5 Questions for Terri Stark

From the North Bay Business Journal

Terri Stark co-owns and operates Stark Reality Restaurants with her executive chef husband, Mark Stark. Terri, who handles all front-of-house operations for the couple’s eight Sonoma County restaurants, met Mark while they were both working for a restaurant group in Palo Alto. They married in 1999 and founded their business in 2002. Terri studied at the University of Oregon, where she majored in hospitality.

What were your business expectations when you and Mark launched your first restaurant, Willi’s Wine Bar, in 2002?

When we opened Willi’s Wine Bar, we thought Mark would be cooking and I would be running the dining room, we’d have espresso in the afternoons and enjoy a well-balanced life.


Former employees of Willi's Wine Bar hold the old burnt sign being readied to install in the new location in the Town and Country Shopping Center in northeast Santa Rosa. The crew presently work for other Stark's restaurants until the new location opens. (photo by John Burgess/The Press Democrat) Sept. 20, 2018

Grief and loss leads to renewal for owners of Willi’s Wine Bar lost to the fires

We had no business plan that included anything past Willi’s Wine Bar. One restaurant was going to do it for us; little did we know we would grow to eight restaurants over the next 20 years.

A year after losing Willi’s to the Tubbs Fire, you told us your grief eventually led to a resolve to do more. Today, you and Mark operate eight restaurants, including the rebuilt Willi’s in a new location. What’s next?

After Willi’s Wine Bar perished in the Tubbs Fire, we felt we couldn’t end on that note. Willi’s was our first love and enabled us to grow, it deserved to come back. After embarking on the rebuild of Willi’s, we felt a renewed passion for opening restaurants, which led us to open Grossman’s and Augie’s French.

We feel we have done the concepts that are within our wheelhouse, and most likely will not be doing any more restaurants. We want to keep our focus on our eight restaurants and continue to keep them thriving and relevant.

How do you come up with the themes and names of your restaurants?

Our restaurant concepts are based on the building that we are interested in. We assess what concept/theme would work best in the space and community. We take into consideration the neighboring establishments; the physical layout and kitchen space, and what concept feels right in the space.

For example, Stark’s Steak & Seafood is our largest restaurant with a separate lounge and grand dining room. The history of the building needed a classic concept; therefore, a steakhouse was an obvious choice. Bravas, on the other hand, is a small bungalow with a tiny kitchen. When we walked through that space, only tapas and small plates made sense to us.

The naming of each restaurant comes organically. We try to name each restaurant something that sounds fun and we aren’t taking ourselves too seriously.

According to the National Restaurant Association, one in three restaurants won’t survive their first year in business. Yet Starks is not only thriving, it has grown to become one of Sonoma County’s biggest employers. How would you advise a burgeoning restaurateur toward such success?

The restaurant business is not for the faint at heart. Success is dependent on many variables, of which many are completely out of one’s control. The profit margin is narrow and requires structure, leadership and thorough systems to maximize.

I think some people think the restaurant business seems like a lot of fun. It is fun, but it is mostly business. Our goal is to work hard and play hard, but not at the same time.

What brings you the most joy outside of work?

I love having quiet evenings at home enjoying cocktails and playing dominoes.