Jack Amon and Richard “Van” Hale opened the doors of the Marx Bros. Café on October 18, 1979; however, the two had already been partners in cuisine for some time, having created the Wednesday Night Gourmet Wine Tasting Society and Volleyball Team Which Now Meets on Sunday, a weekly evening of food and wine. It was actually the end of the weekly event that spurred the name of the restaurant: hours after its final service, Amon and Hale were hauling equipment and furnishings out of their old location and to their now-iconic building on Third Street, all while managing arguments about equipment ownership, a visit from the police, and quite a bit of wine. “If you’ve ever seen the movie ‘A Night at the Opera” starring the Marx Brothers, that’s what it was like,” Hale explains.
JUNIOR ACHIEVEMENT SPECIAL SECTION
By Alaska Business Magazine
“It was a big storm here at the beginning,” Amon says, but that storm laid the foundation for a decades-long partnership. “The strength of our partnership is we’ve both really committed to the same vision of the kind of restaurant we want to have and the kind of experience we want to provide… We’ve been really transparent with each other, and we both know where all the money is. I think that after forty years, we’ve managed to work a few things out,” he laughs.
“People ask when I’m going to retire, and I say why?” Hale says. “I’m enjoying life… I want to work—it keeps me going, it keeps me young.”
As they have for forty years, Hale and Amon share the workload, with Hale managing front of the house and Amon managing back of house restaurant responsibilities.
Hale explains the level of trust they have in each other does allow them to have time away from the restaurant. “We’re taking a little more time off than we ever have,” he says. “We’ve got a pretty good staff. When Jack takes off to Italy for three weeks, it’s nice because he knows I’m at the restaurant covering, and when I’m gone, I know he’s here.”
That said, “We both still like to be here at least some of the evening, and sometimes we split the week,” Amon explains. “The customers still like to see us and know we’re here—plus, I don’t want the inmates running the asylum for a long time,” he laughs.
Hale and Amon also look for balance for their employees. “There’s an attitude among the younger workforce that it’s not all just about the dollars, it’s about work accommodating their lives and their other values,” Amon explains. “A small group like us can find some of that flexibility, which helps with retention.”
Point of fact, Marx Bros. Café is only open for dinner service five days a week. “We tried doing seven days,” Hale says. “The thing is, you have to have two shifts of staff and it gets too crazy. And the bottom line wasn’t that much better, really.”
“It was actually better once we stopped,” Amon adds.
“The strength of our partnership is we’ve both really committed to the same vision of the kind of restaurant we want to have and the kind of experience we want to provide.”
The Tuesday through Saturday, five-day schedule benefits the wait staff and the kitchen staff, the partners have found. Wait staff want to work on busy nights when they get the most tips, which are Fridays and Saturdays. The kitchen crew is hourly and like the reliability of having a weekday and a weekend day off. “Occasionally we’ll get a buyout we’ll have to cater and they’ll work the weekend, and at that point they’re happy about the overtime, but they can still make plans with their family. It makes for a nicer lifestyle,” Amon says.
Amon and Hale believe in investing in their employees and are pleased at the success of many workers who have passed through the restaurant and gone on to own their own restaurants or have found prominent positions in kitchens in Alaska and beyond. For example, Patrick Hoogerhyde, co-owner of Bridge Seafood, was a sous chef at Marx Bros. Café.
“We’ve been really fortunate, and we try to cultivate the staff and make them feel involved,” Amon says. “In the forty years we’ve been doing this, we’ve had some really talented people that have come through here and helped us look good.”
Amon has a passion for helping youth interested in the restaurant industry; when he served on the board of the National Restaurant Association, he helped found ProStart, a high school to career culinary arts program. “They were just unveiling that program and I was able to secure $150,000 for seed money from Senator [Ted] Stevens to kick the thing off.” He continues to volunteer as a judge for the Annual Alaska ProStart Invitational, a culinary and restaurant management competition for high school students.
This fits with the advice that Amon would give to any young person interested in a culinary career. “Get a lot more experience than I got,” he says. “We were young and very enthusiastic, but I had no idea about workers’ comp insurance and payroll taxes and liability insurance and insurance audits.” However, Amon did have some experience with bookkeeping, which he learned working for his mother as he grew up, so he did know the importance of administrative work in a business. “I’ve known from early on that those things tell you the story of if you’re going to keep your doors open for another month or not. Prudent management of finances is really important, and it’s something young people need to learn at a young age.”
He continues, “We were lucky, and when we [started our business in Alaska] it was the wild and wooly ’70s and this town was hungry for anything different. We were able to creep, squeak this place open for under $50,000.”
“People ask when I’m going to retire, and I say why? I’m enjoying life… I want to work—it keeps me going, it keeps me young.”
Amon and Hale attribute their success in part to seeing what Anchorage lacked and figuring out how to supply it. “When we started in the ’70s you could hardly get anything,” Amon says. “I used to get up at 4 o’clock in the morning and deal with a produce broker in LA so we could get red bell peppers and baby vegetables and fresh raspberries… Not only did we want to use local foods, but we really wanted to bring exotic things here that people wouldn’t necessarily see and introduce people to new foods from around the world.”
“I think we make our own trends,” Hale adds. “We create our own energy and philosophies and imagination.”
Marx Bros. Café is an icon in the Anchorage dining scene, which is a result of both their long history of quality and their ongoing drive to innovate and surprise. Hale’s advice to would-be restauranteurs reflects that philosophy: “If somebody says something new, learn that, good or bad. I did a lot of listening growing up, and it’s helped me out.”
Hale and Amon value their position as part of the community, and so it’s important to them, to be honest, and fair. If it says fresh fish on the menu, it is fresh. And they work to set prices for their menu that aren’t expensive just to be expensive. “I don’t believe in jacking up the prices of the wines,” Hale explains. “Too many restaurants do that—mark them up 200 or 300 times—and I just don’t believe in that. I want to give [our diners] a quality product.”
“I’ve been doing this since I was in my late twenties… and the community support means a lot,” Amon says. “We’ve had people that might only come once a year for a birthday or anniversary, but they have come for more than thirty of them. They’ve had their first date here and we’ve catered their wedding. They come every year on their anniversary, and now they’re bringing their kids. I love that connection to the community. We get to celebrate with people and share their moments.”