Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Behind Tark's Success

One might think that Billy Shriver is a magician or has some kind of secret. He's the managing partner of Tark's Grill at Green Spring Station, which opened this February, became an instant Baltimore County hotspot, and has remained so ever since. The bar and dining areas are attractive. Tark's menu lists classic American fare of top-notch quality at reasonable prices. Is all that enough to make it in today's economy?

When I asked Tark's managing partner, Billy Shriver, he hammered away at two other points: an obsession with seeing that guests are pleased and "the best location in the Baltimore area."

Shriver has enjoyed success in the restaurant business before. He started out in the 70's working at the Crease in Towson. In 1979, when the economy was headed in much the direction it is today, he co-founded the Mount Washington Tavern, which like Tark's became popular immediately. In 1985, he accomplished much the same at the Harryman House in Reisterstown. A few years later, he did it again at the Milton Inn. When exorbitantly expensive upgrades to the historic premises became necessary, he left and went to work for 14 years at the California based public restaurant chain Grill Concepts as a general manager and later as area director. In that role, he opened a number of restaurants that he describes as being similar in many ways to Tark's.

Needless to say, with any public company, profitability is the principal determinant of success and is typically achieved through tested and well-formulated principles, operations, and execution relating to all aspects of the business. Shriver credits Grill Systems' retired CEO Bob Spivak as his mentor in that respect.

The most important lesson learned from Spivak, he says, was the importance of keeping the guests---"they're not customers, they're guests"---happy. Tark's mission, prominently displayed on its website, chose the adjective "legendary" for describing the level of guest service to which Tark's aspires. "The answer is yes: What''s the question?" is a phrase Shriver is fond of repeating.

He explains the caliber of the employees Tarks has managed to recruit and retain as key. They figure prominently into a mission that calls for "treating our employees as family." It certainly doesn't hurt, for example, to have a general manager with Mark Hoffman's experience and a persona the likes of Kevin Sweeney tending bar.

It's also notable that Tark's three other partners, Terry (Tark himself) Arenson, Gary Gill, and Scott Steele are prominent Baltimore area businessmen, who frequent the restaurant and meet together with Shriver on a regular basis to assess every aspect of the operation. Just as significantly, all the partners are well-connected in a lot of social as well as business circles around town. This has proven helpul both in finding just the right employees--- many of whom are similarly well-connected---and attracting guests, who attract more guests.

"People like it when they know we're here and that we're making a point of looking out for them," says Shriver.

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