Anything But Bland
When setting up my appointment to interview Carlyle Bland, the owner of restaurants Marker 20 and Venture Kitchen and Bar, located in Downtown Hampton, he told me, “Any day next week except Friday. I’m planning an April Fools’ prank, and I need to get up at 3 a.m. to pull it off.”
That April Fools’ prank turned out to be the “flamingoing” of Downtown Hampton. Carlyle and his gang of merry pranksters had obtained 12 boxes of lawn ornament plastic flamingos and strung up the entire flamboyance in the trees along Queens Way (where his restaurants are located) and in the green areas along Settlers Landing Road. A giant, inflatable flamingo was perched in the tree in front of Marker 20’s porch, leaving a telltale sign of who might be involved.
It was a good prank, to be sure, but not everyone was amused. “What’s with all the flamingos?” a well-dressed woman across the street yelled to me as I was taking pictures to document the event. “It looks like an April Fools’ prank,” I replied. She just scowled, shook her head and headed into her office.
But a couple of lemons in the apple barrel aren’t going to dampen Carlyle’s enthusiasm for finding new ways to get more people to discover the charms of Downtown Hampton.
As a board member of the Downtown Hampton Development Partnership (DHDP) he has been involved with creating and/or running some intriguingly memorable events, including the Annual Crab Pot Drop on New Year’s Eve; the On-Land St. Patrick’s Day Boat Parade and Beading of the City, where a procession of decorated boats on trailers drive through the streets while Barry White music is blasted and “float” riders throw beads to onlookers; The Blackbeard Festival; the annual Drag Race on Queens Way where teams representing different charities compete in a foot race (while dressed in drag, naturally); Freaky Kon Tiki where participants make their own rafts from household materials, then race them on the Hampton River; a Manditarod where teams pull a person on a cart through a short racecourse; A fishing tournament using only Popeil Pocket Fisherman rigs; Slide The City, a giant water slide set up on the bridge coming into Hampton on Settlers Landing Road; The Rolling of the Bulls, where participants wearing red bandanas run a gauntlet while being chased by roller derby women on skates wielding plastic Wiffle Ball bats as runners are pelted with red dye-filled balloons to simulate the throwing of tomatoes. (The 2016 event will be held on Saturday, July 9, for those interested.) And there’s the Annual Summer Block Party where musical acts perform live each Saturday night. Tip money for beverages goes to various nonprofits (running through August 27 this year).
A resident of Hampton through high school, Carlyle grew up in Williamsburg and attended ODU. After graduating from college, he moved to Washington, D.C. and was an economist doing metric modeling for a large utility company. After five years with the company, he took a buyout and spent the next year skiing (including being on the ski patrol in West Virginia) and taking on odd jobs such as bartending and bouncing.
He met his future wife, Christina Bauhof, while in Arlington, and they both agreed that they couldn’t afford to buy a house in Northern Virginia. Fortunately for Coastal Virginia, on their way to visit the Outer Banks, Bland and Bauhof made a stop in Hampton for lunch and ended up buying a home not far from where Bland grew up.
He took a job as the business development coordinator for the DHDP and eventually became deputy director. During that time, there was a bar downtown called Rooney’s that became available. Carlyle brought the landlord a number of prospects, but none of them worked out for one reason or another, so Bland said, “I’ll do it.” That was the birth of Marker 20 and Carlyle’s career as a restaurateur. Several years later, he and Bauhof opened Venture.
“You don’t really know a business until you start one,” Bland says. “When I started Marker 20, my first thought was, ‘What did I just do?’ ‘What are quarterly taxes?’ ‘What is this?’ ‘What is that?’ But I did know that cash flow was important so you can make payroll in February, which is the worst restaurant month of the year. So we had a pot of money that we set aside and didn’t touch until we needed it. That’s been the key to our success.”
As for coming up with more events to bring people to Downtown Hampton, Carlyle always has his thinking cap on. “The city council and our city manager are now realizing that events are good things. At first they looked at it as a potential liability issue, but now they see it as a way to enhance the sense of livability in Hampton. We want you to work here, live here and play here, and I think Downtown Hampton is in a great position to do that. But we need more millennials bringing in more small businesses and more jobs,” he explains. “So that’s my pitch: Come to Downtown Hampton. Please visit us. We’re weird, but we’re mostly harmless, and we’ve been full of potential since 1609.”