November 14, 2018
STRANGER: Mark Bucher
LOCATION: Medium Rare, 3601 Fairfax Drive, Arlington, Virginia
THEME: Discovering how a restaurateur turned steak frites simplicity into success
Medium Rare, a four-restaurant business specializing in steak frites, started as a lone table in Mark Bucher’s home where he experimented for hours pondering decisions great and small, from developing the right secret steak sauce to the best arrangement of place settings.
Fastidiousness equals fortune for Mark and his business partner Tom Gregg because customers pack the quartet of locations around the Washington, DC, area. Medium Rare features on several best-of lists for steakhouses, and many positive reviews cite the consistency of the experience: the steak, sauce, salad and service are always the same.
That’s by design, Mark tells me as we sit down for dinner at his Arlington, Virginia, eatery. “Tom and I have always been of the school of thought that you can’t be all things to all people. Do one thing and do it well,” he says. For months they finessed every aspect of the restaurant.
Come hungry to Medium Rare, and don’t worry about being decisive. The $22.95 prix fixe menu is simple; bread, then salad, then steak. The only choice punters must make is how they want their steak done. “You’ll never feel rushed here,” says Mark, gesturing to the menu that’s barely bigger than a greeting card. “And that’s because you won’t spend 15 minutes going through the menu.”
The meal begins with thick chunks of house-made bread, a crusty exterior works your molars and leads to a soft, chewy inside. I eagerly smear the salted butter across a couple of pieces.
Soon after, the salad arrives. Mark tells me the Medium Rare team tinkered with the salad dressing for a long time until they perfected the slightly tangy drizzle across the fresh mixed greens.
For the steak, they wanted to offer an unusual cut that diners couldn’t buy at the grocery store. But it also had to be in plentiful enough supply. “We researched the entire cow,” Mark tells me. Eventually they decided on the culotte, which is the flavorful top cap of the prime rib. Steak restaurants were used to discarding the culotte as a byproduct in favor of serving expensive rib eye meals. “They were trying to find a customer for it, so we started working with it,” he says. Each cut is prepared with salt and pepper, no marinade, and sliced into thin rectangular portions.
But the secret sauce ladled across the meat is perhaps the restaurant’s biggest selling point, and it’s a recipe that routinely wins raves in reviews. “We wanted to make it memorable, pleasurable, and something that people would want to come back and get more of,” Mark explains.
It’s not my first visit to Medium Rare so I’m aware of the sauce’s draw: creamy, peppery, hearty, and a host of other complimentary adjectives ending in -y. My interrogation falters immediately as Mark refuses to divulge the ingredients, saying that only he and Tom know the full recipe, with components made at separate venues. But he will divulge some non-flavor secrets.
The sauce is the result of more than 100 different versions that Mark and Tom worked on with the late renowned Chef Michel Richard. “Michel was a close friend,” Mark says with fondness. Indeed, the name Medium Rare works as a tribute to the chef, the M and R copying his initials.
The slices of steak, roughly seven per plate, sit next to a mound of crispy thin French fries. Here’s another example of a meticulous step-by-step guide to consistency. Kitchen staff come in at 1pm to cut the potatoes to thin stalks, soak them in water to pull the starch out, then blanch and cook them before refrigeration. The next day the fries are cooled and cooked again. With a dash of salt, they are the perfect accompaniment, a pleasant crunchy pairing with the tender steak.
Just when I think I’ve cleared my plate and am at peak satiation, a second helping arrives. This is part of the fixed price offer, and there’s always more sauce to help polish it off. It’s not all-you-can-eat, but round two is guaranteed on every visit to Medium Rare.
With the recent announcement of Amazon building one of its headquarters in nearby Crystal City, I tell Mark he’s likely assured a boost in visitors at the Arlington spot. I wonder where else he might be looking to expand. He says there are no specific plans at the moment, but runs through a list of potential candidates including Atlanta, Boston, Charlotte, Philadelphia and maybe Baltimore. “We’re always looking for the next one, the next city,” he says with a smile.
If Mark had stuck to his teenage plans, his only involvement with steak restaurants would likely have been as a place for client meetings because he had designs on becoming a lawyer.
He was born and raised in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, just outside of Philadelphia, living there until he was 17 when he came to the District for college. At American University from 1986 to 1990 he pursued legal studies, economics and government for pre-law. Then his cousins who were lawyers talked him out of it, and so he didn’t show up for the first day of law school.
Instead, he turned to his burgeoning radio career. While he’d thought that a career in law was the sensible option, his true dream since childhood was being a radio disc jockey, practicing being on-air in his room. He started out by being a DJ at events like weddings and bar mitzvahs, then working in clubs, and interning at the biggest radio station in Philadelphia. He chose AU because it offered him a gig with Capital Cities Radio. While he dropped his legal quest, he stuck with radio.
He persisted with being a DJ for two years after graduation from AU, working on the side in commercial real estate to provide sustainable income. But the format of his top 40s show changed in 1992, and he had a provision in his contract saying he could quit if such a transition happened. “I took it,” Mark says. “And I don’t regret it, but it was my passion.”
Mark got a masters in real estate from Johns Hopkins University and then worked in commercial real estate for several years, including as director of real estate for Dunkin’ Donuts. He says it was an easy gig with minimal hours, freeing him up to indulge in another passion of cooking during the day. Wanting to learn from the best, Mark sent letters to chefs at the top restaurants around DC asking if he could study with them, no salary required, no job too menial.
Ris Lacoste, then-executive chef for Clyde’s Restaurant Group, was wowed by the letter and put him in touch with Juan Bosio then-executive chef for local landmark restaurant The Old Ebbitt Grill. “He said he’d teach me everything, part-time, but he wanted a year, and I’d have to do some grunt ass work, but it’d be enough to make a decision” on a future in the industry, Mark recalls. He jumped at the chance, working at Dunkin’ Donuts for a few hours during the day before going to the restaurant from 5.30pm to 11pm or midnight, or showing up at 5am on weekends.
“My biggest problem was I was going to work when all my friends were going out,” he says. “Then one of the chefs came up to me and said, ‘Man, you’re really good, you keep at this you might make $40,000 a year.’ I was making more than that in my real estate job. I realized I didn’t love it that much, so instead I did real estate for restaurants which kept me involved with chefs.”
Mark’s extensive experience in the restaurant industry is a boon for Medium Rare, he says, because it gives the company “a competitive edge” in knowing how to negotiate favorable leases and the complex discussions involved in obtaining real estate for the restaurants.
After Dunkin’ Donuts he worked with an investment group that bought 246 acres of land in downtown Las Vegas. “We were all going to be billionaires,” Mark says with a comedic eye roll as he remembers the original plan. The group was searching for a vice president of food and beverage, and Mark decided to give it a try. It was a stressful time, flying from his home base of DC every Monday morning and spending the week in Sin City before returning Friday night. “I did that for a little over a year and learned everything you need to learn in this business.”
That company, and burgers, are what set him on the path to Medium Rare.
One day, at a meeting, the group was trying to figure out how to entice people into one of the diners the business had re-branded in Vegas’ Plaza Hotel. Mark recalled seeing a television show featuring the world’s biggest burger at 7.7 pounds. “So I said let’s do 9 pounds, I’ll figure out how later. That’s me, I talk first and then I figure it out later through sheer strength and determination.”
Mark devised the meaty monster and came up with a promotion where the burger would be free to anyone that could finish it, a strategy that saw lines out the door from the diner’s opening day. Further boosting business, the first season of American Idol was having auditions in the city and took the finalists to the diner to see if the contestants could finish the burger. Eventually Mark would also devise a regular burger that won accolades for best burger in the city.
After a year the constant travel was starting to wear on him. By then he was married with four children, and living in Bethesda, Maryland. On one of his brief stints back home, he saw a former health food store for sale on craigslist. He had an idea. “I told my wife I was going to do burgers,” he says. “She said, ‘Are you out of your mind?’ and I told her no, I can do this.”
She believed in him, and they took three months to renovate the building and open it as BGR, a riff on the OBX Outer Banks license plates that were soaring in popularity as they dwindled in supply. “We opened and there were lines around the block, we won best burger in DC immediately, in the first two years we were on the cover of the Washingtonian, it kicked off beyond my wildest dreams,” he says. They opened a second in Dupont Circle, then in Alexandria, Virginia, and more until they had 12 stores and won a host of burger competitions local and national.
BGR became a business behemoth, but it was salads that got Mark out of the company.
Mark and his wife took a trip to Charlotte, North Carolina, one Thanksgiving to visit the wife’s ailing father. The following Monday he returned to see signs in the window of a BGR store advertising salads. Mark’s face twists into one that mixes disgust and shock. “Salads?” he says with indignation. “We were just burgers. My partner wanted to try salads and waited till I went out of town, and you know why? He knew my attention to detail. If it’s in the window it has to be printed right, the right photography; this looked horrible. So I said I’d rather be uninvolved and surprised than involved and surprised. And I left,” he adds. That freed up him to focus on Medium Rare.
BGR had been in operation for several years when Mark and Tom opened their first steak restaurant. Tom had temporarily moved to France for a year with his family to run a food manufacturing company, and called Mark to help out at a large culinary event.
While in France, Tom took him to a restaurant that only served steak frites. From the moment he lined up outside Mark knew it was something special. “We waited outside in the pouring rain for 40 minutes, there was a huge line, and I know French people — they’re the most impatient people on the planet and even they were waiting in the rain to eat at this restaurant.”
Visitors were asked whether they wanted red or white wine in a half or whole bottle (no vineyard names), and how they wanted their steak cooked. Surly 60-something waitresses in French maid outfits delivered divine steak frites that Mark remembers with delight. “I thought I could Americanize this,” he says. “And when I got back from France I was looking at a site for BGR and it didn’t work, but I told Tom I had a concept for doing steak frites there.”
Tom was immediately on board and they decided to scope out a number of potential locations for the then-unnamed restaurant. Every landlord turned them down and said there was no market for such a limited menu, urging them to add other options like chicken or salmon. The landlords were concerned the business would fail as soon as it opened, making their lots vacant again. But the duo stuck to their plan, and the landlord at the original spot thought that it had merit.
That launched the year-long intensive process to devise the best steak, sauce, fries and salad, as well as the ideal table settings using a mock-up table in Mark’s home.
Staffing was another factor that he wanted to get right, and his employees are still a major focus. He waves over the restaurant’s General Manager Daniel Debebe, a friendly, smiling guy who happily joins us to eat and talk more about the work culture at Medium Rare.
“Danny started with us four years ago,” says Mark. “All our staff are like family.”
Nodding in agreement, Danny adds, “We’re a fun, friendly neighborhood restaurant. Mark and I hire together. We’re not necessarily looking for whether you’ve got 10 years’ experience on a grill. We’ll teach you that. What I need to know is are you ready to make people happy?”
Giving an example of the “family” nature of the staff, Mark and Danny take turns in telling me the story about an employee who joined as a dish washer and had been with Medium Rare for about three years when he was diagnosed with cancer that had metastasized. The company continued to pay his salary, helped him find doctors, and is ready to welcome him back.
“We knew early on we had to cultivate relationships with employees,” says Mark. “Nobody quits Medium Rare, it takes a long time for someone to get fired. They get terminated if they do something stupid. We invest in, and are very patient with, our people. We want our neighbors seeing the same faces when come in” to enhance the neighborhood atmosphere.
Mark eats at Medium Rare once or twice a week to keep tabs on his four restaurants, although tonight he’s not having the same medium rare steak frites with sauce that Danny and I enjoy. Instead, he’s having medium steak, salad and Dijon mustard, no fries. “I’ve been on a crazy diet since June, so I don’t eat potatoes, dairy, or gluten,” he tells us.
When he’s not at his restaurants, Mark and his family will consume a broad range of cuisines from local restaurants with fare including burritos, Italian, Thai food, pizza, sushi and Korean chicken. Some of his favorite restaurants in the District include Convivial, Rasika, Unconventional Diner and the Woodmont Grill in Bethesda. But his heart remains with Medium Rare.
He reiterates that simplicity is the key to the company’s success. Meat eaters get what they’re looking for, and for the vegetarians there’s the stellar house salad. The pared-down menu is what means likely booming business for wherever they open the fifth restaurant.
“Everyone can agree on meat and potatoes,” says Mark with a laugh.