The restaurant economy in this quaint Rocky Mountain community never captures front-page headlines like Oracle or Big Sky Resort, but without a doubt, the industry is sizzling.
Gallatin County has more restaurants than any other county in the state, according to the Department of Public Health and Human Services, which handles food licensing. Licenses for “food large” establishments, that is brick-and-mortar restaurants and markets that prepare food on site and have at least three employees, number 397 in Gallatin County. That’s one license for every 230 Gallatin County residents, with trendy Bozeman setting the table. No other community approaches that number.
The offerings range from a 116-pour whiskey bar and grill to a wine bar and restaurant offering a nine-course meal served in its cellar.
“Bozeman is a very unique place. It’s all about the amenities around it, the outdoor amenities and the fabulous air service Bozeman has,” said Jay Bentley, a celebrity chef with an Amazon top 25 regional cookbook, “Open Range,” and a downtown Bozeman restaurant by the same name. Bentley is known for his steaks and other carnivorous offerings. “The air service is huge because you can get on a plane anywhere on either end of the country and be here in half a day.”
Here’s how restaurant spending by out-of-state tourists in Gallatin County compares to the state’s next two biggest earners for bar and restaurant revenue, Yellowstone and Flathead.
In 2012, restaurant and bar spending by nonresidents totaled $115.9 million in Bozeman, according data by the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana. In Yellowstone County, nonresident purchases were $90.8 million. Flathead County, which like Gallatin has the draw of a national park, did $62.7 million in bar and restaurant sales. Missoula County, which like Gallatin hosts a flagship university and 15,000 dine-out college students, was a distant fourth at $49.4 million.
“You can make the conclusion that nonresidents in Gallatin County are spending more money and that there’s more of them,” said Norma Nickerson, UM professor and principal investigator. “If I was in a business that depended on tourists, I would be in Gallatin and Park counties.”
Visitors from outside Montana who spent at least one night in Gallatin County in 2012 numbered 2.39 million, compared to 1.6 million visitors to Yellowstone and Missoula Counties. Yellowstone and Missoula rank second and third for licensing of food large establishments.
Yellowstone County’s 375 licenses come closest to Gallatin, but with a county population of 151,882 residents, the number of restaurants to people equals one for every 408. Missoula County with 372 licenses has a food establishment for every 298 people.
There was some thinking that the number of restaurants in Bozeman and Gallatin County would decline during the recession, said Tim Roark, county health inspector.
From 2007 to 2010, net jobs lost in Gallatin County totaled 4,854, as construction and manufacturing industries hemorrhaged workers, according to state labor data. Annual wages lost totaled $104 million.
But Bozeman entrepreneurs didn’t lose their appetite for opening restaurants, even as unemployment exceeded 7 percent in 2009. That spike in entrepreneurship in mid-recession could be people turning to self-employment in a bad job market. In fact, more than 1,000 new businesses of all kinds were started in Gallatin County from 2007 through 2010, even as the community lost more than 1,500 existing businesses, according to state licensing data.
Battle-tested restaurateurs like Pete Strom said the desire to stay in Bozeman is a spark for restaurant start-ups.
“People move to Bozeman and they want to make a living,” said Strom, whose La Parrilla restaurant launched in the mid-1990s is now available for franchising. Strom also has ownership in Bozeman’s Garage Soup Shack and Mesquite Grill. He previously held interests in On The Rise bakery and the Naked Noodle, as well as Moo Casa, a gourmet ice cream shop that has since closed.
“Restaurants benefit from uneducated entrepreneurial spirit. Everyone cooks,” Strom said. “But two out of eight restaurants survive the first two years, and that’s probably pretty similar to what occurs in Bozeman.”
Strom’s hallmark business, La Parrilla, started in a 700-square-foot building one block south of East Main Street on a road with little foot traffic and no restaurants. It was the brainchild of Zack Anderson, 26 years old at the time with personal and family experience in restaurants. Anderson envisioned wrapping flavors from around the world in a large tortilla, allowing customers to select toppings from the counter as their food was prepared. There was another burrito shop in town, but it had just chicken and beef. La Parrilla offered pit-roasted pork, blackened salmon, Cajun shrimp and more than a dozen other options. Strom became a partner in the business a few years later and eventually its owner.
Today, La Parrilla is still off the beaten path. The original restaurant location was sold to neighboring American Bank several years ago. When the location sold, “La Pa,” as the locals know it, uprooted its small building and moved across Babcock and 50 yards west.
Several of the long-distance runners of the Bozeman restaurant world are off the beaten path, where rent is cheap.
Just west of La Parrilla’s original location, is a hard-to-notice, even harder to drive into, restaurant location that’s spawned several businesses, including the The Roost, a new fried chicken restaurant that’s Southern down to its cheese grits and boiled peanuts.
The 1520 W. Main St. location sports only an open sign in a window fronting Bozeman’s busiest street and an red off-street sign with its moniker. The restaurant’s easiest entrance is 20 yards to the east in what doubles as a ski shop parking lot. In spite of this, The Roost is standing room only at lunch time.
“I love chicken. I love fried chicken. I’m passionate about it,” said Joe Darr, who with partner Mike Buck launched the restaurant this year. “So far our promotion has been word of mouth and the response has been tremendous.”
Darr, whose family has operated barbecue and fried chicken restaurants in Tennessee since the 1950s, was working for an organic and natural foods distributor before opening The Roost. He used family recipes for roasted and fried chicken and some key contacts in food distribution to produce an offering like no other in Montana.
In November, customers were lining up for the “Nashville Burn,” a deceptively spicy fried chicken that goes down easy but five minutes later raises sweat beads on the nape of customers' necks. The Roost has less spicy options than the Nashville Burn, but everything has a little heat to it and goes well with a glass of iced sweet tea.
The Roost has several things working in its favor, according to Strom. First, diners are creatures of habit. They return to the same locations where they’ve eaten before. The last tenant at 1520 W. Main was Café Zydeco, a true Cajun cuisine restaurant that branched out with locations in Billings, Helena and Missoula, as well as 2711 W. College St. in Bozeman.
Second, The Roost is the fourth restaurant at 1520 W. Main, formerly home to an Asian restaurant and a bagel shop, in addition to Café Zydeco. As such, the location already had the kind of restaurant infrastructure that can cost a start-up plenty, but customers rarely appreciate.
“You can spend half or your money or more on things like plumbing and ventilation and it’s not what anybody sees,” Strom said.
Darr and Buck are working seven days a week to get The Roost up and running, selling chicken and buttermilk biscuits on a stick wherever they can to promote their product.
Marketing for small, independent restaurant owners is cheap and creative. The customer-driven restaurant review site “Yelp,” has been useful in turning on newcomers to The Roost, Darr said.
Locals also seem to have an affinity for independent establishments. Bozeman was the last large Montana city on Interstate 90 to get a Starbucks, though it’s hard to travel more than a few blocks without stumbling onto a local coffee shop.
“Montanans all want the same thing. They want good value. They want to feel like they’re getting something for their money and they want to be treated well,” Bentley said. “I don’t care whether it’s The Roost, which does a great job with chicken, or La Parrilla, or any of those guys. People don’t want to be waited on by someone who is anonymous. Chains are kind of anonymous. There’s no one you can go to and say ‘this food is good, or bad.' You know what I mean?”