Photo by Edgar Artiga
Sitting on the patio at his Bethesda home in October, Mark Bucher pulls up a text message from Vinny Curry, an Eagles defensive end in his sixth NFL season. “Hey man just walked through the new restaurant,” it reads. “Definitely something that Philadelphia has never seen. Looking forward to having team dinners there.”
Curry, who was drafted in 2012 after attending Marshall University in West Virginia, has been thinking about investing in the Philadelphia restaurant, and Bucher, a restaurateur in the D.C. area who’s guiding him on business decisions, doesn’t want him to move so quickly. Bucher’s inclination was to write back, “Don’t do it,” he says. But instead, he told the player what he tells so many others: “Let’s talk first. Don’t sign anything.”
Texts or calls like that aren’t unusual for Bucher. For the past five years, he’s advised current and former NFL players who want to invest in restaurants, start their own businesses, or get involved in nonprofit work. At 49, Bucher draws on decades of experience in the food industry, first as director of real estate for Dunkin’ Donuts and Chesapeake Bagel Bakery, and later as the owner of BGR: The Burger Joint, a chain he opened in Bethesda, and Medium Rare, a steak frites joint with three locations in Bethesda and Washington, D.C. Bucher considers himself lucky—both BGR (which he no longer owns) and Medium Rare are popular. But his ventures haven’t all succeeded. He opened Community, a diner in Bethesda, in the fall of 2016, and it struggled with poor service and closed after less than a year.
Bucher, a father of four, started working with NFL players soon after he met George Atallah, who stopped by BGR in November 2012 to get his Thanksgiving turkey deep fried (a tradition Bucher continues today at the Barracks Row location of Medium Rare). Atallah, the assistant executive director of external affairs for the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), recognized Bucher’s voice from “Start Up or Shut Up,” a local radio show he co-hosted. The show featured entrepreneurs and wannabe entrepreneurs—sort of like a talk radio version of ABC’s hit Shark Tank, without the multimillionaire investors. Atallah, who knew that players could use some business advice and help in preparing for life after football, asked Bucher and his radio co-host, Tom Gregg, to record a podcast specifically for the NFLPA audience.
“The average career of the NFL player is 3½ years, and we all know that they’re going to retire at the ripe old age of 27,” says Bethesda resident DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFLPA. “We are there to help them with transitioning.”
Many professional athletes struggle after retirement, and some end up in financial distress or even declare bankruptcy. Sometimes their stories include a “friend” or business partner who took advantage of them or guided them in the wrong direction. When a player needs advice about an industry that Bucher doesn’t know well, he’ll often connect the person to someone who does: He put one retiring quarterback with an interest in charity work in touch with former Redskins quarterback Doug Williams, who co-founded a foundation that helps economically disadvantaged youths.
Bucher, who doesn’t charge for his advice, isn’t much of a football fan, and Smith believes that’s more of an asset than a liability. “I tell our players that they should never take advice from fans,” Smith says, adding that Bucher gives players “a very blunt understanding of what the business is, and how difficult and tough that business is.”
Take the star wide receiver who wanted to open a GNC franchise in preparation for life after football; he told Bucher that his nephew would run the store while he continued to play on Sundays. “Will your nephew open the door for a family who shows up a few minutes before closing time on a night when he was hoping to get home early for a date?” Bucher asked him. Not a chance, the player answered. “And that’s why your nephew is never going to run your GNC for you,” he said.
“That was a game-changer” for the player, Bucher says. “They’re given this belief system that they can never fail: ‘I’ve never failed, I can’t fail.’ You know what? You really can, and you can fail bad. It can go bad fast, because your physical attributes can’t get you out of contracts. And that’s probably the biggest teaching we do. And it’s hard. Sometimes they listen and sometimes they don’t.”