The Duck Restaurant becomes part of lake history.

That simple line on The Duck’s webpage is succinct yet foretelling.

The Duck Restaurant becomes part of lake history.

That simple line on The Duck’s webpage is succinct yet foretelling. Mark Hooker and Donna Ziegler locked the doors to the iconic restaurant on Horseshoe Bend early last month, ending their 13 years of providing fine dining, fine wine and mom-and-pop hospitality to their customers.

It also ended The Duck’s three decades as a lakefront restaurant with a dynamic, panoramic view near the 4-mile mark of the Main Channel.

While the view continues unabated, The Duck per se is history. But stay tuned. The restaurant could resurface under a different name with a different business plan.

Mark and Donna say they Duckin 2002 because of a compelling opportunity and because it was such an attractive property. Those attributes remain, and they plan to remain at the lake for the foreseeable future. 

 

Idea people

An easel and pad sit in the corner of a small room just off the dining area at Mark Hooker and Donna Ziegler’s home a stone’s throw from the restaurant at the end of Cherokee Road. Scribbled on the front sheet are ideas that Mark and Donna have tossed out as they contemplate their future and that of their restaurant.

“We have some new ideas and feel it is now more of a compelling opportunity than when we first acquired it,” they explained as part of a “fond farewell” to customers on their webpage. “Another business perhaps?” they tease.

Mark and Donna have roots in the corporate world, and the drive that helped them survive in the restaurant business for more than two decades is a carryover from their corporate days. In 1997, after living in Kansas City for more than 20 years, an offer they couldn’t refuse came their way. Donna was offered a job in Frankfurt, Germany, as vice president of internal audit after her Kansas City company was acquired by a German company.

Mark turned in his corporate keys and off they went for a three-year sojourn to Europe. They traveled the countryside, wining and dining and working in-between. But after one merger too many, Donna left the corporate world and returned home.

Coming to the Lake of the Ozarks was an easy decision. Donna’s parents lived here, and the lake was someplace they had visited frequently. While they never planned to become restaurateurs, owning The Duck was another opportunity they didn’t want to pass up.

As Donna turned the pages on the easel, she was delighted to discover notes that she and Mark had crafted when they first bought The Duck in 2002. They laughed at their decade-old visions, noting some had survived and others had gone by the wayside. But it was evident their drive to succeed hasn’t been lost in their decision to close the doors to The Duck.

“Are we going to miss it?” Donna asked rhetorically. “Yes we are. There’s something about having the first customer of the season, and the last time we see them for the season. But it was time.”

The decision to close didn’t come without some trepidation. Mark joked in a recent email: “Our story is probably easily told. We started out ‘long in the tooth’ in this business, and now 13 years later and ‘longer in the tooth’ we found this a good time to exit while we’re at least near the top of it all.”

As a middle-aged couple with decades of work experience, they long for a different lifestyle. Donna’s parents are still lake residents, and they want to spend more time with them. As hands-on owners of The Duck for 13 years, the rigors of that involvement has caught their attention. They’re both healthy, but realize that could change dramatically at any moment.

And they want to share time with customers who have become their friends over the years. There’s never been time for a social life other than momentary handshakes and hugs with people who came to their restaurant. They own a boat, but haven’t been able to enjoy the lake because of their dedication to their business.

The feedback from their customers has been overwhelmingly positive, but bittersweet. While customers say they’ll miss Mark and Donna, the food, the wine and the view, they realize that time is of the essence.

“We wanted to go out before people said to us ‘it’s about time,’” they laughed. “There have been so many couples and individuals who are now our friends. We’ve developed some deep friendships.”

Mark said he and Donna had a 10-year timeline before re-thinking their future, but there was never anything specific. At the end of the 2013 season, they talked about it but stayed another year.

“I don’t think people realize how physical it is to run a restaurant when you’re the owner/operator,” Mark explained. “There’s an amazing energy in running a restaurant, and it’s almost addictive when you’re doing it well and on all cylinders. There’s just something about it that we’re going to miss.”

For a seasonal restaurant, they’ve been fortunate to have assembled a core staff that returned each spring. It has become increasingly difficult to hire the additional staff required to fully staff the restaurant during the season, and it often feels like starting from scratch each spring. And acquiring staff that understood the nuances of working at a fine dining restaurant was also a challenge. There is a certain sophistication necessary in understanding fine wines, unique entrees and in dealing with customers who might expect more from a fine dining restaurant, they explained.

“But we’ll miss our staff,” Donna said. “Some of them have become like our own family with all the dysfunction that comes from being a family and from owning a restaurant.”

What now?

Mark and Donna closed the restaurant as they normally would at the end of the season. There’s still some work to do in winding it all down, all with the notion that springtime could bring the birth of a new business model.

“It’s funny,” Mark said. “When we first started, a customer, when finding out we were new in the business, said to Donna something like ‘you’re a bit long in the tooth to be just starting in the restaurant business, aren’t you?’ That’s always stuck with us.”

Long in the tooth or not, Mark and Donna don’t see “retirement” in their near future. They want to travel, spend time with friends, tend to their families and maybe, just maybe, bring something new and different to their property at the lake.