Local realtor expands ever-growing network of Iowa City businesses

Mark Paterno, owner of Marco’s Grilled Cheese, owns far more than the notable downtown Iowa City food cart and restaurant. Over the last 20 years, he has built a varying network of businesses.


Larry Phan

Marco’s Island is shown in Iowa City on Monday, Apr. 4, 2022.

Anaka Sanders, Arts Reporter

Mark Paterno is a man of many, many endeavors. He has owned three food carts, multiple restaurants, a taxi business, a convenience store, and an Iowa Hawkeye merchandise store over the last 20 years — all while working as a full-time local residential realtor.

Marco’s Grilled Cheese food cart is a staple for many local college students after a long night out. It was initially created when Paterno was a student at the University of Iowa. Having just returned from studying abroad in Spain in 1999, he needed to find a way to make money.

Although Paterno’s first name is Mark, the business owner just thought “Marco” sounded better.

“So technically, Marco is Italian for Mark,” Paterno said. “I happen to be Italian, so I figured it would work.”

From there, his business ventures only continued to expand. In 2006, he acquired George’s Gyros food cart and began Paco’s Tacos food cart in 2012. Most recently, on April 1, he opened a permanent restaurant establishment for George’s Best Gyros on Iowa Avenue in downtown Iowa City, though, he will continue the food cart.

Restaurants aren’t the only things up Paterno’s sleeve. For about a decade, he owned a taxi business — aptly named Marco’s Taxi. As one of the leading taxi services in Iowa City at the time, business boomed, and Paterno found it enjoyable.

While owning the taxi business, Paterno also began the I.C. Pit Stop in 2007, a convenience store and gas station on the corner of Kirkwood Avenue and Gilbert Street.

“We were spending so much money on gas for the taxis,” Paterno said. “I thought it’d be a great idea to buy gas from ourselves.”

With the creation of Uber and Lyft, the need for taxis dropped overnight, forcing Paterno to make a hard choice and close those businesses in 2015.

But that isn’t where his business ventures ended. Paterno dabbled in the fine dining industry when he bought Devotay restaurant on North Linn Street at the end of 2017. However, after a vandalization and a realization that he wanted to work with food that he’s more familiar with, like street food, he closed the restaurant and opened Marco’s Grilled Cheese as a brick-and-mortar establishment.

Just before the pandemic hit, Paterno bought the venue next door and turned it into another namesake — Marco’s Island. Over the last two years, he focused on getting the new Caribbean-style restaurant up and running, and the tropical joint officially opened this past March.

Paterno described the space as fun, busy, and eclectic, with big, colorful murals of palm trees and vibrant patterns painted over the walls.

“I’m just trying to emulate what I’ve experienced traveling down in Florida and the Caribbean over the years,” Paterno said. “I’m trying to give a sense of something south of our border here in Iowa City with the menu and décor.”

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One unexpected addition to Paterno’s mostly food-centric business ventures — he owns the Iowa Hawkeye clothing merchandise tents lining Melrose Avenue up to Kinnick Stadium on football game days.

Almost two decades ago, Paterno was friends with another young realtor who owned a booth selling Hawkeye items on game days. Paterno joked that his friend should sell it to him since Paterno already owned food carts — his friend only laughed, saying “maybe one day.”

Fast forward 17 years later to 2017, and Paterno bought it from him, along with the booth next to his. With a motherload of Hawkeye inventory and nowhere to sell it after football season, he had to figure out his next move.

On Thanksgiving Day last year, Paterno picked up his turkey from Bread Garden Market, and happened to drive by an empty space on Clinton Street just across from the Pentacrest. Within a couple of weeks, Paterno had converted the space and opened Marco’s Game Day in December of 2021.

“It’s kind of insane,” Paterno said. “My poor wife. It’s been three businesses in four months that I’ve opened. It’s really hard.”

With all these businesses throughout his career, Paterno said he enjoys the challenge and reward of seeing his finished products the most. His next move is possibly his most unexpected yet.

“I’m taking a breather,” he said.