(Mirror) You don’t own and operate successful bars and nightclubs in the Chicago area, in Palm Springs, California, and in Wilton Manors without knowing a thing or two about a thing or two.
After all, all three locales are arguably some of the most competitive in the entire country for such ventures.
Nevertheless, Mark Hunter jumped into the fray in 1982 when he opened Hunters Chicago in Elks Grove, Illinois.
He ran the gay bar and dance club there for 31 years before setting his sights on a South Florida spot. He’d already had Palm Springs gays dancing and drinking since 1999.
While owning and operating a bar and nightclub wasn’t always the plan – Hunter is an accomplished former ballroom dancer and instructor with the Fred Astaire Dance Studios – he’d been living on and off in South Florida, becoming more of a regular resident in 2005.
“I lived on the beach and was traveling back and forth between Chicago and Palm Springs,” Hunter said. “An opportunity came up. I’d always wanted to open a bar in the Fort Lauderdale area.”
At first he thought his new Hunters location would be in “Searstown,” the commercial center located where North Federal Highway and East Sunrise Boulevard converge.
“But I found out that Boom was for sale, and in my opinion it had the most potential,” Hunter said.
Hunter and his (now former) partner, Patrick Volkert, bought the former Boom Nightclub space in Wilton Manors and overhauled the interior.
They liked the location at the epicenter of Wilton Drive and the way the space was divided.
Hunter said his Palm Springs location is very similar — also located in the center of a gay street.
“Both are very gay-oriented cities and it is the same business model for both locations,” he said.
The model has served him well.
Volkert still has a business interest in the Wilton Manors location and is a manager there along with Bruce Howe. They have about 25 employees.
Hunters opened at 2232 Wilton Drive in December 2013. It just celebrated its sixth anniversary in business.
“I’ve been very lucky”
Hunter said he’s been slowing down his day to day activity with the nightclubs lately. It’s by design. He was 30 years old when he opened Hunters Chicago. He’ll soon be 67.
But he hasn’t slowed down in his passion for helping local nonprofits and supporting other groups like recreational sports teams.
He said it’s those community connections over the years that has kept business thriving.
Wicked Manors — the massive Wilton Manors Halloween event — has become Hunters main charitable focus each year.
It has been the presenting sponsor for four years running. The main beneficiary is the Pride Center at Equality Park.
“We’re very happy in partnering with the Pride Center for that event,” Hunter said. “They are local. We want to support our community that’s close by.”
Hunter is particularly proud of the L.I.F.E. Program at the Pride Center. It’s a free, 14-week program that helps gay and bisexual men come up with strategies to keep their immune systems strong.
“It’s one of their signature programs. It is amazing and has helped many people,” he said.
Hunter said while some of the charities he’s supported over the years have a national reach, as much as possible he keeps it close to home.
“We want to keep the support in the community; the community supports us, I’d hate to send the money somewhere else,” he said.
Hunter estimates his businesses have supported and worked with at least 30 diverse charities over the years — Kids In Distress, Julian’s Fountain of Youth and the Pet Project for Pets, for example.
“We’ve always tried to do something since the Hunter’s brand opened in 1982,” he said.
During the early 80s in Chicago, that meant helping victims who were being devastated by the worst of the AIDS crisis. Hunters Chicago raised money for housing for those living with the disease.
“It’s kind of always been part of our mission statement to support others who support us,” he said.
The support doesn’t always come in the form of an oversized check.
“Sometimes it’s time, sometimes money or providing a free space to hold an event. Sometimes it’s buying a large silent auction item,” Hunter said.
Hunter attributes his success to forces outside himself.
“I’ve been very lucky in the fact that the success lies in the employees that you have,” he said. “The success relies on the village; everyone in that village has to participate and see the vision and carry towards it. We’ve been lucky. We have terrific people working for us — absolutely the best.”
Hunter said his employees receive continuous training; he makes regular upgrades to security and to other details, some noticed, some not.
Semiretired, he lives in Wilton Manors across the street from Hunters and visits Palm Springs a handful of times each year.
“If I walk into Palm Springs and start taking over, it doesn’t work. It’s obvious the staff there does a much better job than I do,” he said.
Hunter’s niece, Jennifer Seymore, is a partner in both bars and is the manager of the Palm Springs operation.
“I just show up and let everyone know I’m still around,” he said with a chuckle. “The single most thing I love about this business is people coming up and saying: ‘My boyfriend and I met at your bar and we’ve been together since,’ or: ‘It was the first gay bar I ever went to.’ I’ve heard wonderful stories.”
The following is a partial list of the organizations and events Hunters has been involved with over the years that haven’t been mentioned.
- The Smart Ride
- American Airline’s Wings Foundation
- National LGBTQ Task Force
- Fort Lauderdale Invitational Regional Tournament (F.L.I.R.T. Bowl)
- WIRLD Foundation
- American Veterans for Equal Rights
- Broward House
- Pink Nail Society
- Gamma Mu Foundation
- Florida AIDS Walk & Music Festival
- Tuesday’s Angels
- The Poverello Center
- Gay Men’s Chorus of South Florida
- Deliver the Dream
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