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LAUREL — It’s tough finding a seat on a weekend night at the Beartooth Grill in Laurel.

The restaurant at 305 South First Ave., seats 350 inside, but owners Bob Dantic and his son, Aaron Dantic, say they’ve had a waiting list most Friday and Saturday nights since they opened in January.

“There’s just no place to go like this in Laurel, at all,” said Aaron Dantic, 36.

Beartooth Grill is at the gateway of Laurel’s new business core, Southeast Fourth Street leading to the six-year-old Wal-Mart store. The restaurant is the latest business to seek its fortune in the footprint of the world’s largest retailer, and the Dantics hope it can grow enough to become its own destination.

In Wal-Mart’s orbit

In 2008, Wal-Mart opened a supercenter store at the end of Southeast Fourth Street, at the edge of the city limits. It was the third Yellowstone County store for the Arkansas-based retailer.

That area of Laurel had already been growing, but Wal-Mart shook up the entire town’s retail sector. Two downtown anchors, Ricci’s Thriftway and Ace Hardware, left their longtime homes and were replaced by a church and a thrift store, respectively.

Some residents fretted the mammoth retailer would destroy small businesses in Laurel. Others welcomed the economic growth.

Bob Dantic, 61, can relate to both. He was the longtime co-manager of the family-run Jan’s IGA, a Laurel staple for more than three decades. A year after Wal-Mart opened less than a quarter-mile away, Dantic’s step-father, Jan Stingley, sold the store to Hardin-based Reese & Ray’s.

It was tough to compete, Dantic said.

“The only business in the world to build at a dead-end street is Wal-Mart. It’s a destination store,” Dantic said.

Other businesses are figuring that out and trying to capitalize. Ace Hardware is now on Southeast Fourth Street, an easy stop for motorists passing on the way to Wal-Mart.

Two competing auto-parts stores, AutoZone and O’Reilly Auto Parts, opened next door to each other a block from Wal-Mart last summer. Pizza Hut decided two blocks away from Wal-Mart wasn’t close enough and snuggled into a new building in the store’s parking lot.

The location is enough to support businesses once thought obsolete. Video store owner Barb Laber said her loan officer scoffed when she sought financing for a small store near Ace Hardware. But she got the loan, and business has been good, particularly during the winter months, she said.

“That was a lot of it. The parking and the location,” said Laber, who renamed the store Bling ‘n’ Video when she bought it 18 months ago.

Others in the area note the presence of Wal-Mart increases the visibility of other businesses to passing motorists.

“I don’t think Wal-Mart made the business growth. I think they made the traffic growth,” said Janice Lehman, president of SEG Federal Credit Union at 617 Southeast Fourth Ave.

A ‘family restaurant’

So far, the Dantics are reaping the rewards of their prime location, which has previously housed a gas station, video store, drug store and pizza place.

They estimate that 40 percent of their business comes from the towns south of Laurel all the way to Wyoming, including Joliet, Bridger, Roberts and Red Lodge. Those customers say it’s easier to stop in Laurel to eat and shop than travel all the way to Billings.

Beartooth Grill serves steaks, burgers, chicken, pizza and complimentary biscuits with dinner. The bar serves wine and beer but no spirits. The décor is vintage Montana: panoramic mountain range photos, fishing gear tacked to the wall and a snowboard displayed at the front entrance. A patio will open in warmer weather.

The menu has the same outdoor theme: The burgers range in size from Griz (the largest), Mama and Cubby.

Beartooth Grill has 45 employees, mostly from the Laurel area.

Dantic said he first considered opening a sports bar. He installed flat-screen TV sets tuned to sports on the wall and kept the bar up front.

Other than that, Beartooth Grill is a family-friendly place, Dantic said. It’s a place for high-school sports teams to stop after games, and Beartooth recently hosted more than 100 CHS retirees for an appreciation lunch.

“Laurel needs this family restaurant,” he said.

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