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

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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 the 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 the 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 47,000 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

Co-Owner

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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 co-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

Co-Owner

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Dan Simons

Within the industry and among his own team, Dan 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, Vucurevich Simons Advisory Group (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 that proved critical in their formation of Farmers Restaurant Group (FRG), which began with the first Founding Farmers in 2008.

As co-owner and skilled communicator, Dan is frequently called upon to serve as the voice of FRG’s growing collection of sustainable, farmer-owned restaurants. Everyday, he works to educate guests and the media about the importance of family farming and sustainable operations, to share his hospitality industry and management expertise, and encourage responsible industry practices. He blogs regularly @Dan Simons Says about restaurants and hospitality, personal productivity and time management, developing partnerships and brands, environmental issues, and a range of other topics that capture his attention.

Always out in front for FRG, Dan was named Ernst & Young’s 2018 Entrepreneur Of The Year Mid-Atlantic for his business acumen, novel approaches, and success.

He is the founder of Our Last Straw, a non-profit company devoted to eliminating the use of plastic straws and raising awareness about the environmental and health hazards of single-use plastics. Dan launched Our Last Straw to bring together a coalition of restaurant and hospitality industry partners with government leaders and NGOs to lead the charge for change.

Joe Goetze

Managing Partner, Culinary & Bakery

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Joe Goetze

Joe Goetze’s official title is managing partner, culinary & bakery, 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.”

For 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 we use were grown or where and how the cows or chickens were born and raised, he believes that the hallmark of a great chef is one that creates fresh, memorable meals for every guest.

Jon Arroyo

Managing Partner, Beverage & Distillery

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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, 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 developed The Founding Farmers Spirit Project, working hand in hand with Rick Wasmund, of Copper Fox Distillery in Sperryville, VA, on our Founding Farmers Rye Whisky and Founding Farmers Gin. He traveled to Macchu Pisco to create our Founding Farmers Pisco Blend, toiled with the talented vintner teams at two different vineyards in order to bring guests our house line of wines, Virginia Vines Rosé and New York Vines White, and is currently working with a winery in the Northwest on a house Pinot Noir. Jon’s desire to continue developing unique spirits with his own recipes and blend of ingredients was instrumental in building our micro-batch distillery, Founding Spirits, located in Farmers & Distillers. As Distillery Director, Jon is calling the shots, which include creating our Founding Spirits Vodka, Founding Spirits Arroyo’s “Never Bitter” Amaro, and Founding Spirits American Whiskey. 

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

Lara Hardcastle

Senior Vice President, LEED AP

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Lara Hardcastle

Growing up abroad, Lara developed a love of fresh food and diverse flavors, and an appreciation for the value of great service at an early age.

Her first job in hospitality turned that love into a passion. Working at a roadside clam shack, with lively gatherings of people enjoying the bounty of fresh, local food and drink, Lara knew she had found her calling.

After graduating from New York University, she found herself working at a high-volume restaurant company, learning from and building a solid foundation with our very own Michael Vucurevich and Dan Simons. Lara’s drive, determination, and clear penchant for leadership stood out, propelling her to lead trainer. This gave her a behind the scenes glimpse of all the moving parts associated with opening a restaurant.

When Mike V and Dan branched out on their own, they called Lara. She’s been with Farmers Restaurant Group since its inception, overseeing each of our restaurant builds from idea to opening.

According to co-owner Dan, “Lara stands out. She simultaneously masters the intensity of restaurant openings and remodels, all the while becoming the most incredible boss and developer of people.”

Lara touches everything from lease negotiation and budgeting to facilities, furniture, and foodservice design to engineering, permitting and licensing, construction, inspections, and daily operations. As a LEED AP, Lara ensures all of our restaurants are sustainably built, and LEED and Green Restaurant Association (GRA) certified.

For Lara, her favorite role is that of teacher. From her early days, teaching and guiding her teams has remained a passion. Not only is she a great leader and boss, she is also involved in teaching in-house classes to our teams on FRG’s mission and framework. It’s the ideal forum for Lara to engage with our team and pass on her extensive knowledge and love for good hospitality and all things Farmers Restaurant Group.

Nathan Fegely

Senior Vice President, Finance & Administration

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Nathan Fegely

With a Bachelor of Science in Accounting from James Madison University and an MBA in Finance from La Salle University, Nate began his career at Ernst & Young.

While the experience of public accounting was invaluable to building the foundation for his career, it was an internship rooted in the manufacturing industry while in graduate school that sparked Nate’s interest in seeking an opportunity to translate his accounting knowledge into a more tangible, product-based industry.

Joining Farmers Restaurant Group was the perfect fit, as he says restaurants act much like manufacturing companies with an assembly line function bringing a product – food on the plate/beverage in the glass – to life.

Nate was drawn not only to FRG’s concept, but also to the positive reputation the brand has built within the DC market, the company’s mission, its position for growth, and Mike and Dan’s passion for the business. “I wanted to work at a company that embraced the entrepreneurial spirit and had room to grow,” says Nate.

Overseeing that growth and providing financial direction for the company are daily aspects of Nate’s job. He and his team are poised to keep day-to-day operations running smoothly, while forecasting and working to ensure a strong financial future as the company grows.

Vicki Griffith

Vice President, Quality Assurance & Purchasing

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Vicki Griffith

Vicki’s restaurant industry introduction was as unique and interesting as she is.

As a teen, Vicki babysat for the child of a local restaurant owner. Eating at the restaurant’s bar nightly, she loved the excitement and soon parlayed that babysitting gig in-house working as busser, server, back office accountant, and pastry cook.

Vicki enrolled in the Rochester Institute of Technology’s hospitality program and never looked back. After graduation, she cooked in kitchens from New York City to St. Pete Beach, FL to Greenwich, CT, arriving in Washington, D.C. in 1993. Working for a restaurant group in receiving, purchasing, and as produce coordinator, she soon discovered her penchant for and importance of food safety and quality assurance.

Opening her own consulting company in 2011, Vicki used that platform to not only make a positive impact on clients and their businesses, but also to increase her knowledge of and experience in food safety. One highlight was working closely with the FDA and U.S. Department of Health & Human Services while serving as food safety liaison for one of President Obama’s inaugural balls.

As her professional reputation grew, our own Mike Vucurevich came calling.

As a Certified Professional in Food Safety, Vicki joined our team in a newly created, highly effective role where she is responsible for developing and overseeing our program that seamlessly marries quality assurance with purchasing. “Quality drives us,” Vicki says, “not price.” Every ingredient we use and every partnership we consider begins with Vicki.

Her mantra “be open to the possibilities” weaves through her professional journey and as a military spouse. An avid philanthropist for breast cancer awareness and the RIT Alumni Association’s president-elect, we look to Vicki as an example of what we strive for every day: Quality in work and in life.

Meaghan O’Shea

Vice President, Marketing & Communications

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Meaghan O’Shea

Since joining FRG in 2008, Meaghan has tackled every job with tenacity, enthusiasm, confidence, and smarts.

As the company has grown, so too has Meaghan’s role, or should we say… her many roles. Her trajectory reads like a lesson in how to succeed in the restaurant business.

It all began with a cold call. After reading an online job posting by one of our Co-Owners, Dan Simons, she thought the time was right for a new experience in a new city. Growing up outside of Boston, Meaghan earned a degree from the McColl School of Business at Queens University in Charlotte, NC, and was looking to make a move to our nation’s capital.

Meaghan made the call, joined FRG, and soon become a clear company asset. Quickly moving from front desk coordinator to front desk manager to bar manager to senior service manager to general manager, she didn’t stop there. Transitioning out of operations, Meaghan became the company’s marketing & communications manager then director, and now serves as vice president of our growing marketing & communications team.

Every position has required commitment and the ability to plow through the infamous long hours of the restaurant industry. For Meaghan, it has been well worth it. “While in operations,” she says, “I didn’t always love the hours. I said in my initial interview that I didn’t want to become a general manager, but what kept me around was that I loved the people I worked with. I had found a team that I knew was just as invested in me as I was in them. At the end of the day, even the really hard ones, because let’s face it, they exist,” she says, “I truly love the work I do and the people I get to work with.”

Dawn Vileno

Managing Partner | Vice President

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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 mark dedicating herself to learning the restaurant business by holding virtually every 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 with the drive and determination for not only her personal success, but also that of her team.

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

As our first multi-store managing partner, Dawn role has grown to include vice president. Her passion for our restaurant brands and providing excellent guest experiences, along with her operational expertise and ability to guide our teams through every turn, every day, all contribute to her success.

Kendra Graves

Managing Partner

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Kendra Graves

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

Some may say, the perfect complement to her success as managing partner, overseeing her FRG team and restaurant guests every day.

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

A move to New York City kept her with the company, and soon Kendra was offered a management position. During the decade that followed, Kendra continued developing her industry skillset, learning from her diverse experience within the group, and growing in the ranks of senior management.

Kendra joined FRG in 2012 as general operations manager for our flagship Founding Farmers in Washington, D.C., then moved stores to become general manager of Farmers Fishers Bakers. By the summer of 2014, Kendra was promoted to managing partner, where she has met the demands of the job and continues to thrive.

Her drive to rise above and learn from challenges with grace and ease is what makes Kendra a success. Her love for what the dining table represents shines through to her guests and team every day.

In witnessing the thousands of guests that come into her restaurant each week to share a meal, whether business related, a gathering of friends, a first date, or a family affair, she relishes in those shared experiences and seeing guests brought together at our table, enjoying our food and drink.

Darragh Moore

Managing Partner

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Darragh Moore

Darragh’s wide range of restaurant management experience has been developed over the past two decades with experience working in some of the world's most recognized restaurants. All of which have led him to Farmers Restaurant Group.

Working as an industry intern while studying hospitality business management in his native Ireland, ignited Darragh’s restaurant and hospitality career. After graduation, Darragh took his industry passion, degree, and thirst for knowledge through hard work and hands-on training to France, England, Ireland, and Bermuda.

A move to the states followed, and Darragh went to work serving as general manager at two prominent New York City restaurants. He then took his burgeoning management and operational style to the then flourishing Miami restaurant and hospitality scene, launching and managing successful eateries in Boca Raton and South Beach. In 2009, he was handpicked to be part of one of the most dynamic F&B operations teams in the U.S. tasked with the successful resurgence and rebranding of the famed Fontainebleau hotel.

He soon parlayed his experience into winning a coveted spot on the development team behind Marriott International’s EDITION brand, a groundbreaking global luxury lifestyle hotel concept. During which time he launched three successful restaurants for the brand.

Darragh has brought his global training, varied experience, and work ethic to FRG and proves to be a tremendous asset to his team and our company as a whole, every day.

Zach Hatem

Managing Partner

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Zach Hatem

Zach’s journey to Farmers Restaurant Group began as an undergraduate student at Boston University. While pursuing a degree in medicine, Zach took a job serving at a local restaurant and soon discovered a fascination with the hospitality industry.

Transitioning his path, he combined his passion for great food and wine with an education in restaurant operations, earning his degree from BU’s School of Hospitality Administration.

Zach began his career with a well-respected restaurant group, immersing himself in their culture and developing his operations skillset and high standards of quality. Nearly a decade of managing upscale, high-end restaurants in competitive markets, such as Miami, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Chicago, offered Zach a broad and comprehensive perspective of the industry. Serving as general manager followed, providing Zach the opportunity to expand upon his experience and further develop strategic tools to grow sales, maintain profitability, and build culture.

Zach likens being part of a restaurant team to playing a professional sport for a living. “Working in restaurants,” Zach says, “is the closest you’ll get to that exceptional level of teamwork and camaraderie.” Zach takes great pride in this kinship and the fine attention to detail it takes to put a name to a face, remember a favorite cocktail, and make a guest feel special.

At FRG, Zach is determined to provide the necessary support to continue all of the operational systems and team-building standards already in place, adding his own set of skills and expertise to the mix to help our people reach their personal goals and achieve success as a team.

 

Jillian Heltzel

Director of Human Resources

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Jillian Heltzel

Service. Engagement. Connection. Just some of the words Jillian uses to describe her professional HR philosophy.

Jillian’s first job, in specialty retail during high school in her native Buffalo, NY, sparked her love for customer service. The engagement and hospitality aspects of the job spoke to her and later helped her decide to pursue a degree in Psychology from the University at Buffalo. Further forging her professional path, Jillian also earned an MBA in Human Resources Management from Niagara University.

A wide range of work experience followed. From retail management to HR facilities business partner to director of HR for a premier catering company to HR hospitality consultant to regional HR director for a national wireless dealer, Jillian’s depth of expertise has led her to our FRG family.

As Director of Human Resources, Jillian established our company-wide, in-house Human Resources services. As she continues to grow our HR program from the ground up, Jillian trains our staff with this philosophy: If we take care of our people, they will remain engaged in and committed to supporting our company culture, overall mission, and serving guests with expertise. In turn, not only will our business flourish, but most importantly, so too will our people.

Tony Higdon

Director of Kitchen Operations

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Tony Higdon

As one of eight kids living on 13 acres in a bucolic Maryland farm town, Chef Tony realized early that cooking meant he could pick the best food to save for himself and no dish duty.

So began his culinary path and the fulfillment he gets from providing guests with a great meal, a cornerstone of Chef Tony’s career.

He learned how to run a crew by working for his father’s construction company at age 15, and worked every front of house to kitchen support position he could while working his way through culinary school at Johnson & Wales University.

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

Starting at our flagship Founding Farmers in Washington, D.C., Chef Tony soon took on a central culinary role in the development, menu direction, and opening of our Farmers Fishers Bakers and Founding Farmers Tysons restaurants, and continues to lend his talents to all of the restaurants in our growing brand.

As his FRG journey continues, Chef Tony believes that, “In striving for perfection, we may just achieve excellence.” Subscribing to that mantra every day, he not only inspires our teams, but also gives all he has every day in order to continually provide our guests with a great meal and a great experience.

Richard Torres

Director of Kitchen Operations & People Development

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Richard Torres

Chef Richard brings such expertise and passion for cooking to our team, we created a new FRG role just for him. Meet our very first, Director of Kitchen Operations & People Development.

In this role, Chef Richard continues to lead his crews through all of the daily intricacies of running successful kitchens within a high-volume restaurant company such as ours, but he also now plays an integral role in our management team, helping to develop our people and bring new culinary talent to our kitchens.

Raised in the small town of Juana Diaz, Puerto Rico, Chef Richard was born into hospitality. His great-grandparents made their living selling food, his grandfather was a well-respected local restaurant owner, and his father a talented chef and restaurant owner as well. Chef Richard continues his family tradition today at FRG, where we support the shared values of family farming, service, and delicious food and drink made from scratch.

After graduating from Johnson & Wales University’s North Miami Campus, Chef Richard set out to learn and perfect his craft working alongside many of Miami’s top chefs and for some of Miami’s busiest, upscale hotel and hospitality kitchen operations.

A chance meeting with our very own Mike V, and the prospect of growing his culinary craft in the nation’s capital, was so appealing it led Chef Richard to move to DC and join our team.

“I love FRG, because here, we honor tradition. We don’t reinvent our cooking,” says Chef Richard. “Instead, we make it better than anyone else by sourcing great ingredients and cooking with a conscience. I’m proud to carry on my family’s culinary tradition here at FRG. And I am proud to be part of this team.”

Leah Browning Frankl

Creative Director, LEED AP

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Leah Browning Frankl

As creative director, Leah works with Co-Owners Michael Vucurevich and Dan Simons to develop highly curated restaurant interiors, telling our brand stories through artwork and design.

Throughout the design process, Leah and our design and development team work closely with architects, artists, and craftsmen to bring our vision to life. Leah touches every phase of design: from concept creation, schematic design, and design development through to construction, training, and implementation of design-related systems.

Her FRG journey began in 2009 as in-house designer. Her diverse design skills and aesthetic versatility allowed her to produce everything from concept books, conceptual floor plans, mood boards, and mock menus to food photography, headshots, menus, and art installations. As the company has grown and her career has evolved, Leah focuses her talents towards creative direction for new construction and renovation projects, always keeping her goal of creating beautiful, highly functional, sustainable spaces in focus.

“My role,” says Leah, “is to represent and bring to life the visions of Mike V, Dan, and our farmer-owners in our restaurant designs. As our process has evolved, so too has our team and our brand. We are in a really exciting place.”

Leah holds a B.A. in Architecture from Washington University in St. Louis and is a LEED Accredited Professional. Leah supports our ongoing commitment to building and operating sustainable restaurants by showcasing our company’s sustainable practices through design and commissioned artwork.

We can’t wait to see what our future looks like through Leah’s keen, creative lens.

Angela Parrotta

Design Director

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Angela Parrotta

Growing up in and working every job from coat check to server in her father's Italian restaurants, Angela’s understanding of how good service applies to the core principles of any job was instilled in her early on.

It is within that foundation of values and deriving as much joy in serving others as she hopes those around her get from her commitment to working hard and providing good service, that drives Angela to this day.

After studying graphic design at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, Angela began her career at NYC design firm, Doyle Partners. Here, Angela learned from the ground up, working on everything from print, web, environmental, and package design for high profile clients like Johnson & Johnson, Stephen Colbert, Martha Stewart, and Scholastic publishing.

Joining FRG in 2016 as Design Director, Angela was able to meld together her perfect combination of a childhood spent with her family in her father’s restaurants with her passion for design. Company Co-Owner Dan Simons has said, “Angela showed up unafraid and ready to jump right in. She has created her job helping us showcase our company brand and mission, and drives for results across the board.”

Her role touches virtually every part of our business from internal company collateral to guest-facing menu design to consumer point of sale highlighting our in-house, proprietary distillery products. She continues to take on new challenges as we grow our company and raise our bar for excellence with every new venture.

We are inspired by Angela outside our office as well, through her dedication to cycling. In 2008 and 2010, Angela biked across the country with the non-profit, Bike & Build, to raise money and awareness for affordable housing. This led her to move to DC in 2011 to pursue a job in bicycle advocacy. Since then, Angela has made her mark on the DC cycling scene, on and off the bike. She has rebranded one of the leading bike shops in the DMV, provided marketing and branding services and campaigns for local advocacy groups like The Washington Area Bicyclist Association and BikeArlington, and is a women’s brand ambassador for world-renowned apparel company, Rapha.

Angela races for an elite cycling team, Battley-Harley Davidson/Founding Farmers, which FRG proudly sponsors, and is the women’s squad team manager.

Rachel Vistica

Director of Food & Beverage, Training Operations

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Rachel Vistica

Born in the San Francisco Bay Area, Rachel discovered the art of hospitality through the example set by her grandfather, a career bartender.

What she learned from him has set the stage for her career. He loved his job. The people. The stories. The relationships he built working behind a bar. In Rachel’s eyes, he was a true hospitality expert. And her biggest source of inspiration.

A family move brought Rachel to suburban DC, and eventually to the University of Maryland. After graduation, she worked in healthcare and child development, but then she found her way to us and so began her hospitaility career.

Her FRG story, serving as swarmer, food runner, server, trainer, bartender, bar manager, and more, are vital to our company’s success. “I truly believe that you cannot train or teach what you don’t know. Which is why I’ve tried to work and learn nearly every operating F&B area of our company,” she says.

Her experience mixed with her creative spirit, acute attention to detail, and knack for growing young talent, has helped develop and build not only our sought-after beverage training program, but also our in-house distillery, Founding Spirits, our company-wide beer program, and our mission-oriented partnerships with select vintners who follow only sustainable, organic, or biodynamic practices.

For Rachel, the art of selecting wine + food pairings for all of our restaurants has become a passion she is exploring and developing with her teams.