Zack and Marissa King aren’t about to wait for the world to change. Instead, the proud parents of 1-year-old Marlee Ruth are taking matters into their own hands—one town at a time.
The Kings are helping to transform Milford, a former shipbuilding town along the Mispillion River, into a destination for area residents and tourists. In 2017, they opened easySpeak, a restaurant and distillery; earlier this year, they unveiled their second restaurant, Fondue.
They also own The Alcohauler, a mobile bar, and Studio You Salon & Day Spa. In December 2021, they acquired the former M&T Bank building in Milford, which will become an event space.
“They have a wonderful vision of Milford and are working hard at cleaning things up, adding variety and including the public in a lot of thoughts before making them a reality,” says Nancy Leonard, who has lived in Milford for 10 years.
The Kings, who live in nearby Lincoln, want to stimulate the town’s economy, but they’re also establishing a good quality of life for their family. “I want to live a certain way—one that I didn’t get to live as a child,” explains Marissa, who grew up in rural Millsboro and moved out by age 17. “I want to raise my daughter differently so she can do all the things I didn’t get to do.”
Culinary collision course
Don’t let the fair-haired couple’s youthful looks fool you; they’re already industry veterans. For instance, Zack was 15 when he began working at the Big Easy Seafood & Steakhouse near his Ocean View home. But while studying culinary arts and restaurant management at Johnson & Wales in Miami, he discovered that he’d learned more on the job than in the classroom. He left school to work in outside sales for business services and then help his uncle, Mitch King, manage Port Dewey (now Dewey Post).
In 2012, Zack opened Old Bay Steak & Seafood in Midway, which he changed to Delaware Distilling Company (DDC) after he added craft spirits. “I liked to play around with recipes and make infusions,” he says. “That turned into making my own beer and then liquor.”
Meanwhile, Marissa was 14 when she started working at an ice cream shop. The go-getter who dreamed of becoming a pediatrician studied nursing at Delaware Technical and Community College and moonlighted in restaurants while working in hospitals. “It was a reality break,” she says of the side hustle. “The worst thing that can happen is you mess up their food. Their life is not at risk.”
The couple met during a DDC happy hour. Initially, Marissa thought Zack was the new busser, not the owner. “We started talking and have been side-by-side as partners and best friends since,” she wrote on her 2020 wedding website. Zack agrees that it “progressed very quickly!” And so did their business relationship.
Down to business
After leaving DDC, now Hideout Arcade Bar & Grille, Zack and Marissa turned their sights north to Milford. “I went to Sussex Technical High School, and three of my best friends were born and raised in Milford,” Zack explains. “I spent a lot of time here.”
After watching the coast’s population explode, Zack—who wanted to be a real estate developer as a child—felt the town was ripe for investment. “Milford really needed a new, good hangout spot,” he recalls.
In 2017, 29-year-old Zack and 22-year-old Marissa opened easySpeak, a restaurant and distillery on Milford-Harrington Highway, and it did not take long for area residents to embrace the new eatery.
“[It] was a blessing to the area,” says Leonard, a frequent customer.
Encouraged by easySpeak’s success, the Kings purchased the Penney Square building in January 2021. The structure is named for the J.C. Penney store that stood here from 1929 until the late 1980s, and there is a black-and-white photo of the shop over Fondue’s bar.
Initially, the couple looked for a restaurant tenant for the building, which now has apartments and Studio You. Nothing seemed to fit. Then, while celebrating Marissa’s birthday at the Melting Pot, a lightbulb went off. Why not open a fondue restaurant?
Everything old is new again
Fondue was born in the 17th century as a sensible way to use old bread and cheese. In the 1950s, the term evolved to include meats and vegetables, and in the 1970s, stylish households had an avocado or orange fondue pot in the pantry for parties.
But your grandmother’s pot never held the pad Thai or tikka masala broth, two options at Fondue, and ’70s diners didn’t spear duck breast, lobster tail and octopus. The restaurant’s cheese options include fontina-spinach-artichoke and bacon-cheddar-ranch—a hit. And the chocolate selections include Reese’s Bomb: your choice of chocolate, peanut-butter drizzle and miniature Reese’s Pieces.
“We chose the four-course experience, and it was exceptional,” says Laura Bartus of Milton. “Our server guided us through each step, offering recommendations when asked, and making any accommodations we desired, which was important to me given my allergies.”
The restaurant’s motto is “cheese, cocktails and chocolate.” “We are bar people at heart,” Marissa notes. That emphasis on spirits separates Fondue from similar concepts, she says. Indeed, the Milford restaurant’s robust cocktail program includes the Smoked Old Fashioned, made with easySpeak blended bourbon, Angostura bitters, Luxardo maraschino cherries, fresh orange and agave nectar. It’s served in an oak-smoked rock glass, torched with open flame.
The atmosphere, meanwhile, is clean and light with natural wood—including walls of donated cutting boards engraved with the donors’ names. Marissa designed the space, and she says the community’s response to her request for the boards was overwhelming.
Keeping the home fires burning
Turning a brainstorm into a business is challenging, especially in 2021 and 2022. “Supply chain issues are still lingering,” Zack says. “It was pretty difficult to source everything, especially the fondue equipment.” The electric burners are built into the tables, he explains.
Although Fondue is open Thursday, Friday and Saturday, getting it up and running has been a 50-hour-a-week endeavor. And just because guests cook with the fondue pot doesn’t mean the kitchen can relax. Stocks take up to 16 hours to simmer, and multicourse fondue meals result in a stack of dirty dishes. Marissa has spent more than her fair share of time at the sink. Guests also receive multiple dipping items, including strawberries and Rice Krispies treats, which must be cut, prepped and arranged.
Once the demand for reservations evens out, the Kings can turn to their next project—an event venue in the old bank across from Fondue. The couple, who had to scale back their 2020 wedding due to COVID-19, want customers to enjoy an elegant wedding for less money than they’d pay at the beach.
The partners are dedicated to their many businesses, but family comes first. Despite complaints from an online critic, they closed Fondue for Marlee’s first birthday. “She’s our whole world,” says Marissa, who underwent three roller-coaster years of fertility treatments. “She’s our little miracle baby.”
In time, Zack says they may consider other areas for development, but for now, they’re focused on growing Milford’s downtown—for their neighbors, fellow business owners and, most importantly, their family.