The Black Bunker Bar and Grill offers a unique view for patrons: grassy fairways and blue water features, backed by the rolling hills south of Billings.
The panorama is a prime feature that managers at the Briarwood Golf Club are trying to leverage to boost the appeal of their newly renovated restaurant in the Blue Creek area. It’s a push to improve the experience for the members who own the 18-hole private club, but also an effort to attract more patrons from the public to broaden the base of the business, club managers say.
“During the day, it’s a pretty spectacular view of the course and the city,” said Scott Pekovich, Briarwood general manager.
“We’ve got one of the top golf courses in the state. We just want to make sure we update our facilities to match.”
Thursday marked the first day of Black Bunker, the newly named and newly renovated restaurant inside the clubhouse. It’s named for the dark sand traps that dot the course, atypical from the usual light, sandy-beach look of bunkers at other courses.
The Briarwood restaurant, which previously had no separate name, closed in December for renovations, which Pekovich said cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Workers moved the bar in front of the windows to improve the view for patrons and added new, wooden furniture to create a “pub-style” atmosphere.
Menu items will includes burgers, soup, salads, fish and chips, appetizers and a variety of casual fare, he added. Eight big-screen TVs show sports and other highlights around the room.
“We’ve got a little bit of everything,” Pekovich said.
The bars will have eight Montana beers on tap, including offerings from Billings breweries Montana Brewing Co., Uberbrew and Angry Hank’s.
Among the beers is the Black Bunker Stout, a Montana Brewing Co. beer sold exclusively at Briarwood, Pekovich said.
Black Bunker hired Tyler Ellis as head chef. Ellis previously cooked at several Billings restaurants, including the Rex, Lilac and Ten inside the Northern Hotel. The restaurant has 18 employees.
The upgrades at the 31-year-old Briarwood are part of a larger national trend by country clubs to expand their appeal. Clubs nationwide saw their memberships dwindle during the Great Recession as consumers’ purse strings tightened, and they’re looking at their restaurants now to generate more cash and improve their brand, according to industry experts.
“Private clubs have already seen dining rooms become more informal. Craft and local products are replacing old industry standards. Diners are more conscious about healthy eating and high-quality ingredients,” wrote Kyle Thatcher of Uncorkd, a food-and-beverage industry trade publication.
Pekovich said Briarwood has about 300 members and is aiming to grow to about 350 to 375. Membership has fluctuated from about 275 to 320 in recent years, he added.
Pekovich brings experience in his efforts to grow the club. The former Briarwood golf pro, Pekovich also has experience in the food-service industry through his ownership of the former Salad Creations franchise at West Park Promenade.
His direct competition comes from other private golf clubs in the area, including Hilands, Yellowstone Country Club, Pryor Creek in Huntley and Laurel Golf Club. However, Pekovich notes he’s basically in the outdoor recreation business, where consumers have many choices.
“Where is a family going to spend their money? We’re trying to provide bang for their buck,” Pekovich said.
Black Bunker is the only restaurant in the Blue Creek area, and the nearest eatery is four miles away. The course is surrounded by homes, and Pekovich said he hopes more will realize they can grab a meal close to home.
Members are still the core business, largely because they’re required to pay a $75 per quarter meal charge. They also voted on a range of submissions to determine the name Black Bunker, a distinguishing feature of the Briarwood, Pekovich said.
“They’re already out here golfing. We want them to stick around and hang out with us,” Pekovich said.