Since Mark’s Kitchen opened its doors on Dec. 19, 1990 in Old Town Takoma Park, it has endured power outages, language barriers, two recessions and competition from newer restaurants.
But customers keep coming back because of the consistency of the staff and food, as well as the charm of being a neighborhood restaurant, according to assistant manager Gretchen Kapuscik.
Its small atmosphere and quirky assortment of food—from Korean bibimbap and spinach tofu cakes, to milkshakes and burgers—have made Mark’s Kitchen a unique staple in Takoma Park.
When Mark’s Kitchen first opened, its menu was only a page long. Today, the menu is 10 pages and continues to expand to include more vegetarian and gluten-free options.
Almost 22 years later, some of the same cooks remain on the staff, and owner Mark Choe and manager Hal Shay have worked together since the beginning. Shay was Choe’s English teacher, but the two became close friends, and despite having no prior restaurant experience, Shay agreed to help with the restaurant.
Although Choe, who is originally from South Korea, said his English is “not perfect,” he can handle the business and regularly talks to customers, who he said are “sweet, lovely people.”
Choe said he does not have anything planned for the restaurant’s 22nd anniversary, but looks forward to celebrating for its 25th year.
Kapuscik added that some regulars who were children when they first came to the restaurant with their families have grown up and some even became employees, including recent University of Maryland alumnus, Richard Baker. Baker was only a year old when the restaurant opened and now has been working there for three-and-a-half years.
“My favorite part about working here is the community aspect,” Baker said. “A shift seldom goes by where I don’t see someone I know from outside of Mark’s... It really makes you feel like you’re involved in the community.”
He added that Mark’s Kitchen is one of the few remaining places with a personal feel, compared to national chains.
“Locally-owned businesses like this one are a dying breed and I think that’s really sad,” he said. “You look at how much things can change here on a day-to-day basis, and how much of it is made to accommodate the clientele, and it gives you pride. It makes you feel like you're kind of at home here.”
Shay said the recessions of 1990-1991 and 2008-2009 did not hit Mark’s Kitchen too hard because they had a steady flow of business, but said one of the biggest problems the restaurant experiences are power outages. He recalled that the restaurant had to close for an entire week during Hurricane Isabel in 2003.
Another challenge Mark’s Kitchen faces is new competition from around the area. However, Choe said he isn’t too concerned about it.
“We don’t have a big space, but we have a lot of staff… we can handle it,” he said. “We have very strong, loyal customers [and] good food service, so I don’t have big trouble.”