2016 Movers & Shakers - Mark Russell

Written by M.V. Moorhead Category: People Issue: September 2016
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Even though he shares a first and a very un-Italian-sounding last name with a piano-playing political humorist, the Valley’s Mark Russell is the product of a food-loving Italian-American clan from Chicago’s North Side. It’s through that prism that he sees his runaway-success restaurant chain, Oregano’s.

“It’s a family business,” Russell says. “Even though it’s a corporation, we think of it as family-run.”

Russell, who originally moved to the Valley in the 1980s to work for America West Airlines as a flight attendant, conceived Oregano’s as a dedication to his parents. “I had lost them two years apart, while I was working for the airline,” he says. “My father was a structural engineer, but he had always wanted to open a restaurant. The sauces we use are family recipes.”

He took the plunge in Old Town Scottsdale in November 1993, creating an immediate splash that eventually mushroomed into Arizona’s most successful homegrown Italian restaurant chain: “I designed it to open just one [location], and now we’re on 18.”

Thus far, the entire Oregano’s operation is located in Arizona, though the chain may someday expand beyond the state, Russell says.

Along with family sauce recipes, the secret of his success, says Russell, is “having the right people. You have to have people who believe in what you’re doing, and will work your philosophy.”

So, is it tough to choose his favorite item on the Oregano’s menu?

“No, that’s an easy one,” he says promptly. “The sausage pizza. I’m from Chicago. My wife says, ‘You always order the sausage.’ I say, ‘‘‘Cause it’s the best.’”

With his proud allegiance to the Windy City, it’s not surprising that Russell travels there often, to obtain the distinct decorations for the restaurants – ‘50s record covers and the like. “We have a lot of antiques and stuff, and all the shopping is done there. I hand-pick all the stuff, and put it up myself. Besides, I have a lot of family [in Chicago], so it’s a good excuse to go see them.”