Sauntering through the front door of the restaurant, the brown leather flip-flops pop against the psychedelic carpet of color beneath Nils Stark’s feet. He surveys the walls on either side of him, slowly scanning the items hanging up. To his right, a collection of brewery coasters covers the beams above the bar. Sporting various logos and designs, no two coasters are the same. To his left, an array of band posters lines the wall, all promoting classic or alt-rock groups.
“People describe our places as funky or hippyish,” Stark says. “We just create spaces that we like. This is the type of place where we would like to hang out in, and other people seem to like it too.”
Stark, a co-owner of Cornucopia in Eugene, is not your average businessman. On this typical workday, his uniform of flip-flops, cargo shorts and a T-shirt are nothing close to a suit and tie. However, the ensemble blends in seamlessly with his calm expression beneath a full beard, mustache, and slicked back shaggy hair.
“He is super fun, party-loving, very politically involved and liberal. He is our resident bleeding heart,” bar manager Katherine Courtney says. “If anyone calls for charitable donations, we send them to Nils because he is the ‘Yes Man.’”
A combination of Stark’s personality and love of novelty items has contributed to a large portion of the restaurant’s ambience. In both of the locations on 5th and Pearl and 17th and Lincoln, his collectibles serve as feature pieces within the restaurants’ décor.
“He loves tchotchkes, pop culture things. Nils is the only man I know who bought his own garden gnome. I mean, who does that? That’s usually a type of gift that you are given, “ Courtney says. “He has a record collection, a poster collection. He is kind of a pack rat for memorabilia…magnets, stickers, bumper stickers, coasters, beer bottles. Anything, that man will collect anything.”
Prior to the opening of the first Cornucopia restaurant in 1993, Stark had lived in New Jersey and worked as a house painter. He had never taken business classes or worked in the restaurant business. His knowledge of business came in the form of experience through each decision that the company had to make.
“I’ve grown so much just in knowledge of how to run a business,” Stark says. “It’s impacted the way I’m able to make smart decisions financially, personally or business-wise.”
The owners of Cornucopia and their families moved west to Eugene in 1991. Two years later, the first location was opened. In the initial phases of the company, Stark was drawn toward the business venture due to his love for beer and the growing industry around it.
Stark’s passion for beer has remained a large part of the culture and menu of the company. The increased popularity of the business has even drawn breweries to ask to be featured on Cornucopia’s drink list.
“I love being able to try new beers. People come in with samples and say, ‘Hey, try this beer,’ so that is a fun part, too,” Stark says.
In addition to his love for brew, Stark values heavily the importance of building a culture and community through the business for both customers and employees.
“I think that one major aspect of what we do is to kind of create a little community and culture,” Stark says. “Of our customers who become friends and neighbors that come in, they seem to really appreciate what we do.”
Since the opening of the first Cornucopia in 1993, the company has moved locations multiple times and expanded to focus on food and catering as well. The business partners do not have plans for expansions with the restaurants, at least for now.
“In short term, we will stick to two locations and just continue perfecting these spaces for our food service and kitchen service,” Stark says. “We are also focusing on expanding our catering business right now. There is a lot of room to grow there, so I don’t envision any new locations in the next three or four years, but who is to say for sure,” Stark adds.
Stark mentions that there could be an expansion with a more specific drink focus in the future.
“Sometimes I think that maybe we’ll start brewing beer down the road. If we’re gonna do another spot, that might be something that we would attempt to try,” Stark says.
Regardless of what is next, the company has impressively grown into what it is today despite prior knowledge
“We always joke that we’ve learned so many things the hard way,” Stark says. “So, if I could go back, there would be a lot of decisions along the way that I would do differently or slightly differently just knowing, ‘Oh, that was a mistake, we won’t do that again.’ But in general, I like the way that we did it.”