July-August 2022 | Food & Drink

Why a longtime Bethesda restaurateur is feeding people for free

Mark Bucher tackles hunger with the nonprofit Feed the Fridge

share this
Mark Bucher at Medium Rare in Bethesda, where workers are preparing meals for the Feed the Fridge program. Photo by James Kegley

Mark Bucher surveyed the ingredients arrayed on a kitchen counter at Medium Rare, his Bethesda steakhouse: packages of ground beef, jars of dill pickles and Duke’s Mayonnaise, a squeeze bottle of Capital City Mambo Sauce, glass bowls of salt and spices, and bags of burger rolls. 

Then Bucher—who has won numerous awards for his burgers—got to work making his signature dish. 

Alone in his empty Woodmont Triangle restaurant last winter, Bucher prepared burgers in front of a webcam recording the event as a promotion for “Taste of the NFL,” a friendly competition among six chefs to be broadcast an hour before Super Bowl LVI this past February. Bucher was sharing his culinary skills with Alexis Glick, the CEO of the nonprofit GENYOUth, who was participating from New York. The nonprofit’s flagship program, in partnership with the NFL and the National Dairy Council, aims to end student hunger.

The organization’s mission aligns perfectly with Bucher, 54, whose long career in the restaurant industry includes his creation of BGR: The Burger Joint, which he sold in 2015, and Medium Rare, a small local steak-and-fries chain he hopes to take national. In March 2020, he founded Feed the Fridge, a nonprofit focused on alleviating hunger during the pandemic by providing free meals to those in need in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. “We went from hospitality to humanitarian in a year,” Bucher says.

Feed the Fridge began operating with the donation by the Washington Nationals of six vendor refrigerators placed in D.C. parks and recreation centers. Funded by other donations, it grew to include local pickup sites in Montgomery County, according to the organization.

More recently, Bucher sent free meals to families displaced by a March 3 gas explosion at a Silver Spring apartment complex and to the first responders who came to their aid. In May, Feed the Fridge began stocking baby formula at its 14 sites, amid a U.S. shortage.

“A lot of what he does, other than just being a good soul, comes from a need to prove himself over and over again,” says his longtime friend Steve Abramson, a lawyer and a minority partner in the Medium Rare chain. “It provides him some validation. He’s always trying to make his parents—both now gone—proud.” 

“There’s truth in that,” says Bucher, who has four daughters, ages 16 to 26, and lives in the Bradley Hills neighborhood of Bethesda with his wife, Amy. He says he’s motivated by a “fear of failure” and tries “to please everybody around me—my wife, kids, friends, people I don’t know.”

In a life marked by a series of failures and successes or, as Bucher prefers to say, “twists and turns,” the arrival of the pandemic and the creation of Feed the Fridge led to a shift in Bucher’s public image and private priorities.

Since 2007, Bucher has provided free Thanksgiving meals to local families in need, usually donating as many as 360 free turkeys annually, he says. He rents fryers and cooks the birds at his Medium Rare location on Connecticut Avenue in the District, the first of his three locations to open. In November 2020, due to the anticipated demand as the coronavirus upended everything, he and his crew cooked and gave away nearly 1,000 turkeys, he says. 

In March of that year, with the country entering lockdown and older people especially at risk from COVID-19, Bucher tweeted that he’d deliver a free Medium Rare meal to anyone who couldn’t get out. “That’s how it started,” he recalls about the founding of Feed the Fridge. “Emails and calls started coming in, requests from all over the region. We had volunteer drivers. My staff stepped up. We made all these meals with no financial remuneration. We weren’t even thinking about it. We wanted to keep people fed.” Anyone in need could take a meal—no paperwork to fill out, no questions asked. 

Volunteers brought food to the homes of needy families, where kids held “thank you” signs at the front door. But Bucher says the delivery method was inefficient and he told local school officials: “Put refrigerators in the schools, and I’ll fill them with food.” 

Bucher says he set up a GoFundMe page, raising $60,000, and learned that people also needed clothing and personal care kits—toothpaste, lip balm and hand sanitizer. He purchased the items, and then he and his daughters stuffed them into Ziploc bags that were delivered with the meals, he says. 

The nonprofit arranged pickup sites in local community centers, schools and other locations. With many local restaurants struggling during the pandemic, Bucher used donated funds to pay restaurants to prepare the meals, and volunteers delivered the food to the pickup sites.

When Feed the Fridge ran short of cash, Bucher says, he and his partners made up the difference. To raise more money, the nonprofit held a fundraiser last December at the Northwest Washington home of public relations executive Richard Strauss. The event netted $200,000 from 60 donors, Bucher says. During 2021, the nonprofit reported receiving $735,000 in donations.

Two-plus years after Feed the Fridge was founded, it still relies mostly on an army of volunteers. The nonprofit hired a full-time executive director in March 2021 and now has four part-time workers, allowing Bucher to step back a bit. As of late May 2022, the nonprofit was providing about 1,200 meals a week, delivering them Monday through Friday and on national holidays.

Mary’s Center, a health facility in Silver Spring, is one of the meal pickup sites. Feed the Fridge delivers 70 meals there each morning and all are gone by 2 p.m. “It’s a really great program,” says Magaly Avalos, the front desk receptionist and supervisor. “Especially in these hard times, because there are people who don’t have anything to eat. They can come here and grab a meal.” 

One chilly spring day, Mike Castro, 43, stopped by Mary’s Center before starting his $15-an-hour cook’s job at Chipotle in Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown. He was there to pick up four meals for his family. Castro lives in a Silver Spring apartment with his wife, Miriam, and their son, 13, and daughter, 6. “I count on it for help,” said Castro, who emigrated from Peru 17 years ago. “This is very important for my family, for my kids.”

Pablo Munoz cooks steaks for Feed the Fridge meals at Medium Rare in Bethesda. Photo by James Kegley

In 2016, Bucher stood on the stage at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, giving a weekend talk, “How a Burger Changed Me Forever,” to an audience of students and parents. “Making a perfect burger is the same as doing anything in life,” he told the group, according to a video of the event. “In life, things in balance always work out for you.”

Bucher’s life wasn’t always in balance. He grew up in suburban Cherry Hill, New Jersey, the grandson of a union leader who became chairman of Philadelphia’s Civil Service Commission. His father sold office furniture, and his mother bought fabric for New York clothes designers. An introvert, he hated school—he flunked Spanish—and Sunday nights were anxiety-filled as he worried about the upcoming week of classes. His parents pulled him out of public school in seventh grade. In a smaller private school, with only 16 students in his grade, Bucher recalls doing better.

He attended American University, graduating in 1986 with a multidisciplinary degree in communications, legal studies, economics and government. While there, he got involved in Future Enterprisers of America and WAMU, the campus radio station that’s now a major NPR affiliate, where he was a DJ playing rock music at the not-so-prime time of 2:45 a.m. on Sundays.

He fancied a career as a rock jock and worked at a local station, Q107-FM. But he knew he wanted to live in the area and not have to move around, as he observed many in radio did.

Keeping his radio gig, he tried his hand at commercial real estate, working at a series of firms. At Barnes, Morris, Pardoe & Foster, he learned about business and “how to dress, wear the right suit,” Bucher says. “I studied the habits of highly successful people and tried to emulate them. It was transformative.”

In 1995, he quit radio to enter real estate full time, and he earned a master’s degree in real estate and infrastructure in 1996 from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. 

Still, he hadn’t found his niche. And, he says, he’d always liked cooking. Making another pivot, he headed to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. He approached several D.C. restaurants and offered to work for free to gain experience, which netted him three job interviews and a one-year paid training program at Clyde’s. He went on to work nights at Old Ebbitt Grill in the District, where he advanced from peeling onions to line cook. “It was intimidating, like Crime and Punishment, but I got really good,” he says. 

His often-hectic work life has been leavened by his family. Bucher met his wife through mutual friends. Their courtship survived a disastrous first date, during which she fell asleep in a fancy restaurant at Union Station in the District. “I didn’t completely fall asleep,” she protests. “I think my eyes were starting to close.” 

Nor was she impressed by her first experience with Bucher’s cooking. “He attempted to make Chinese food. It was so spicy, it was inedible,” she says. “I think we ended up ordering a pizza.” But that was no deal breaker, either. They’ve now been married for 28 years. 

Amy and one of their daughters are vegetarians, so family dinners are somewhat complicated to produce. “No chicken, no steak, no nothing,” Bucher says. “It kills me.” 

Mark Bucher stands behind a table laden with servings of steak salad and bread. Photo by James Kegley

With a new field came new adventures, some more successful than others. 

Bucher combined his interests in real estate and food and got a job with Dunkin’ Donuts as director of real estate, tasked with finding sites for stores. He did the same work for Chesapeake Bagel Bakery and Chicken Out.

By the early 2000s, the couple was living in Bethesda and Bucher decided to start his own business. Called Fixx LLC, the company offered property management for restaurants. “That was truly a startup that on paper seems like a great idea and just kind of turned into a monster,” Amy Bucher says. “That was the low point.” 

Operating from his home, Bucher arranged with restaurants for vendors to fix whatever was broken—a toilet, a refrigerator. Restaurants were expected to pay the repair companies directly, but sometimes they didn’t. So Fixx found itself defending—and losing—numerous lawsuits, according to Bucher. Maryland court records list 10 lawsuits filed against Fixx from 2002 to 2004. Eight were dropped, while the remaining two were resolved with judgments totaling about $30,000 in 2005 and 2006. “It was definitely touch and go,” Bucher recalls. “It went well until it didn’t go well.” 

Bucher’s solution was to shut down Fixx and begin selling repair warranties to his former clients, with vendors billing the insurance company instead of the restaurant. The new company was called DineAssured. It was a simple concept—or so it seemed until trouble arose.

In 2004, while visiting a call center in Oklahoma that was servicing one of his clients, Bucher recalls, his accountant called. A Maryland state insurance agency official was in Bucher’s Bethesda office demanding all his files, he recalls. “Maryland was exploring whether we were selling insurance,” Bucher says. “I said, ‘Give them what they want.’ ”

Bucher says he turned over $381,000 to pay any unpaid claim that the state found. The agency found no unpaid claims, Bucher says, but he never got his money back. “It was the single worst time in my life,” Bucher says. “I was scared. I’d always done right by everybody. It wiped me out, wiped out that business. I’ll never forget it.”

“When he loses, he loses a lot,” says Abramson, his longtime friend. And yet, “if resilience is a character trait that is valuable, he has it in spades,” Abramson says. “He is not perfect. But when you take the full measure, he’s done pretty well darn good.” 

Bucher got into the burger-making business while working as the director of food and beverage for Barrick Gaming in Las Vegas, where he and Amy also had a stake in four casinos, he says. For a year, he flew each week to the city, returning to Bethesda for the weekends.

Oversize portions were the rage in restaurants, with one in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, offering a burger weighing 7.7 pounds. “Let’s do 9!” Bucher recalls suggesting to his staff. Anyone who could finish eating the massive burger in one sitting didn’t have to pay for it. In January 2005, the company held a contest at a diner inside one of its casinos—the 105-pound winner, a woman from Alexandria, Virginia, devoured a 9-pound burger in 48 minutes and 10 seconds, according to an account in the Las Vegas Sun. 

“It wasn’t the best burger,” Bucher admits of the mixture combining cheaper cuts of meat. “It was blended brisket, short rib, chuck.” But within six months, he says, it was winning burger contests in Vegas—and it inspired Bucher’s next venture, the opening of BGR: The Burger Joint. 

On Craigslist, he found a smoothie and nut shop for sale in Bethesda’s Woodmont Triangle and paid $5,000 to take over the lease and buy some equipment. The Buchers’ large contemporary home across the road from the Kenwood Country Club golf course became a testing site for his first burger restaurant. 

“I’d come home from school; he’d rearranged the living room and dining room to look like a restaurant,” daughter Madelyn Bucher, 26, then in middle school, recalls; today she teaches kindergarten at Clopper Mill Elementary. “Tables and chairs and cutlery were set up. One time there were 15 different types of burgers they’d been cooking and tasting all day long. My mom, a vegetarian, wasn’t so thrilled. She’s always been very supportive, but she just kind of stayed far away from the kitchen at that point.” 

Bucher opened BGR: The Burger Joint on Fairmont Avenue in March 2008.

“We made burgers and fries every day for our customers. I became a burger guy,” Bucher says. “The minute we opened, we had lines.” Eventually there were a dozen locations throughout the region.

Meanwhile, Bucher was building a national reputation as a burger master, winning cooking contests or coming close in cities from New York to Tampa to Memphis. At the 2012 World Burger Championships in Las Vegas, he received the most points ever awarded for a burger—ironic since, he says, he hated burgers as a child. “My mother was a terrible cook, but all she cooked was burgers during the first seven years of my life.” He wouldn’t eat them in college, but later he devised ways that he liked them prepared. “Because I had so many, I kept upping my taste game.”

Once again, all was going well—until it didn’t. While he and Amy spent a weekend in her hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, he says, some of his BGR partners added salads and a chicken sandwich to the chain’s menu. “I didn’t like it,” says Bucher, who was the majority owner. He decided to sell the business. He declined to name the dissident minority owner who he says changed the menu.

In 2015, he sold the chain to Chanticleer Holdings Inc., the parent company of Hooters. The original location remains open in downtown Bethesda but now also offers turkey and chicken burgers as well as plant-based burgers. 

Five years before Bucher sold the burger chain, he came up with the idea for Medium Rare. He was in Paris visiting Tom Gregg, a friend who was living in the city with his family for a year. The men went to the Greggs’ favorite bistro, which served just one dish: steak and fries. Thinking he could import that simple menu across the ocean, Bucher says that’s when “Medium Rare was born.” 

When the first Medium Rare opened in 2011 on Connecticut Avenue, the concept was simple: For $24.95, diners got an 8-ounce steak and fries, “artisanal rustic” bread and a mixed green salad; eventually a “vegan-friendly option” of a grilled portobello mushroom was added.

After Connecticut Avenue came a second location on Barracks Row in Southeast Washington in 2014; it closed in January 2020 due to declining sales and rising rent. The Medium Rare in Bethesda opened in 2017, and another opened in Arlington in 2018.

“He’s a ready, shoot, aim guy, and I reflect on things,” says Gregg, co-owner of the Medium Rare business.

“Mark dives, goes for it, then sort of figures it out afterwards. He sees a problem, he attacks it.”

While running the steakhouses, Bucher came up with another idea for a restaurant: the upscale diner named Community that he opened in October 2016 around the corner from the Medium Rare in downtown Bethesda. But it closed a year later, weighed down, he says, by staffing problems and a lack of customers.

Court records show several claims filed against Bucher or his entities around that period.

One former employee he’d hired to help launch Community sued him over pay but dropped the case. “There are no hard feelings,” said the man, who asked not to be quoted by name. “It’s water under the bridge. I don’t believe anything he’d done was out of ill will. He’s a very good guy.”

Bucher refers to the defunct restaurant as a “cool concept, impossible to execute locally.”

During the pandemic, the Medium Rare chain pivoted to offering takeout. “Our pandemic plan was to keep our nose just above the water level,” Bucher says. “We balanced that for almost two years. We kept all our people.”

He hopes to expand the business to 20 cities within five years. This spring, he signed a lease for a location in Columbia in Howard County and says he is considering sites outside Baltimore and in Philadelphia, Nashville, New Orleans and Chicago. “I’m on the road now six or eight days a month looking for opportunities,” Bucher says.

As for Feed the Fridge, the number of locations in the area has declined to 14 from its pandemic peak of 20, but more were planned to open as of early June. Elsewhere, Bucher says, other jurisdictions are interested in setting up similar programs. “The wheels are moving” in Miami and Los Angeles, he says. “We’ve got the ability to train other jurisdictions how to do it.” His ultimate goal? “In 10 years, I don’t want there to be a Feed the Fridge,” Bucher says. “I want hunger to be solved.” 


Mark Bucher

Age: 54
Lives in: Bethesda
Education: American University, Johns Hopkins University
Career: Worked for commercial real estate firms; entrepreneur; restaurateur
Restaurants: Co-owner, BGR: The Burger Joint, 2008-2015; owner, Community, 2016-2017; co-owner, Medium Rare, 2011-present
Family: Married to Amy Bucher; four daughters: Madelyn, Lexi, Darin and Hannah

Eugene L. Meyer is a contributing editor for Bethesda Magazine and the author of Five for Freedom: The African American Soldiers in John Brown’s Army.