Welcome to a road trip through Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota. These states are vast, and although many stops along the path from the Black Hills over to Yellowstone National Park and Big Sky are old-time, long-time mom and pops, innovation is thriving.
Many of these routes lead to seasonal businesses, but as people leave big-city life for cleaner air, stunning surroundings and the allure of small mountain-town life, more businesses are opening year-round. Restaurateurs are doing the same, reviving old buildings, closed storefronts and even a defunct hotel. Menus are becoming more than chicken fried steak and all things deep-fried.
Each of these businesses has a noteworthy story that demonstrates a commitment to building a strong staff and a menu driven by sound business practices. Just look at the seven establishments that made the 2022 semifinalists and finalist lists for the 2022 James Beard Awards, from The Marble Table in Billings, Montana, for Best New Restaurants, to Rainbow Ranch Lodge in Gallatin Gateway, Montana, for Outstanding Wine Program.
These concepts are especially unique. Newcomers have uprooted to be here specifically for a better quality of life, while locals are energized by the excitement of a growing community.
Located downtown in a historic building destroyed by a 2009 gas explosion, but rebuilt to capture its charm of yesteryear, Brigade has the most innovative, vegetable-forward menu in the state, with dishes like edamame hummus and cauliflower steak with confit garlic and herb gremolata.
Its restaurant group, The Okay Cool Group, is lighting up downtown with other concepts, such as Happy Box, an Asian street food and karaoke concept; Kitty Warren, a speakeasy featuring fun cocktails and small bites; and Main Street Market, a wine bar, breakfast and lunch café.
You’ll also find Wild Crumb, a bakery opened by Caroline Schweitzer and Lauren Heemstra, finalists for the 2022 James Beard Outstanding Baker Award. Their croissants, sourdough and desserts are outstanding. Like Schweitzer and Heemstra, Tory McPhail – James Beard Best Chef winner and former executive chef at legendary Commander’s Palace in New Orleans – also relocated to the mountain community for its beauty and slower-paced way of life. He’s overseeing and mentoring staff at Jam!, Dave’s Sushi and Revelry.
How it shows: High-quality, on-trend food (think plant-based and global flavors), friendly service and entertainment draw diners, while flexible schedules, mission-based company culture, superior training and great communication retain workers.
An old mercantile building is the new home for Central Feed Grilling Co., a restaurant and games venue that shares space with Big Spring Brewery. A venture among longtime friends and family, the business caters to visitors and locals based on a company culture of Montana hospitality and quality food.
How it shows: The business has clocked impressive retention rates, after creating a supportive and caring environment that understands staff needs so they want to come to work.
LEAD, SOUTH DAKOTA
An empty, long-closed hotel along a major tourist stop to Yellowstone National Park is on its way to restoring its glory days. The Stampmill Restaurant, Saloon and Victorian Suites offers a simple but elevated menu, with the help of on-trend sauces and seasonings. It’s currently one of the few year-round restaurants, staying open past the tourist season.
How it shows: Restaurants can drive traffic during the off-season, with smart marketing and streamlined operations while catering to locals.
How do Josh Adams and his partners get it right at Campione Roman Kitchen? They traveled to Italy, giving them the tools to prepare and promote their artisan, old-world foods authentically, which matches their commitment to service and community involvement.
How it shows: By putting staff needs before their own, such as taking shifts themselves if a worker calls off, workers feel appreciated. The same messaging flows to their social media, where their strong presence reinforces the brand.
The first certified green restaurant in Montana, Wassweiler Dinner House & Pub is located on a hot springs and restored farmhouse, which also features a greenhouse and local artist shop. Regional specialties and up-to-date favorites such as charred Brussels sprouts with smoked bacon, Tuscan lemon oil and shaved Parmesan, and grilled bison with spinach blackberries and sage pesto, all turn newcomers into regulars.
How it shows: The owners balance innovation with tradition, from the kitchen to the front of the house, by treating customers, staff and vendors with respect and kindness. The efforts, they say, return to them tenfold.
BIG HORN, WYOMING
Once a flailing old saloon, Just Ledoux It Saloon and Stakeout is now a go-to spot for locally crafted spirits and an elevated Western menu. It’s also a distillery label and a music venue with a sequined saddle disco ball, making it a much sought-after spot.
How it shows: While people are eager to be out and enjoying themselves again, restaurants need to be smart about technology. The restaurant leverages it to sell tickets online, handle waitlists and manage table turns for the best possible profitability.