Mark is the hands on owner of Mark’s Bar & Grill on Lazaro Cardenas, Bucerias, a regular winner of the Vallarta Lifestyles Readers’ Choice Award. We invited him to sit at the bar and talk with us.
Where did you live before Bucerias?
Michigan. I grew up on a little island. My great grandparents came over from Ireland and I am one of ten.
What did you do there?
I was a painting contractor, I worked for myself. In the winters I worked in Key West, Florida and then I worked just outside Baton Rouge, Louisana for eight years before coming here.
When did you first come to Mexico?
I started coming down in 1973 – That was January and it was cold in Michigan! I drove my car all the way to Acapulco – there were no bridges, I had to ford rivers! I sent my brother out to check ahead because he was taller than me. Acapulco was a pretty cool place back then, it was great! Nobody was worried before – I don’t think the drugs cartels existed, or if they did, not like now. It had a good reputation. I went back about three or four times. Once I’d started coming down I kept coming for a couple of months at a time – for the first few years I just kept going back to earn the money in order to come back down again.
I met some Mexico City people and drove them back and stayed there for three months and went to Spanish school. I stayed with a Mexican family and I had a Mexican girlfriend. She was teaching school in La Cruz – which was why I came to this area initially. By the time I got here she had been gone a month, but I liked the area and stayed at Los Picos. The cost for a two bedroom apartment was USD $9 ! The gas was cheap then – it cost me USD $1.50 to fill up my car – it was a diesel Mercedes. To fill my car now just cost me 1,000 pesos !
How did you find out about what is now Mark’s Place?
I had been coming to Bucerias for seven years when I asked someone what was for sale and they brought me to these premises. It was a filthy dump! The guy said it was a restaurant – there was an old man lazing in his hammock and there was no sign of any food. But from when I’d been working in Key West I had seen a lot of ideas with their garden style restaurants, and on what was just a pile of dirt I could envisage the changes – and this is the area that is now our outdoor dining patio. I wanted my restaurant to look good both day and night.
I bought it in 1986 but kept going North to earn money and then I’d come down and work on the place some more. In my absence things got stolen: the empty cash register, toilet doors, sinks – well just about everything at some time or another!
Your commercial painting proved invaluable.
Yes – I’d been doing all the painting on the stores in Louisiana for TCBY yoghurt, we’d become friends, and they strongly suggested I buy some of their stock, so I did. I did well enough out of that to buy these premises.
To help finance the restaurant improvements I continued painting houses here for ex patriate owners – with a Mexican helper – and charged them American prices! By the way, a word of advice: always buy the best quality paint that you can, it’s worth it, especially with this cruel climate.
When did you become full time in Bucerias? And how did you get here?
Finally that was in December 1990. I drove down with Elton, a friend from Louisiana, before we left we stopped at one of his rental houses he said to me do you want that TV – I had a lawn mower in my truck and told him it would not fit. He said so do you want to mow the lawn or watch TV. So I took the TV. Good thing as it became the only TV in Bucerias where you could watch sports in English. The drive took 3 – 4 days.
Then I needed a name for the restaurant. I had a friend, Don, come down from Louisiana so we thought about naming the place Don Marcos. But then someone said I couldn’t be a Don because I wasn’t old enough. So we thought about calling it Lo de Marcos – and then someone pointed out that there was a town called that and it would be really confusing. So finally we came up with – Mark’s Place….later changed to Mark’s Bar & Grill. And as it was just me doing absolutely everything – that was very accurate! It was just beer, turkey franks and potato chips.
When and where did you meet your wife Jan?
That was 1991 – at table five right here in my own restaurant ! I was out running on the beach, but some German friends of mine were sitting at table five when she walked in and they invited her to sit with them. So when I came back – there she was. When we got married about a year later it was at their house at Punta de Burro.
She had a lingerie/perfume shop in Vallarta and she was getting robbed all the time – the owner wouldn’t put a roof on it and there was a big tree there so the robbers could climb it and drop down into the shop. I suggested that she move her shop here, – in exchange for help with the restaurant— so we renovated the 2 rooms into the current shop.
That was a good bargain!
The best! I knew she knew about food and quite frankly I needed help. We started with a meatball sandwich, a recipe from Louisiana. We were also making our own sauce and dough for our pizzas – we had a pizza oven built in the middle of the “garden”. We subsequently built a new kitchen around the oven, with it in the center. It is embedded with stones and shells we found on our beach walks.
You’ve seen a few changes since you’ve been here.
There was only one other restaurant on this street and it was at the trailer park. There were only a few of us “gringos” actually living here at that time. Restaurants come and go – you have to survive the summer when there’s hardly any business to be had. Some that close for the summer just don’t reopen. It’s more expensive now to run a business: overheads, wages, health insurance for all the employees, not to mention huge taxes and ongoing maintenance to the property.
Paving Lazaro Cardenas was an improvement especially after the street at one time was torn up to put in sewage pipes and left it – a 10 ft deep gaping ditch – for months on end. Any improvements were welcomed, there was only one way to go and that was up. Electric and water were a problem, especially water, it was not always available so having that now has been a huge plus.
When I first arrived there was only the one Pemex station on the other side of Vallarta. To get gas
you had to go to this house on the highway where a kid, maybe 12 years old was there who would siphon gas – sucking the pipe to start it, out of a 50 gallon drum. There were no banks, or phones, I think we paid for the 3rd phone in town. Eventually the highway was completed to PV which made it a lot quicker and safer to drive there.
How original is this property now?
The structure is pretty original – apart from the kitchen construction – and I’ve had to change the tile on the roof a couple of times. The supporting posts were just standard so I had them created to look like pillars – and then added the marbling effect. There were never any bars on the windows before, and the door section is an added design. Apart from the various improvements to the restaurant, you also built your own house, again in Colonia Dorada – how was that experience?
All good. The original property was two lots so we built the house on the other half as it was a vacant lot, so we started from scratch with a very modest house. It took a year. We had a really good Architect, a woman from Sayulita. Then In 2007 we helped design & build the Jan Marie Boutique Gallery on the opposite corner and that building experience was good also. There are always some mistakes but somehow it works out. We tried to use Mexican materials everywhere such as Onix and Talavera from Puebla and so on.
Have any of your family been to visit? Any strong reactions to your relocation?
Most of them have visited, just one brother who has not. Some of them came down in the early days, some have been here more than once. My aunt is a nun, when I told her I was going to Mexico she said “we will pray for you”. Anyway she came down and she liked it ! She went parasailing (- no, not in a nun’s full habit! )– and they threw her up in the air and shouted: “Here she comes God” !
We had two beautiful golden labs, Saxafone and Trombone, they are not with us anymore. We have 2 rescue cats now.I never thought I would have cats as I am allergic. But somehow it is working. Well I feed them!
What are your personal interests or hobbies?
Golf. I would like to play every day! My handicap varies. I am not a member of any of the local clubs but there are a few guys here who get together and play. I also like carpentry, resorting furniture for the JMB Gallery, painting pieces or whatever is needed in that area.
How good is your Spanish?
My conversation is good, remember I did take lessons, and I do talk with my staff in Spanish – I have to. Also I like eating with the kitchen staff – whatever they make for themselves, it’s really good! And so we talk away in Spanish.
Looking back, anything you wished you had known about or anything you would have changed?
No, I have absolutely no regrets.
Anything else you would like to share with us?
I am just the maintenance man – this restaurant is all Jan!
And as a plug for the restaurant:
In low season, we are open 7 days a week from 5pm, but now it’s high season we start with lunch at 1pm – with daily specials and a lunch menu. Our website is: www.marksbucerias.com and our phone is 329-298 0303. Please Like us on Facebook.
Thank you for your time Mark – here’s wishing you an excellent season !