Aspirational Chat with Mary Marriner
Mary Marriner is the woman behind the Victoria Restaurant Group, but her talents and hard work are on full display in every restaurant they own and venture they take on. Mary’s energy seems endless — whether she’s working in her garden on produce for the restaurants, coming up with new business ideas (brewery & farm!), designing a new house or decorating their three restaurants for the holiday season — she’s moving, getting her hands dirty or creating. When you meet her you can instantly tell how important her family is to her and that extends to the causes she and her family support.
Her home, designed by her, is very warm and welcoming. I enjoyed her many stories about creating their home, the brewery & restaurants, and her family and I hope you will, too! Let’s jump right in.
AFP: Tell me about building this amazing house.
MM: We bought the farm in late 2011. The only building was an ugly, unfinished concrete block barn, with open trusses, dirt floors and a leaky roof. Every time it rained, water ran off the field straight into the barn. So the first project was creating a berm to redirect the water and beautify the building. We chose stucco & stone with a standing seam metal roof which became the palate for the house and other buildings.
We broke ground on October 1, 2012 and ‘moved in’ not quite a year later. Since we were the general contractor/designer/landscapers, we needed to be here every day, we decided to live in the 23-year old single-wide trailer where the farm hand previously occupied.
The barn became our wood shop so all the wood that you see in the house is repurposed from a barn in Ellicott City that the Taylor family gave to us. We took that down board by board, saved all the wood and reused it - the floors, the staircase, the beams.
You just met Mike Greer, our ‘he can build anything’ wizard. His daughter was getting married in September of 2013 and wanted to have her reception here on the farm. But Mike decided that the best location for the tent site was exactly where the single-wide sat. Unfortunately, as the wedding day neared, the house wasn’t finished. Two days before the wedding we were able to get our U&O because we had a working kitchen, bath and bedroom. We could move the tailer as it had no axles, so were destroyed it… as the tent people were setting up for the reception. What pressure?
AFP: Your great room is wonderful. What’s the room beyond it?
MM: That’s a sunroom and it's turned into a play space for my grandchildren. It's great, I have all the kids toys out here. And we have a wood stove that we use all the time in the winter. I split the wood, I haul the wood - this is my baby. It makes this room so cozy and I just love it. When the kids are here, we're just out here all day.
AFP: I can imagine the view and enjoying the fire as the season is turning cooler, this is a lovely space. And did I read that you designed the home yourself?
MM: I did, but it’s the first time I worked with an architect to fully execute my design and produce the building plans. We've built four houses in our lifetime and renovated a couple more. We bought a house in 1998 that was built in 1954 in western Howard County, and it was an old stone colonial. The man that built that was way ahead of his time, it had a first-floor master suite. Our children were in high school and college at that point, and their bedrooms were upstairs, and we were downstairs at the other end. I've loved traditional design and the formal dining room and big kitchens, so we did the first floor master suite in our last two homes.
AFP: It's nice when you live in a space and experience it, then you know what you really want and can bring those things into your next house. What would you say is your favorite space?
MM: Oh, the kitchen! That's where we spend most of our time. When we were designing this house, my children said, "Don't do a formal living room. Do a big area off the kitchen." That's what we did and I'm so glad we did.
AFP: I love how the kitchen feels very collected. Because you have some darker wood that looks like its own furniture piece, like it came from an old building. And then you have a mix of other woods. I can imagine, considering the businesses you have, that your kitchen gets a lot of use. Does everyone in your family cook?
MM: Randy's the griller. My second daughter went to culinary school and loves to cook and my other daughter, the accountant, cooks too, but when they're all here I do most of the cooking. And I do a lot of gardening for the restaurants, so I'm really busy in the summertime maintaining the garden. We did all the landscaping around the house ourselves, too.
AFP: Did I read you picked out 150 trees in addition to all shrubs and planted them?
MM: Randy was outside one day and he came in said, "How many trees do you think we planted?" I asked why and he said, "Well, I just counted them." Well, it was 150. There was nothing on this farm except where the brewery is. So we knew we had to do something to make that attractive. We built the house and the brewery came the next year. People think we bought the farm with the brewery in mind, but this was to be our home and we never had any intention of having a brewery. I was reading an article about Dale Katechis, who lives in Colorado, owns Oskar Blues and is the creator of Dale's Pale Ale, and I didn't realize that they had restaurants and a farm. "Oh my gosh, this is so incredible. They're so many likenesses. We've got the same size farm and we've got the cattle. They take their spent grain from brewing beer and feed it to the cattle.” Randy said, "Why are you getting so excited? We don't have a brewery and we have one restaurant!" [laughter] We found out a couple weeks after reading that article that the state had just passed a law for farm breweries, so we immediately signed up.
AFP: The timing on that is amazing! I read that the brewery was your idea. When you say a week later you found that out — it was meant to be!
MM: The timing was incredible. I talk about it now and I've got chills. Unfortunately, we had to change state law, create local zoning changes and get federal, state and local licensure, and it took almost 3 years.
AFP: I have been to the brewery and loved it! The Mild Manor'd Amber is my favorite and it filled my first growler. It's a beautiful experience down there; we did a girls' night and brought food and my husband was the Uber driver. [laughter] So I'm saying thank you to you!
MM: We love sharing the farm and we having people come here to enjoy the scenery and the beer. And the house is situated in such a way that it really doesn't affect us, it doesn't invade our personal space or affect our privacy.
AFP: Switching back to your home, do you a favorite chair where you like to sit and relax?
MM: Well, I hardly every sit. [laughter] I think the one thing that I would change, is to have a bigger area with more stools in the kitchen because that's where we hang out. I'm usually standing over there cooking, but I designed the kitchen this way because I wanted an area where I could pretty much keep people out. When you’re entertaining a lot of people and trying to cook or get in the cabinet, and everybody wants to be in the kitchen, this way it's not so much of a problem. I'm very happy with the way this turned out.
AFP: It’s a great space for for cooking and connecting. What's your favorite dish to make?
MM: Desserts are my favorite, I love to bake. My family owned a farm in Anne Arundel County. I don't know if you've ever heard of Blob's Park?
AFP: Yes! I was going to ask you about it because I read about that. I've been to Blob's Park, I think my dad's company once had a corporate party there, so I've been Blob's a couple of times.
MM: For seven years, when my children were little and my youngest was 4 months old, I started making all the desserts for Blob's Parks. We just hung out there all weekend and my mother loved it because we were all there together. So I thought, "I'm making all these desserts, I'm probably going to get to the point where I'm so sick of it." But I'm really not, I really do love making desserts.
AFP: I love the bread pudding at Victoria Gastro Pub! I had a party there in April and was excited to put it on the menu. You guys have great desserts there!
MM: That was important to me when we opened Victoria. Our chef was not really focused in that area and I said, "Well, we have to have house made, good desserts." In the beginning, I made a lot of them. I didn't have as many other things to do; we didn't have this house or the farm. I came up with a lot of the desserts and I would help, but I don't do that anymore, but I do approve them all before they are menued.
AFP: Did your experience at Blob's, which was a German beer garden, influence your desire to have a brewery?
MM: It's funny because I never was focused on beer or really loved beer growing up. About 15 years ago, my daughter had a friend that was working in Germany for a year and she said that she was going to visit her for a week. She said, "You're going with me because if I don't make you go, you'll never go." My father was born in Germany and I have family over there and I'd never been. So, Randy and I went and that's when I fell in love with beer. It's so fresh, it's not pasteurized. And I love beer now!
AFP: I'd love to walk and see a little bit more of the first floor. Do you have a favorite treasured piece that you've carried with you over the years?
MM: When I designed the house, I knew what rooms I wanted and what size I wanted because of my furniture. As a very young adult, my mother-in-law would create architectural drawings. She wasn't a trained architect as far as a degree, but she was trained, and she actually drew the plans for the first house we built in 1974. So, having been exposed to that, we would take paper and draw our furniture to scale. So that's what I’ve done with all my houses. All the furniture that I have, I've had for years. Very few things were bought for this house.
AFP: That is definitely a really smart way to plan.
Randy, her husband chimed in: She's too bashful. She is an extremely talented woman. She has not only designed all of our homes, all of restaurants, but done all the faux finishing, and landscaping. A truly amazing woman.
AFP: I can see that and I appreciate that. I've been to all of your restaurants, they are all so beautiful.
MM: Well, that wasn't planned either. When we bought Victoria, it was an old Bennigan's. We hired a restaurant designer because we wanted to change it. We didn't want it to look or feel like a Bennigan's. I think we lost 4 months waiting for her. We made it very clear we wanted private spaces and then she came back with what looked like Bennigan's redone. Randy turned to me and said, "You're doing it." And I said, "What? I don't know what I'm doing! I’ve never done anything commercial" So I just jumped in, played around with it and came up with the rooms the way they are.
AFP: Well, clearly you have an eye for all those things that people don't think about. The proportion and the colors and mixing materials, those things come naturally to some people.
MM: I guess I take it for granted, but I know everybody can't do that. We built our very first house in 1974 in Annapolis, a very contemporary design. When our children were little, we lived in another house in Baltimore County that we had built. We would put them in the car and take some toys and just ride around and look at property and houses. That’s what we did for fun and that's when I really fell in love with the old houses of Baltimore City and County. You know, the traditional, more Colonial design.
AFP: You found what spoke to you. Tell me about your dining room design.
MM: Our formal dining room is probably one of my favorite rooms. This rug was my husband's grandparents’ rug and I knew I wanted to use it again, I wanted red in the dining room. I saw a picture in a magazine with gold and silver stripes and thought I might try that, so I did these walls. And it took forever because I used metallic paint and it's very translucent. I painted the whole wall grey and then the silver stripes weren't too bad but the gold stripes took too many more layers to get it the right look.
AFP: You've still got a lot of your red.
MM: Our last dining room had red silk wallpaper on the walls. It was very dynamic, but think I like this better than red walls. And Randy's great grandmother did that painting.
AFP: Wow. I love all of the personal treasurers in here.
MM: All of the china in that cabinet was his grandmother's. It is Rose Medallion, which used to be used as ballasts in ships coming from China.
AFP: The colors are amazing. Well, it's a beautiful room. So, do you have holiday meals here? Or other special occasions?
MM: Absolutely, all holiday meals and occasionally we’ll have a group of friends over. We did a chef prepared dinner that we auctioned, to benefit Cystic Fibrosis, and it went for $7,000. So, it was here, our chef prepared it in the kitchen and Randy and I were the serving staff. That was really fun. I really toyed with the idea of not having a big, formal dining room when we built this, but I just couldn't kick that. I think I'd be really sorry if I didn't have that.
AFP: The mix of wood on the floors is beautiful.
MM: The floors in the billiard room are from heart pine boards that came from that barn, and the wood walls in here is also heart pine. Most all of the rest of the floors are beech. In the main entrance we did the floors in a herringbone pattern. The kitchen has 12” wide beech, but the back-stairway section was done in oak. So we did a little bit of everything.
AFP: So, I can imagine with three restaurants and a brewery and the grandkids and the family, that there's always a lot going on. What is a typical day look like? Or is there a typical day? I guess with all those things happening now, what does your favorite day look like?
MM: Every day is a good day. Because I'm not locked into being in an office for 8 or 10 hours a day, which we did for years when Randy and I had our advertising agency. We had to be there, so I loved the weekends. It's not that every day is a free day to do what I want, I have many commitments. I still take care of any decorating with all the restaurants, too.
AFP: When I talk to people about their homes, even if they want to renovate or redecorate, what they really love are the experiences they have in their homes and the people that they have there. It’s become apparent to me that the aspirations they have for their home are what really drive, I think, everything about their design. It's not really about the sofa, it's about the people you're having over to spend the time on the sofa. That became a common thread through all of my clients and their experiences.
You have already done so many tremendous things. What future aspirations do you have for your home or for your life?
MM: I really haven't given that a thought. There's always room for improvement, and you know that often if you do one thing in a room than everything else has to be done. But I like repurposing things and I have a few antiques that I love, but I don't want them to be untouchable or unusable. When my grandchildren are here, they're all over the place. In fact, Sydney, my 5-year-old granddaughter, was here the other day and said, "Marme, can I take these out here? I'm going to use them as a cave!" She had one of her stuffed animals in there. They built a fort the other day upstairs and I just want them to have such happy memories here.
AFP: What's your proudest accomplishment?
MM: I don't know if this is exactly what you're looking for, but I'm so thrilled that our children are involved in our businesses.
AFP: That's a great answer!
MM: Randy and I were both products of family businesses, and unfortunately most are dysfunctional. The good news is that I met him at his family’s business. I grew up at Blob's Park and we had to work on the weekends. We just thought we were never going to do that to our children. When we started our first company, our oldest daughter was about 12, and she would actually come in help me answer the phone. It was a skeleton crew to get things started. When she was in college she was an accounting major, and she would help me because I did all the bookkeeping. She then went on to prove herself and get another job. Our other daughter went to culinary school and she worked at a lot of different restaurants. She ended up being the first employee of the Iron Bridge Wine Company. She worked there for 4 or 5 years, and then we opened Victoria she came there. A few years into Victoria, our oldest daughter decided she wanted to join us. I said, "You've got to be kidding me! Why do you want to do this? You're going to be so bored." So now they're all with us. We couldn't, we wouldn't have expanded like we have if it wasn't for the support of the whole family. Both of my sons-in-law also participate. It's very heartwarming to know that it was their decision. It wasn't something that we said, "Well, we really need you to come and work for us.
AFP: That's amazing. I love that answer. It’s apparent how important family is to you. And having them wanting to be part of the business is great. What is the best advice you've ever received?
MM: My biggest advisor is Randy. And he's always supporting and guiding me, if I get a little frazzled over anything, he's very calming. He would say, “It doesn't matter, it's all going to work out”. When he turned to me that day when we were doing Victoria and said, "You need to figure this design out." And I said,"Only if you're going to be right next to me!" He's my sounding board.
AFP: So earlier I asked you where do you like to sit and relax, and you said you don't do that a lot. What do you like to do in your free time?
MM: My favorite thing is to be outside and work in my garden, even though it can be overwhelming and a lot of work. My girls have tried to talk me out of doing it, there was so much going on this year, and I said I can't do that. If I just need to go somewhere and do something and be by myself, that's my happy place. I love making things grow and making people with the things that I grow.
AFP: Now, if you dare to vacation, which I know you mentioned going to Germany many years ago, where's your favorite place to get away?
MM: Well, we do have a home in Saint Margaret's, in Annapolis that we purchased before VGP. We don't get there often even though it's less than an hour away, but I love it there because the family loves it there. The kids love it and it's just a very peaceful place. We really don't travel a lot. We have a lot of friends that have places in Florida, and we try to go there once a year, but we never made it last year. I'm just a homebody and already live in paradise, so I don't need to go anywhere.
AFP: Which is a wonderful, enjoying the fruits of your labor, if you will. So, you mentioned a fundraiser you have here and I read about some other organizations that you participate in and give back. What are some of some causes that you're working with now to support in various ways? What's near and dear to your heart in that way?
MM: My sister lost two children to Cystic Fibrosis, so CF has been a major recipient of what we do philanthropically. And they're making tremendous strides with a cure. Randy just retired from 35 years of fundraising for CF. And this Howard County Wine Masters event that we created 16 years ago, when we first started it at a friend's home. We've had a lot of friends help us that have no involvement or connection with CF, they did it because we asked. And that event has raised over $3,000,000.
AFP: It's nice that you have the space and the tools to help support organizations like that through the restaurants and your farm.
AFP: If you're having a bad day or just not in the right head space, what do you do to lift your spirits?
MM: Randy is very strong in his faith and if I get a little weak, he's always pumping me up. The very worst day that I could ever have, there's somebody that's having a much worse day. I just think on the good things, the positive things.
AFP: A little perspective can go a long way in helping with that. So, I have some fun questions now!
Coffee or tea? Tea
Cats or dogs? Dogs are my favorite, but I do have a cat, too.
Morning or a night person? Well in my life, I have to be both. [laughter] I'm a morning person, I don't have a hard time getting started.
Cake or pie? Pie! Fruit pies.
Netflix or movie theater? Netflix.
Summer or winter? Summer.
Chocolate or vanilla ice cream? Vanilla.
Online shopping or shopping in a store? In a store!
Favorite holiday? I'd have to say Christmas. I love the decorating.
Favorite restaurant? For years, we've loved Tio Pepe.
If you could live in a different state or country, where might you pick? With all our brick and mortar operations here in Maryland, not going to happen. But we moved, probably someplace south.
Well, that is my last question. Thank you so much!
I hope you enjoyed my chat with Mary as much as I did. Her passion for her family, the guests at their restaurants and creating experiences through design is really comes through when talking to her. I’m planning on taking a tour of each of their restaurants to see Mary’s holiday decorating work up close. I’m also now in the mood for a glass of Mild Manor’d Amber Ale! Cheers!
Our next chat is with Jean Parker, General Manager at Merriweather Post Pavilion.