Stark restaurant empire built with focus and purpose
Michael Hirschberg recalls the naysayers a decade ago watching Mark and Terri Stark open their second restaurant, a seafood eatery in Healdsburg featuring raw oysters.
How, the critics wondered, could the Starks stay focused on quality at their year-old Willi’s Wine Bar in Santa Rosa while trying to make a success of a second establishment? Hirschberg, the former owner of such top-rated restaurants as Matisse and Mistral, understood the question and likened the couple’s challenge to a person trying to spin more than one plate at a time.
But the Starks opened Willi’s Seafood & Raw Bar in 2003, and they didn’t stop there. By 2012 they had five unique restaurants in operation. And, if all goes as planned, by year’s end they will open their sixth at the former Italian Affair on Santa Rosa’s Fourth Street.
Hirschberg, who now does bookkeeping for nearly 30 restaurants, including the Starks’ businesses, puts the couple in a league of their own.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in 40 years,” he said.
The Starks have kept the plates spinning, building a realm of restaurants that now employs 280 workers. They did it not by finding one great concept and replicating it in several locations. Rather, they have gambled on opening distinct restaurants, including Willi’s Wine Bar, generally regarded as the county’s first “small plates” restaurant. The eateries of Stark Reality Restaurants include a steak house, a Spanish tapas bar and soon, a “modern tavern” featuring a taste of Americana, especially “lots of poultry.”
After years of studying restaurants, Mark Stark concluded that the couple’s eateries would not try to be “everything to everybody,” like a Cheesecake Factory. Instead, each one would be focused on a single concept.
“The successful restaurants were the ones that had a focus. They had a focus and they had a purpose,” he said.
When training staff, he reminds them that the company’s success depends on “being better than the guy next door.”
“We’re not here to make money,” he tells them. “We’re here to be good.”
Those who know the Starks say they keep the doors open with grit, imagination, an attention to detail, a passion for food and an impressive ability to find talented staff members and turn them loose in multiple locales.
“No one’s better at it than them,” said Dan Kosta, co-founder of Kosta-Browne Winery in Sebastopol. “They let people do their jobs and give them some independence and trust.”
The Starks, who in 2013 were James Beard Foundation semifinalists nationally for outstanding restaurateurs, have taken their place among the latest wave of county restaurant owners. Forty years ago, the popular names included Dieter Meier of the Black Forest Inn and Claus Neumann of Los Robles Lodge. They were followed by a new group of innovators that included Hirschberg, John Ash of John Ash & Co. and Lisa Hemenway of Hemenway’s Restaurant and Fresh.
Saying the Starks love dining out fails to convey the extent to which they will go in search of great food places.
When traveling once with the couple in New York, Santa Rosa Realty owner Tom Barnett said he and his wife, Adele, “could not keep up with (Mark) and Terri because they went to eight or nine restaurants a day.”
Katie Stark, Mark’s daughter from his first marriage, said when her father and stepmom took her to Seattle this year on her 24th birthday, “we ate at five restaurants - for breakfast.”
Katie Stark, who works as a server at her parents’ Bravas restaurant in Healdsburg, recalled as a teen visiting Sonoma County in the summer. One year her father parked outside the Villa, the longtime restaurant in east Santa Rosa. Mark Stark, already a restaurant owner, sketched the hilltop building and talked about how great it would be if he could open another eatery there.
“We would sit in the parking lot and he would just look at it,” she said.
She suggested her parents’ success comes because they complement one another so well.
“He’s such a dreamer and imaginative … and Terri makes it happen,” Katie Stark said. Her father may come up with the ideas for the restaurants, but Terri Stark sets the budgets and designs the interiors, down to such details as making sure the paint on the wall complements the place settings.
The couple followed the advice that Mark Stark now gives to young chefs: before you start your own place, “spend somebody else’s money” and work for others while you learn the business. Mark Stark, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., worked as a chef in Washington, D.C., Seattle and the Bay Area. Terri majored in hospitality at the University of Oregon and worked in the catering industry.