Team

We’re dedicated to our people, our guests, and the American family farmer. Meet the leaders who continue to raise the bar, develop our teams, and grow the future!

Mark Watne

Farmer, Owner, NDFU President

Close

Mark Watne

As a fourth-generation wheat, corn, barley, and soybean farmer who understands the challenges facing today’s American family farmers, Mark Watne has dedicated the better part of his career to working for North Dakota Farmers Union (NDFU).

He is the Union’s ninth president and uses his love of farming and the farming community, his know-how, and innovative ideas to improve and grow the organization. This includes opening their first restaurant in 2006.

With the ideal of growing NDFU, Mark and his fellow North Dakota farmers enlisted the help of Michael Vucurevich and Dan Simons of the successful restaurant consulting group VSAG, to develop a restaurant brand with its foundation rooted in the notion that family farming was, and remains, essential to our nation’s well being. Together, they opened the flagship Founding Farmers DC.

Mark continues to represent the more than 42,000 American family farmers in North Dakota through a flourishing partnership with Mike V and Dan for the Farmers Restaurant Group (FRG). Working passionately on NDFU’s behalf, Mark ensures that the Founding Farmers venture and its sister restaurants, Farmers Fishers Bakers and Farmers & Distillers, continue to honor both their shared way of life and directly benefit them and their families.

 

Mike Vucurevich

Owner

Close

Mike Vucurevich

Michael Vucurevich (also affectionately known to our team as “Mike V”) is one of the industry’s most respected restaurant concept developers for his knowledge of every aspect of the business, from brand creation to profitability.

Since the age of 19, when he ran his first high-volume kitchen, Mike V has helped some of America’s best-known restaurants evolve and succeed.

Through his restaurant consulting firm, Vucurevich Simons Advisory Group (VSAG), formed in 2004 with partner Dan Simons, Mike V pursues many projects with a hands-on approach. As owner and visionary leader behind the Farmers Restaurant Group (FRG) concepts, he and Dan oversee the restaurant brand’s growth, as well as its daily operations.

Mike V has enjoyed living in and traveling to many of our nation’s destinations, enabling him to experience local cuisines and be inspired by them when creating the delicious, diverse, and interesting menu offerings FRG has become known for.

Dan Simons

Owner

Close

Dan Simons

Within the industry and among his own team, Dan Simons is known for his energetic leadership style and passion for hospitality.

An impressive career in the management ranks at several large, high-volume restaurants helped propel him toward starting his own firm, VSAG, which he founded in 2004 with mentor Michael Vucurevich. The two form a well-balanced partnership based on mutual respect and a shared vision, which proved critical in their formation of Farmers Restaurant Group (FRG) in 2011.

As owner and skilled communicator, Dan is frequently called upon to serve as the voice of FRG’s growing group of restaurants. Whether inspiring potential investors, accepting multiple awards for the socially conscious ways of the restaurants or sharing his knowledge at hospitality and educational events, Dan is a champion for responsible industry standards and takes great pride in being able to continually incorporate sustainability methods and local initiatives that give back to the environment and the community.

Joe Goetze

Senior Vice President of Culinary Development

Close

Joe Goetze

Joe Goetze’s official title is Vice President of Culinary Development + Managing Partner of Bakery Operations, but within the Farmers Restaurant Group family, he’s simply known as Chef Joe.

He’s the culinary mastermind behind all of the dishes and extensive menus that our guests know and love at the Farmers Restaurant Group of restaurants.

Chef Joe’s extensive experience includes a degree from the Culinary Institute of America, and years spent developing menus and running kitchens at notable restaurants around the country.

Chef Joe started working with Mike V and Dan back in 1997, and in 2004 joined their VSAG team, where he worked on a variety of successful ventures. A few years later, Chef Joe became an integral part of the Farmers Restaurant Group development team, where he aims for authenticity in every recipe and strives to create, as he likes to put it, “exactly what people are expecting, but better.”

According to Chef Joe, the most interesting and important part of his job is sourcing the food and knowing the origins of each ingredient. Whether it’s how and where the tomatoes were grown or exactly where the cows were born and how they were raised, he believes that the hallmark of a great chef is one that creates fresh, memorable meals for every guest.

Jon Arroyo

Beverage Director

Close

Jon Arroyo

Jon Arroyo started his career in the acting world and, like most actors, spent a lot of time working in restaurants, specifically, behind the bar.

A decade of experience in the industry gave this Los Angeles native an appreciation for, as he puts it, “all things liquid.”

At Farmers Restaurant Group (FRG), Jon has been able to pursue his true passion: the art of the craft cocktail. He runs all bar & beverage programs, overseeing the development of our award-winning cocktails; from-scratch mixers to our house-made nonalcoholic sodas.

Always looking to up our bar service ante, Jon has worked hand in hand with Rick Wasmund, of Copper Fox Distillery in Sperryville, VA, on the development of Founding Farmers Rye Whisky and Gin, traveled to Macchu Pisco to create our proprietary Pisco, and toiled with talented vintner teams in order to bring guests our house line of wines, Virginia Vines and New York Vines.

According to Jon, he finds inspiration through all of his experiences, but his ultimate goal is to provide fresh and interesting flavors that resonate with guests and deliver a positive experience.

Dawn Vileno

Managing Partner | Vice President

Close

Dawn Vileno

Growing up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Dawn’s love of the culinary world began early.

In fact her first job, as a pizza maker at age 14, was her initial taste of the industry and ignited her passion for great food, scratch cooking, and a commitment to providing excellent service in a busy restaurant environment.

After college, Dawn hit the ground running at a large, successful restaurant group. From 1991 through 2004, Dawn made her career dedicating herself to learning the restaurant business by holding nearly every restaurant staff front of house and back of house position. From unit controller to service manager to kitchen manager to general manager to area director, Dawn developed into the ultimate team player filled with drive and determination, for not only her own success but also that of coworkers and staff.

Her next stop was general manager of a $35 million, upscale food market business where she was responsible for operations.  Other business industry director and management positions followed, but Dawn soon found her home at Farmers Restaurant Group.

As our first multi-store managing partner, Dawn’s role has increased to well-deserved, Managing Partner | Vice President status, due in part to her passion for our FRG brands, providing excellent guest experiences, and guiding her team.

During her off-hours, Dawn is just as passionate about her role as an accomplished equestrian and national competitor. Based out of their family run farm, Dawn’s daughter, sister, and mother are also accomplished equestrians.

Kendra Graves

Managing Partner

Close

Kendra Graves

Born and raised in Los Angeles, CA, Kendra attended California State University where she studied Communication Theory and Theatre.

Some may say, the perfect complement to her current position as managing partner where she oversees her FRG team and restaurant guests alike.

During her freshman year, Kendra took a job as a host for an upscale restaurant group and soon moved her way up through the group’s ranks and into what would become her career industry of choice.

A move to New York City kept her with the company as she was offered a position in management. During the next ten years, Kendra continued developing her industry skillset and learning from her diverse experience within the group, until she left her senior management position to join Farmers Restaurant Group in 2012.

Kendra began her FRG journey as general operations manager for Founding Farmers DC, and then moved to general manager of Farmers Fishers Bakers. By the summer of 2014, Kendra was promoted to the challenging role of managing partner, where she has met all of the demands of the job and more.

That drive to rise above and learn from challenges with grace and ease is what makes Kendra a success. Her inspiration and love for what the dining table represents shines through everyday.

While witnessing thousands of guests come in each week to share a meal, whether its business related, a gathering of friends, a first date or family affair, she relishes sharing in those experiences and seeing guests brought together at our table, enjoying our food & drink.

 

Josue Madera

Managing Partner

Close

Josue Madera

Farmers Restaurant Group Managing Partner Josue Madera brings his varied experience in business development, fine dining, hospitality operations, guest relations, and more to our FRG family.

His passion for hospitality and service began during his first restaurant career experience with an upscale restaurant group, based in Connecticut, during his first summer home from college. Josue attended Lee University in Tennessee where he pursued a degree in political science.  During his time at Lee, he had the privilege of coming to Washington, D.C. to serve as an intern at The White House within the Executive Office of the President. The experience was so impactful that Josue decided to return to DC to live and work one day.

First though higher education and a diverse career called, as after college Josue pursued graduate studies at Harvard University, while also developing a continued career with the restaurant group. After managing several of the company’s concepts, Josue learned the value of running a streamlined operating system and soon rose to general manager.  Furthering his business acumen, Josue took a position within a Fortune 500 company, providing executive level business development and high-level consulting and talent acquisition services.

Upon returning to DC, Josue sought to return to the restaurant industry, his main passion, accepting a position with Chef Fabio Trabocchi at two of his highly acclaimed restaurants, managing service and operational systems, with a focus on building their business.

Josue has since brought his eclectic expertise to Farmers Restaurant Group.

Outside FRG, Josue pursues his other areas of interest, which include serving as a mentor, strength training, and American history and historical leadership studies … where his treasured city, Washington, D.C., serves as the perfect backdrop.

Christine Baker

Managing Partner

Close

Christine Baker

Growing up as one of nine children in Baton Rouge, Christine’s love of food and embracing the concept of and joy derived from gathering around a table to share a meal was instilled in her at an early age.

Her ability to organize a restaurant and make sure every guest is happy is an integral part of the process for her as she began cooking for her family at the age of nine. Christine’s remarkable career is a reflection of what food and family means to her.

While attending the University of Dallas, Christine entered the culinary world as a waitress at a popular breakfast joint. After graduation, a move to Charleston, SC brought her to the Kiawah Island Club where she began as the beverage cart girl, then as server, and then a clubhouse manager.  Next, brought an opportunity to train with famed chef and restaurateur Tom Colicchio and his staff to open their then newest clubhouse on Kiawah Island.  Christine stayed for 11 years, traveling to other properties in Ireland and St. Kitts, BWI to oversee their food and beverage operations.

Christine’s next position took her to Virginia as director of food and beverage for an upscale golf club. Then fate intervened as she was introduced to FRG Owners Michael Vucurevich and Dan Simons, and immediately became enamored with their passion, their company, and the mission of their business. Christine soon joined the FRG family.

Her position as managing partner is the perfect fit for Christine, as “Nothing makes me happier than to see people enjoying food and drink together and watching them make memories.”

Francis Lake

Managing Partner

Close

Francis Lake

Fran’s story is a unique blend of amazing journeys, self-exploration, and gratitude.

Fran’s life experiences have exposed him to some of the most amazing cuisines and cultures the world has to offer. Having lived in areas around the globe such as Japan, Korea, Hawaii, and California, his experiences not only played a huge part in influencing and broadening his palate, but also his love of service and hospitality.

After settling in Philadelphia and attending Temple University on a rowing scholarship, his love for the area and the local cuisine flourished. Philadelphia became his home born out of the truest sense of pride and connection to the people. Fran’s passion, greater appreciation, and love for the food industry was cultivated while working in top restaurants in the Philadelphia area for the next decade, and culminated with opening a highly acclaimed farm-to-table restaurant, that ultimately gave him a greater connection to the food, and sourcing of, the freshest product.

This experience gave Fran the focus and direction to concentrate on developing his chosen career in the hospitality field with the purpose in mind of sourcing great local product, with sustainability at the forefront, allowing guests to enjoy fresh and simple foods from our local community.

Fran then took his years of experience and partnered with a James Beard award-winning chef, leading his restaurant in Miami Beach. Fran continued honing his skills with ingredient-driven menus and enlightened hospitality, as his basic principle developed into a recipe to treat guests as though they were entering an extension of his home. This was accomplished through highlighting the best the community had to offer through local sourcing of product and a true connection to its people and farms. This love for the fresh and local cuisines is what ultimately led Fran to Farmers Restaurant Group – and a creative partnership was born.

“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” A saying that Fran believes embodies his true sense of love and connection to the guest, community, and food – and one that leaves him humbled to deliver amazing experiences to people for a living.

Fran and his wife, Jana Lake, have been happily married for over a decade. Hailing from Europe, Jana continues to expand Fran’s ever-evolving love for food. They share an amazing daughter, and the experience of having a child sheds light on a deeper meaning of life and Fran’s unwavering commitment to sustainability. As Fran believes that in all we do, we should strive for the purpose of leaving the earth a little better than we found it for our children’s children.

 

Tony Higdon

Executive Chef Managing Partner

Close

Tony Higdon

Chef Tony’s family life had everything to do with his love of cooking. At a young age, he realized that a family of eight living on 13 acres in a bucolic farm town in Maryland required rules, helping hands, and large family meals.

For Chef Tony, that came to mean two things: he could pick the best food to save for himself, and perhaps more importantly, that cooking for eight meant no dish duty. And a savvy, skillful chef was born.

What began with that love of cooking and seeing the enjoyment one can provide with something as simple as a meal has become the driving force for Chef Tony’s career.

Running crews for his father’s construction company at age 15 and learning the restaurant ropes in every position from front-to-back of house, all while attending Johnson & Wales University’s College of Culinary Arts, provided Chef Tony with deeper culinary experience and the chops to run a busy kitchen.

A position as sous chef provided Chef Tony the opportunity to cook, travel, and have a hand in opening multiple outposts for a large restaurant company. That experience led him to a culinary partnership with a busy eatery in the DC area, setting the stage for him to meet Mike V and Dan, and ultimately joining the FRG team.

Starting at our flagship Founding Farmers DC, Chef Tony then took on a central culinary role in the development and opening of Farmers Fishers Bakers and Founding Farmers Tysons, and also lent his experienced, enthusiastic hand to our teams at MoCo’s Founding Farmers and clients American Tandoor and Mama Rouge.

As his FRG journey continues, Chef Tony lives by the notion, “In striving for perfection we may just achieve excellence.” He subscribes to that mantra everyday and in doing so he not only inspires our team, but also gives all he has in order to provide our guests with the best food he can.