Stark restaurant empire built with focus and purpose

Mark and Terri Stark didn't find one great concept and replicate it. Instead, they opened individual restaurants with a distinct 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.

They met in Palo Alto while both working for a restaurant and catering company and married in 1999.

Even though they had gained experience, Mark Stark said, “we were broker than broke” when they came to Sonoma County from Menlo Park in 2001 and a year later opened Willi’s Wine Bar. They had to borrow part of the $1,000 needed as a good-faith deposit for the lease on the building, a 19th century roadhouse on Old Redwood Highway that most recently had been home to the Orchard Inn restaurant. They then turned to friends and family to become investors in opening their first restaurant.

Terri Stark had family roots in Santa Rosa but had grown up in San Mateo. She admits it was Mark, who grew up in Maryland, who helped her see with fresh eyes what a desirable place the county was. They moved into her grandmother’s old home in east Santa Rosa and found themselves pleasantly surprised by the willingness of those in the local restaurant industry to help them get started.

The Starks turned to Kosta, who recently had left John Ash & Co. as its wine director, to build the wine list for Willi’s. Kosta admitted that at first he didn’t quite get the restaurant’s concept. He thought it would be a wine bar with just a little bit of food.

Hirschberg said the idea of restaurant diners making a complete meal by combining and sharing small menu items - curried crab tacos or organic brick chicken - was for many “mind blowing.” Some patrons, he noted, couldn’t understand why Willi’s didn’t provide baskets of bread.

“They were the first in the county for what at the time was called small plates,” said Barnett, himself a former restaurant owner. “Nobody had done that here.”

The restaurant also made the unusual move of offering all its 30 wines by the glass - as little as a 2-ounce pour. Kosta called it another example of the Starks as trendsetters.

Shortly after Willi’s opened, Barnett said he “somehow got it into my head that I would open another restaurant in Healdsburg.” He needed a chef and general manager, so he asked the Starks, who have used him for acquiring all their properties. The couple agreed.

But after a few meetings, Barnett said it became obvious “that Mark and Terri Stark were far better qualified than I was to open this restaurant.” He turned the project completely over to them, and they eventually opened Willi’s Seafood.

In 2004, the Starks opened Monti’s Rotisserie in Santa Rosa’s Montgomery Village - their third restaurant in three years. Once more they raised eyebrows. Many big city chefs own multiple restaurants but not in the county.

As well, Terri Stark said, “the pace at which we opened the restaurants kind of baffled people.”

Such expansion, she said, required maxing out every credit card, borrowing from friends and feeling the pressure “that we have to make this work.”

“I don’t think most people could stomach it,” she said.

In their efforts, the Starks count one misstep and one very close call.

The misstep was Barcode, a Mendocino Avenue bar they opened in 2005 in partnership with downtown developer Raj Gulati, who died in 2006. The vision for the bar was Gulati’s, Terri Stark said, and the couple learned how different this endeavor was from operating a restaurant.

“Barcode was really out of our comfort zone,” she said.

They closed the bar in 2008, the same year they opened Stark’s Steak and Seafood in Railroad Square in the former Michele’s, a longtime Italian eatery. Soon after the steakhouse opened its doors, the world financial crisis hit. Restaurant owners around the country suddenly found themselves staring at empty tables.

“It was two years of really struggling,” Mark Stark said. He recalled once walking into the steakhouse’s office and asking, “Is today the day we close?”

They didn’t shut the doors. Instead, they improvised, starting a happy hour of $2 beers and martinis and cheap eats - essentially $10 for a drink and light meal. It got people into the bar, helped introduce the restaurant to neighbors and “put Stark’s on the map for a wide market,” Mark Stark said. Eventually the economy got better and more people moved from the bar to the restaurant.

For each of their eateries, the Starks insist, they start by finding an attractive building and then asking what type of restaurant would work inside it. For example, they looked at the former Healdsburg residence that had housed Ravenous restaurant and noted its small kitchen, Terri Stark said. There in 2012 they opened Bravas, a tapas bar inspired by the food they had eaten in Barcelona.

Similarly, of the former Italian Affair site, Mark Stark said, “We’ve been looking at that building for two years.”

They have named the restaurant to open there later this year “The Bird & The Bottle.” The title comes from an early 20th century saying about “a hot bird and a cold bottle,” essentially meaning a night dining out.

The new restaurant’s concept is of a modern tavern featuring American cuisine, including “lots of birds, ducks, quail.” Mark Stark said he intends to take a bird or other animal and “use all of it,” down to the chicken’s feet.

For inspiration, the Starks look to New York chef Danny Meyer. His book, “Setting the Table,” is required reading for all their managers.

Supporters say the couple excels at design and management. They keep a close eye on expenses and ensure that every part of the dining experience is thought through and dialed in. But the most common praise regards the Starks’ ability to find and nurture talent.

“They are masters at hiring and training,” Barnett said. “They have an uncanny ability to recognize the keepers versus the non-keepers very quickly.”

Hirschberg said the Starks are very direct when letting go an employee who isn’t working out. On the other hand, for those who succeed, “you’re handsomely rewarded for your time and energy.”

Many of the Starks’ employees have worked with them for years and have been promoted as opportunities arose with new restaurants.

“They’re really passionate about what they do, and I think it shows in the company that they’ve built, that people are so loyal to them,” said Ulrike Steinke, who worked with the couple in the Bay Area before they opened their restaurants and now is their director of operations.

Asked whether their newest restaurant will be their last, Terri Stark responded, “Every time we say this is it, it hasn’t been.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or On Twitter @rdigit.

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