Mark chimes in: "We didn't even have a thousand dollars."
In fact, the couple who would go on to open five successful restaurants didn't even have a business plan—"We had something written on a napkin," Mark quips—but they did have a vision. Since they rarely eat entrées ("Too big a commitment"), they wanted to open a restaurant that served nothing but appetizers. "That style of sharing," says Mark, "creates a mini-party."
And so, a year after moving to the county, the Starks opened Willi's Wine Bar in August of 2002. "There was never any plan to open more than one place," they tell me. But after three months of filling tables, another door swung open, and they were invited to start Willi's Seafood & Raw Bar in Healdsburg. And thus the Starks' vision of running a little mom-and-pop restaurant—Mark cooking, Terri managing, both of them relaxing over espresso in the afternoon—was soon supplanted by a much grander reality.
In just two years, they opened three restaurants, each time maxing out their credit cards and refinancing their house to meet the expenses. When it came time to name their third restaurant, a Mediterranean-style rotisserie and bar in Montgomery Village, they were determined to make use of the leftover coasters bearing the letter "W" from Willi's. Turned upside down, they worked perfectly for the name Monti's, a tribute to the kids who attend nearby Montgomery High.
The Happy Kitchen
Given their impressive roster of restaurants—to which their fifth, Bravas Bar de Tapas, has just recently been added—you'd be forgiven for assuming the Starks are as highfalutin' as their cuisine. But you couldn't be more wrong.
In stark contrast to the bottom-line approach of many restaurants, Mark and Terri are first and foremost concerned about the 245 people they employ. "We're not here to make money," Mark tells me. "We're here to make friends."
Proof can be found in the many employees, like Chris Smith, who have worked for them for nearly a decade, a lifetime in the restaurant business. Eager to learn the biz in the hopes of opening his own restaurant, Smith figured he'd stick around for about five years. Eight years later, after working up the ranks from line cook to sous chef to chef de cuisine to his current position as floor manager at Willi's Seafood, he has no plans to leave anytime soon.
"The amazing thing about the Starks," Smith tells me, "is how they help people reach their goals." That and what he calls "the fringe benefits" of enjoying home-cooked meals and sampling new restaurants with his bosses, who have created one big extended family.
Smith embodies the Stark's commitment to promoting from within, what Terri refers to as "stocking our own pond." All of their chefs started out working for them as cooks, and, in some cases, dishwashers. Instead of stoking the flames of competition, the Starks value cooperation and mentorship. As Mark puts it, "You didn't come out of the womb with a sauté pan and an apron. If you are a chef, someone helped to get you here, so you're going to turn around and do the same thing for someone else."
In a time when too many people are being devoured by vulture capitalism, the Starks' "lift as we climb" philosophy inspires. During the worst of the economic collapse, they prioritized paying their workers over their taxes. As for the bottom line? A peek at their reservation books confirms that happy workers lead to happy customers. As Mark says, "You can't get good food out of a miserable kitchen."