Mark Hunker runs three thriving restaurants and keeps his day job
Mark Hunker must have more hours in his day than other people. How else can he own and operate three restaurants, be CEO and president of a defense contractor, serve on numerous nonprofit boards, and be a committed husband and father?
“I like to say I have very good time management – that’s it,” he said in a virtual interview from the home office he shares with husband Jeff Shields Hunker.
Mark Hunker, 56, successfully divides time between his two (soon to be three) popular Rehoboth Beach eateries, Eden Restaurant and JAM Bistro by Eden, as well as his beloved Duplex Diner in Washington, D.C. He and his business partner Jeff McCracken are also planning to open Red, White & Basil, a scratch pasta bar in Rehoboth Beach. For his day job, Hunker is CEO and president of Victor42, a defense contractor specializing in technology and intelligence services.
Originally, Red, White & Basil was a D.C. eatery, but COVID forced it to close. Hunker decided a beach location post-pandemic would fare better, so plans were drawn for a large family-friendly spot which he hopes will be up and running soon. He said, “It’ll be a great tourist thing here in Rehoboth, to get great fresh pasta, homemade sauces and affordable prices.”
McCracken said their business model empowers the restaurants’ employees. “Being entrepreneurial means you wear a lot of hats,” McCracken said. “You focus on the hat you have on at the moment, give it your all and trust that the person wearing one of your other hats for you is acting in your best interest. I think the secret to our success has been that trust factor and always being there when the phone rings.”
Compelled by a restaurant dream, in 2005 Hunker purchased Eden, a fine-dining destination in Rehoboth Beach. “We don’t allow anything premade in-house,” he said. “We do a lot of farm-to-table, a lot of local purveyors – we try to do a 100-mile circle.”
Five years later, Hunker added Eden’s next-door neighbor, JAM Bistro by Eden, an old cottage with a beachy vibe and a more casual Americana menu. “It has the same rules – no pre-boxed, no premade; you can’t buy the cannoli filling, you have to make it,” he said. The idea is for locals and vacationers alike to check out both locations and return.
“We made it very fun and approachable so you could go to dinner at the high-end place when someone watched your kids, but you could bring the whole family to the other restaurant,” he said.
In 2015, Hunker purchased the Duplex Diner in D.C. and overhauled the menu to include more health-conscious options. He described the Adams Morgan neighborhood eatery as a ‘gay Cheers’ at which he had been a regular since its opening in 1998 – so much so that he and his husband were married there in 2010.
“We cross-pollinate all our places,” Hunker said, creating Eden’s signature key lime pie at Duplex Diner and bringing the diner’s renowned Lemon Squeeze cocktail to Rehoboth. Each restaurant retains its own unique identity, though.
“We are building a brand that you want to be in,” Hunker said, describing how the decor, wine list, and atmosphere at each restaurant offer a different but always friendly vibe. “And I want the very last thing [for the customer to] say is ‘Oh my god, and the food was great!’”
Hunker nested in Delaware during COVID with his husband and teenage daughter, and occasionally commutes to D.C. for his day job and to operate the Duplex Diner. He said his restaurants have fared better than many during the pandemic. Summer tourist-season profit from the beach restaurants balances out the winter slow season, and the D.C. diner takes care of itself, he said. Hunker can pull resources from the diner’s profits to the Delaware restaurants, and vice versa.
Hunker easily and passionately converses about menus, cocktails and nightly specials, and in his next breath launches into a complex explanation of his defense contracting firm, working with special ops forces in faraway hotspots like Iraq, Afghanistan and Djibouti. The contrast between his endeavors is jarring. He said his secret to juggling so many responsibilities is staying focused.
“I don’t think that there’s anything extremely special,” he said. “I don’t take my phone to meetings. When I’m talking to you, I’m talking to you – that’s the way I have to be. I don’t sweat a lot of the details,” he said. “Everything can get done.”