Mark Starr – Restaurant Owner

September 3, 2007
Posted in interviews
September 3, 2007 Terkel

Mark Starr, owner of David’s Pizza in Spokane, Washington, goes to work everyday to make a difference; success has been a pleasant byproduct. David’s Pizza sits adjacent to the campus of Gonzaga University, on the outskirts of a neighborhood of 3rd and 4th generation Spokane residents. The placement is fitting; Mark spends nearly all of his free time giving back to the community that sustains him. With a thriving catering business, in addition to the actual pizza parlor, Mark has empowered his employees to love the restaurant, and feel committed to what they represent. As part of this empowerment, Mark rewards good grades by paying half of his staff’s tuition at the local community college.

As liberally as he donates his time and talents, Mark has built an incredibly successful operation. His pizza has been voted best in Spokane 11 years running, and an informal survey of a Spokane tavern places his status, in Spokane, at Unofficial Mayor. Mark is a humble man, saying the only way to succeed is through long hours, and a deep sense of compassion. David’s Pizza does not advertise, relying instead on its public works, and of course, its pizza. Mark says, “Our advertisement everyday is giving you good food.” For what it’s worth, the food is fantastic.

davids pizza spokane


We are at his restaurant, David’s Pizza.  It has been voted Best Pizza in Spokane eleven years in a row.  David drinks a beer and eats pizza during the interview.

We can cook 120 slices out of the truck every ten minutes.  The whole fire truck thing was done 100% by accident.  To be honest. 

I knew enough about the restaurant business to never get into it.  It is what it is.  It’s not for everybody.  It’s a lot of work.  You have to be compassionate about what you do.  It’s 80 to 100 hours  a week. 

The catering was just kind of some fun stuff.  I was getting one of the ovens fixed and I was in the back of the truck.  It was fixed.  With some duct tape, we put a propane bottle on it with a sack of groceries underneath and went and cooked at a friends house.  The barbeque is still on that truck and it goes up to Mount Spokane in the winter.  We cook pizzas on the slope.  We just park the truck on the slope.  It’s great. 

From that we got the trailer.  From that we got the truck.  We’ve been to Iowa with it.  We’ve been to San Diego with it.  Everything that we do for the most part is a hundred miles outside of Spokane.  But right in this facinity.  It’s just fun.

The things I really like about the restaurant business are the people.  The people we work with.  The team, if you will.  The associates.  The relationships with the customers.  If you’re doing a job right, it’s not a job.  It’s just social.  About a hundred social hours a week (laughs).  Yeah there’s some work involved.  But if you enjoy what you’re doing, it’s not work.  You’re on stage a little bit.  You see our kitchen is right out in the middle where everyone can see it.  It’s not one of these things were you here this ‘Ding’ and something appears through a window and you really don’t know how that happened in the first place.  We want to entertain a little bit when we do it.  Back to the catering.  People are blown away that we’re sitting there throwing the dough in front of them.  We doing it from scratch and they’ve never seen anything like it in their lives. 

I guess impressing people is fun, but just the social aspect of it.  That’s the fun part.  And that’s only part of what we do. 

mark starr davids pizza spokane

What David’s does in the Spokane community is we have an opportunity to work with the community.  Lend ourselves, our kitchens, our talents to different community events.  It makes it fun for the community too.  It’s been a tremendous opportunity for us to get more involved in Spokane, rather than standing back and wishing things were different.  You can actually be one of the people that is making it different. 

We have that ability here.  It’s more than just selling pizzas.  It’s being a good fit for the community.  It’s a betterment of the community as much as anything.  If you do that part right, then you turn that right back around and all of a sudden it’s business again because now you’ve advertised.  Through no fault of your own, you’ve advertised.  Now it’s a name association and people know you.  It’s not because I gave away a pizza if you bought one.  It’s not because I had a coupon for a free thing of breadsticks.  It’s because they recognize us.  The recognize our name and they know what we’re doing.  That imprints.

And it doesn’t hurt any when you’ve been voted Best Pizza eleven years in a row.  But you have to be able to walk the walk, right?

Post-script: David’s Pizza won Best Pizza for the twelfth year in a row.

I wish I owned this location, but I’m leasing it.  This actually was a gas station to begin with on that side of the room.  In fact, when you go over there and look you’ll see the old service station with the concrete bumpers out in front.  The two doors that come up.  Back in the days when the guys would run out to your car and check the oil.  I’m going back too far I think.  But anyway, it used to be a service station.  This used to be a bicycle shop of all things.  And then between us there was a tree.  It was a bunch of dirt.  We got the lease on this building from Gonzaga University, our neighbors over here, and cut some holes and fixed it up.  We had a burrito shop over here, and the pizza shop over there.  The burrito shop moved out so we cut this hole here.  David’s Pizza.  We’ve grown into it.

There were three original partners in David’s Pizza.  Dan Spaulding, Casey Murphy and Chris Bennett.  Dan Spaulding is still in Spokane and was the last partner involved in it.  Casey Murphy actually opened up Sonic Burrito and a few other shops.  Great concept, great guy.  Then Chris Bennett was the third member of that team and this all kind of dissolved or fell apart, or sifting out if you will within the first couple of years, really.  They realized that the pizza business, or the restaurant business, whatever you want to call it doesn’t stop at 5.  You can’t take Friday, Saturday, Sunday off.  You can’t take Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday off.  You have to be in it.  It’s the guys that aren’t in it that think their managers will do it, or that their employees will do it.  Sometimes they will, but for the most part, they call them Mom and Pops. If you gross underneath a million bucks a year, you’re a Mom and Pop.  They call them Mom and Pops because the family is involved in it.  It could be the brother, the sister, the mother, the father.

I hate to think of myself as the old fat Italian guy behind the counter with stains all over my apron, but I might be that guy.  I don’t know (laughs).

I think the best way to answer whether I was happy having partners is that everything you do should be a learning experience.  And this definitely has been.  Whether it be the restaurant business or the partnership or leasing instead of buying.  You try and learn from everything.  To your question, partnerships are tough.  I don’t care if it’s in neon and on paper, you’ve got to lay out each ones responsibilities.  Each one has to be comfortable with that.  You guys probably amongst your travels and what not, you have different responsibilities.  There are things that you assume one or the other will do.  When one doesn’t do that, somebody else gets a little bit tense about it.  Because it’s not the first time.  It’s not the second time.  It’s like the fifth time and they don’t want to ask. 

Partnerships are the same way.  It’s really, really difficult especially in a business like this where you’re eighty to a hundred hours a week.  Whatever it might be.  You have to be productive.  That’s tough in a partnership. 

Originally I started off to be the silent partner.  I had a great job.  But it was a job.  It was exactly that.  It was in sales.  I had a company car.  Suit and tie.  Decent income and I was able to invest in David’s Pizza and bankroll, or get a loan to get some of these things going.  And get us into this building and make some of these changes.  Back from a small shop with one or two employees where no one knew who was coming to work the next day, or if we were even open to what we are know. 

All of a sudden I’m not the silent partner, I am the guy.  Things always kind of shape themselves out.  They seek their own level.  Whether I wanted to be here or not, it’s worked out great. 

I started David’s Pizza in ’98.  Seems like yesterday.  It really does. 

davids pizza spokane

I’m involved in a couple of big community things.  Ones Bloomsday, which, depending on who you ask, could be the largest organized timed road race in the country for runners.  I’m on the Board of Directors for them.  I don’t run.  I’m a result of bad knee surgery. 

But what do they say?  Those that can’t do, teach.  While I can’t run, so I help organize instead.  It’s a lot of fun. 

And Hoopfest is the biggest 3 on 3 basketball tournament in the country and I’m on a couple different organizational committees for them.  Both of those are 100% volunteer based organizations.  Bloomsday we have a person and a half.  This plays into what you guys are talking about.  Bloomsday we have 40,000+ people every year that run the streets for a small entry fee.  They get a t-shirt, they get a time, they get all these things.  In order for that to happen, you have to have volunteers to make it happen.  We’ve got 3,000 volunteers for both events.  These are people who do this for fun. They’re not people who do it to get a paycheck.  They put in, a lot of them, full time putting this stuff together.  I think once again, whether it be running a business or volunteering, you have to enjoy what you’re doing.  That’s just plain and simple, all there is to it. 

It’s kind of funny because we grew up with Gonzaga.  We were established here long before Gonzaga had the national fame that they have now with the basketball program.  They’ve done extremely well.  We’ve watched that all unfold in front of us.  While that was happening, here we are the corner of the campus.  All of a sudden, we’re part of that. 

At first, I never considered us to be a really good fit for the neighborhood.  Better than what was going to come in here.  They wanted to put a McDonald’s in here.  But this neighborhood is second and third, maybe even fourth generation.  It’s a real tight knit neighborhood.  John Stockton was raised in this neighborhood.  That’s his dad’s bar across the street.  It’s Jack and Dan’s, just around the corner there.  You’ll see it.

But we just became a part of that.  Now, when things are going on over there, we’re involved in it.  Whether they bring us over to campus, or campus comes over here.  We throw a part for the seniors at the end of each year.  Back here out in our parking lot.  We turn it into a big beer jail.  A big fence, cops, the whole things.  Kids come and have a great time.  There’s just so many things that go on between us.  Before a game, we’re standing room only.  After a game, depending on the time of day, standing room only.  People come and watch it on the big screens if they can’t get into the game.  We feel part of the fabric, I guess.

Once again, it’s not that we’re out there advertising.  We’re not trying to force ourselves down somebody’s throat.  We’re trying to accommodate the people that come in.

I don’t really feel that we’re trying to talk anybody to coming in here or doing business with us.  I think they come in because they want to come in.  If we treat them right, they’ll want to come back.  That brings it back to the business side of things.  That’s something that we work with.  We have 15 people at any given time.  They’ll work with us.  They don’t always understand this could be the first or second job if they’re 16 or 18 years old. This could be one of many jobs that they’ve had over the years because they find out that they have to work for a living.  But we try and treat everyone here as an individual.  We really try to work with them.

The industry standard is a one year turnover.  Which means if I have 15 people working here, I’d have another 15 people in less than a year.  Most of the people who have been working with me have been here for three, four, five years.  We’ve got some who have been here longer than that. 

Why is that?

I don’t know.  I mean sometimes they leave and they’re like, ‘I’ve had it with this place!’  And they go someplace else or they go back to school.  A lot of times, it’s for very positive reasons that they move on.  Sometimes it’s just because there might be greener grass someplace else.  It’s really funny because some of them have gone out and started businesses, ultimately, they come back in here and say, ‘What a great time we had here.’  Or, ‘This isn’t a bad place to work. You guys don’t understand how good you’ve got it here.’  Some of them are back here working again. 

We try to treat them with respect.  In order for myself or this business to be successful, I have to have like minded individuals that want to make it successful.  The best way that I’ve found to do that is to empower them to represent the business as if it was their own.  Make the decisions.  We give them some bylaws that they have to attain.  We give them minimum goals that they have to attain.  And anything from that, it’s their own flair and character.  That’s what makes it fun to come in.  It’s the old Cheers concept if you will.  It’s the place where everyone knows your name.  When people come in, they should feel comfortable.  They should feel like they belong in here.  They’ll keep coming back.  And the same thing for the employees.  The staff.  I hate to call them employees.  They should look forward to coming to work.  And there’s those times that I have to have talks with people and remind them of that.  I have to say, ‘You need to look forward to coming in here.  You don’t look forward to coming in here anymore.  It shows.  The staff doesn’t like working with you.  The customers.  A couple people have raised their eyebrows.  They’ve said some things.  You’ve got to get a handle on this.  Take some time off.  If you don’t like working here, let me help you find a job someplace else.’  They’re worthy of that.  If they haven’t done anything rotten. I know a lot of people in town, I can find them something else if they want to do it.  If they want to go to school, I’ll help them with that.  I’ve got a little thing going where if they get good grades, I pay out their tuition.  Community college by the way.  Not the $35,000 a year Gonzaga.  This is the restaurant business.  It’s not a chain store. 

But we try to help everybody grow.

You don’t do that if you’re trying to just make money.

One will follow the other.  But that’s not why I come to work everyday.  That’s not why I have the relationships that I have.  It’s not to make money.  It’s to make a difference. 

You can position yourself in such a way that you can have a successful business, and make a difference at the same time.  That to me is critically important.  I don’t really have to focus on that.  I don’t have to really think about that. I don’t get out my day timer and reexamine my goals.  It’s just that you can’t have one without the other.  I can’t go out because I have a great widget that I paid 30 cents for and retail it for $30 bucks to everyone and they think they’re getting a great deal, without giving something back.  You gotta help out along the way someplace. 

I’m not going to say that I don’t respect the people who don’t do that, but I just couldn’t do it any other way.  I just couldn’t do that. 

When you think about competition, you think about beating the other guy.  I don’t care if it’s in sports, if it’s in business, I think if you do that you lose sight of why you’re there in the first place.  Again, I keep going back to this same thing, but you have to enjoy what you’re doing.  Yeah, I compete with some other places.  But if you look at the way my business is laid out, we don’t compete.  Nobody else caters like we do.  Nobody has a truck like that.  We don’t coupon.  We don’t advertise.  You won’t find me in the Yellow Pages except for a bold listing.  Although I don’t know that to be true for certain because those guys are really shifty.  You get bills for the strangest things. 

People tell me that you’ve got to advertise or you’re going to go out of business.  Our advertising every day is giving you good food. 

But competition is good.  As long as it’s not underhanded.  As long as you’re doing it for the right reasons, I think it’s great.  But if you’re doing it in a shifty way, and you’re not doing good business to try to get ahead, I don’t like to associate with that kind of thing.  That’s not me. 

I was in the restaurant business long enough to know that I didn’t want to get into it.  We’ve come full circle.  Just getting out of high school I bussed tables.  I did room service.  Age 19, I can say with a lot of pride that I bartended at one of the nicest places in Spokane.  That was before anyone really cared if you were 21 or not.  It wasn’t a huge deal like it is now. 

But the restaurant business never really changes.  It’s impressing your customers.  You do so on a limited resource basis.  But you’re expected to do 130% all the time.  Then I went to work for Pepsi Cola and I was in food service and marketing with them.  Again, it tied in with restaurants.  There’s that common thread that goes through this.  Between that, and if that wasn’t enough, my brother is in the restaurant business over in Seattle.  He’s got two restaurants.  I’ve watched what he’s been through in his life, and there’s no end to it.  Nobody’s getting rich at this.  A couple of people, every now and then you get a great idea like Mr. Kroc and get a bunch of McDonald’s around the country, you get rich.  But 5-7% profit margin is what is what these operate on. 

People will come in and they’ll buy two, three slices of pizza and walk out patting themselves on the stomach.  ‘Oh that was great.’  You get those same people out on catering and someone else has the tab, they eat five, six, seven, eight slices.  Those guys are pooped the rest of the day.  They’ll just roll over someplace and sit in the sun.  That calzone will sink you.

Dumb luck beats skill and planning every time around here.  It’s just something we do now.  We fresh bake them everyday.  Our vegetables we cut fresh three to four times a day.  Nothing is prepared ahead of time.  It makes a huge difference. 

I apologize.  It’s so damn warm in here your cookie stays warm whether you want it to or not.  That’s one of the downfalls of leasing.  You freeze in the winter and sweat to death during the summer. 

I liken this place to a goldfish bowl.  It’s always going to be hotter in here than it is out there.  </sp