When Mark Choe came to the United States from Korea in 1985 he wanted to be independent. He was the baby of the family and decided that if he didn't leave his native country he'd never be able to do anything for himself.
Now, Choe owns a successful restaurant in downtown Takoma Park and is in a position to give back to the community that made him an independent man.
But his start in the food industry 25 years ago was not at a hip, vegetarian-friendly café. Choe made his culinary debut at Riverdale Lanes on Route 1.
"I made pizza, and I cleaned floors," Choe said. "I learned very fast."
And after three years of that, he made the move to Takoma Park and opened a small grocery story where the Subway sandwich shop is now in downtown.
"He started modestly and grew," said Hal Shay, a longtime friend of Choe's.
For two years, Choe worked the grocery store and saved up to buy his own space for a restaurant. And in 1990, the space that Mark's Kitchen now occupies opened up and Choe took the opportunity.
"The neighborhood needed a restaurant bad," Shay said.
Choe started small, with just a few items that fused Asian cuisine with American diner food. From the beginning, he always had a vegetarian option. Those first items included chicken teriyaki, a chicken salad sandwich and a tofu platter.
"I wasn't sure how much business I was going to be able to do so I wanted to start out small," Choe said. "I wanted better food for the neighborhood. We opened, and it was a success."
Choe added more items to the menu, sticking with the theme of Asian and American cuisine. The business has been growing ever since, he said, due to the support of the tight-knit Takoma Park community.
With all the support he's received, Choe decided that he had to give back a part of what residents had given him. In the last five years, Choe has donated more than $40,000 to local organizations. Every third Tuesday of the month, he gives a percentage of sales to a local organization and has donated around $4,000 so far this year.
But Mark's is not only for the locals. People come from outside the metro region to enjoy Choe's food, too.
"I used to live in D.C., but now I live in Baltimore," said Denise Bump, who was eating lunch in the restaurant recently with her daughter. "I came here all the time. It's the kind of place where you can be yourself and get a good meal."
Bump said Mark's Kitchen is representative of Takoma Park as a whole: It's a diverse place where anyone can come in and feel comfortable.
Last year was the first year that Mark's Kitchen did not grow financially, Choe said, which he attributes to the recession and to more competition in Takoma Park. Still, Choe isn't going to change anything. He also doesn't plan on opening another restaurant any time soon.
"I've been busy, and this is big enough for me," said Choe, who can be found cooking, ringing people up and interacting with customers at any given moment when the restaurant is open.
But he said he's committed to providing good food and a place for people to gather.
"It's a pretty amazing place," Shay said. "And Mark is sincere about how much he cares about the community."