How Larkin's Restaurants Started a Culinary Empire
Mark and Larkin Hammond were apart 252 days during their first year of marriage. Mark was ingrained in the corporate machine with Pepsi-Co’s restaurant division (now Yum Brands), and a frequent flier with a flourishing collection of hotel room keys. Thinking of the future, Mark took a cursory glance up the company ladder. “That’s what my boss was doing and that’s what his boss was doing,” Mark says of his cross-country calendar.
As for the worn adage, “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” Mark wasn’t buying it. Either was his fiery wife, who once built and raced offshore powerboats for a living. Instead, the couple grabbed their two dogs, two cats, stuffed a U-Haul with everything they owned, and headed for the lake. “We really enjoy each other’s company and we were apart most of the time,” Mark explains. “So having our own restaurant was a way to get back and spend time together.”
Turn the page to 1998 and Mark is dressed for work in a bathing suit, strapped to water skis, and holding on as Larkin ferries him across the calm waters of Lake Lure on a warm North Carolina morning. The couple found a perfect project—a restaurant resembling a jigsaw puzzle with only a few pieces missing. It was a local favorite, but also a venue whiffing on its share of opportunities. And, best of all, it was connected to a dock set against the kind of visual postcard cubicle junkies yearn for.
“We would get out 1 or 2 in the morning and start the next day,” Larkin recalls. “We did that out of sheer determination and absolutely loving what we were doing.”
Larkin and Mark began with around 35 employees at Larkin’s on the Lake. As soon as they arrived, the couple dropped their pets off at a condo and headed right to work. The U-Haul trailer remained unpacked for the following week.
The first night, which fell right as the leaves were changing in October, the Hammonds discovered that the previous owner made off with the essentials. During service, the staff washed steak knives and glasses by the order to survive.
Larkin, who had progressed to a powerful real estate position in California, also surveyed the property with a keen eye. Downstairs, she found the log cabin property’s hidden gem. “If you can imagine, this place sits on a lake with docks, all outside, open gorgeous views and [the former owner] wasn’t using the downstairs,” she says. “So I turned it into a bar and grill and made it really, really cool.”
As for the name, the restaurant went unbranded until a table of college students offered their opinion.
“They go, ‘What’s your name?’ I said Larkin. They go, ‘Well name it Larkin’s then,’” she says.
“I agreed with them,” Mark chimes in.
In that opening year, with all the expected setbacks and challenges, it was the Bay Front Bar and Grill that turned the current. It gave the Hammonds enough leeway to start fostering a culture and company that they, originally, figured would remain within those four walls.
The chef, who carried over from the previous concept, died of a heart attack after a year. The tragedy scrambled the operation. But Mark and Larkin trained their staff well enough—and personally studied the menu thoroughly—to keep things afloat.
“We just kept it going,” Larkin says. “I remember one weekend after that I stayed in the kitchen for three days. The menu was very simple. It’s not gourmet there. It’s just good, old southern cooking—trout and prime rib. It wasn’t like I had to come up with any gourmet products. Not yet at least.”
In the past, the previous owner closed the restaurant for six to eight weeks a year. Initially, this was an optimal arrangement for the pair. They figured they could run Larkin’s for 10 months, and then take off. Perhaps travel. Maybe just sit back and do nothing, together.
But anybody who has met the Hammonds understands that plan never had a chance. One day during a trip to Greenville, South Carolina, a growing city in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Larkin stepped into an old, smoky steakhouse and struck a deal with herself. While the concept wasn’t for sale, Larkin, in her typical fashion, promised to whittle away until the dream became a reality. Eventually she convinced the owner to retire and, in 2005, they opened Larkin’s on the River, a fine-dining restaurant that quickly established itself among the city’s upper echelon destinations.
“We realized [operating a seasonal restaurant] just wasn’t our personality,” Mark says. “It became a 12-month-a-year business and then we looked for other opportunities. Now, we’re six locations and a big catering company. We definitely did not foresee that at all at the time.”
It’s six and counting for Larkin’s Restaurants, which has no financial partners and is run by the Hammonds. They opened Larkin’s Carolina Grill in 2008 in Columbus, North Carolina, and then Grill Marks, a sophisticated burger joint, in Greenville in 2012, along with managing partner Bob Munnich. Another Grill Marks—a restaurant named, at last for Mark—popped up in Columbia, South Carolina, in 2015. One more is coming very soon. “Mark’s on the Lake didn’t work until we got the burger place,” Larkin jokes. This concept has undeniable multi-unit potential and the Hammonds say there are current growth plans in the works, although the details remain under wraps for now.
As the company sprouted to around 350 employees, Larkin says they’ve kept their priorities focused on the people. The couple has a rescue dog that accompanies them to events, but otherwise has each other and their business to look after. Mark says their managers average 10 years, and that turnover has never been a problem.
“I’m so passionate about our team,” Larkin says. “That’s the whole thing that makes me excited—to see them go from young kids to adults to raising families, and just being excited and happy in life. It’s only Mark and I and our dogs, and we love to see the growth of these people. I’ve become more passionate with the years because of the people in the business.”
They just recently opened an office in Greenville, a 1,300-square-foot space that fronts the river. The catering arm has also grown and is one of the company’s biggest draws. Executive Chef Alex Castro, who has been with Larkin’s for going on 11 years, continues to innovate and impress with his menus.
Meanwhile, Mark and Larkin remain as invested as ever. Larkin says her past experience and dedication helps her relate to everyone, at all levels of the business. But, at the end of the day, it all comes down to an honest cliché: doing what you love. “If my employees need me, I’m there. That’s just the way it is. I don’t care what it is—except for waiting tables. They know I don’t wait tables because I get confused,” she says with a chuckle. “But the rest of it I can do and am more than happy to do.”
“In this business, you can talk about so many components,” Mark adds. “I think you can tell that it’s the people that makes this so great for us. Not only the people that work for us and the management team that runs the business every day, down to the dishwasher to the cook and all of the staff, but it’s also the customer. It’s doing an anniversary dinner for a couple or doing a wedding. You just get a chance to see them having a great time and you just want to do it again tomorrow. I wake up every morning feeling that way.”