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It took a while for the Grotto's owners to find the perfect place — it is, after all, Billings' first kombucha bar and all-vegan restaurant. The location had to be right.

The owners of the old Sawyer Building downtown, near the eastern end of Montana Avenue, saw potential and took chance on the new business. The Grotto will open later in December; there's still a lot of work to be done. 

And it's already been a long road. 

"We didn't start out as a restaurant," Katie Klaus said with a laugh. 

Sisters Ashley and Katie Klaus had been working for more than two years to launch their business, which was initially conceived as a simple kombucha brewery. But the more they developed the idea, the more it grew.

They knew they wanted to be downtown and they worked with the Downtown Billings Alliance to identify possible locations. Early on, the DBA mentioned the Sawyer Building at 2223 Montana Ave., an old warehouse across the street from the Depot.

But the space was too big and the sisters believed it was two far east. Plus the building, which had been completely gutted and was in the middle of a full-scale renovation, was more than year from being done. So the Klauses kept looking. 

But finding the right spot proved elusive. When they landed on a place they thought would work, they couldn't get the backing they needed from the lending institutions. Nothing like what they had planned really existed in Billings, so banks were unwilling to take the risk, Ashley Klaus said. 

After a year, they found themselves looking again at the Sawyer Building. Their business plan had expanded by then, and now included their all-vegan restaurant. 

Chandler Griffin, part of Griffin Development and the principal broker with Mountain West Commercial Real Estate, has his offices in the old Sawyer Building. Griffin Development purchased the building a few years ago and has renovated and remodeled it over the last two years.

He believed the building was the perfect home for the Grotto. 

"We're huge fans of young businesses and new businesses," he said.

Ashley and Katie Klaus immediately felt that vibe and fell in love with the space. Griffin was willing to take a chance on their business and so the sisters decided they would take a chance on the Sawyer Building.

It had the bohemian, urban feel that they were looking for, Ashley Klaus said.

"What I think struck a chord with them was the culture inside the building," Griffin said. 

Billings' first whiskey distillery, Asylum, set up shop there a year ago on the first floor. The building also is home to Diamond Construction and Scheveck Law Firm.

For Chandler, adding the Grotto to the building felt like the perfect fit. One of the reasons Griffin Development purchased the Sawyer was to tap into Montana Avenue's burgeoning vibrant downtown scene and to keep that momentum moving. 

Montana Avenue anchors some of Billings' most active nightlife spots. From roughly North 26th Street down to North 20th Street, the strip has everything from brew pubs and cider mills to a theater and swanky sit-down restaurants. The street has found success cultivating a sense of urban cool.

"The real estate and the architectural elements are in line for that," Griffin said. "It's a really a breeding ground."

And it's precisely what Ashley and Katie want to build on.

At first blush, the idea of opening a kombucha bar and all-vegan restaurant in a place like Billings can feel counterintuitive, they said. 

"We kind of took a big, big chance," Ashley Klaus said. 

Billings is a regional destination for visitors from rural Eastern Montana and northern Wyoming who come to town looking for the familiar and the reliable. As such, chain restaurants and big box stores do brisk business. But the Klaus sisters discovered a population downtown that welcomes culinary adventurousness.

Lilac on Montana Avenue and the Fieldhouse on Minnesota Avenue are small homegrown restaurants that specialize in locally sourced ingredients while featuring new and exotic flavors. Both have been successful. 

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The Klauses believe the Grotto will fit right in. 

The kombucha they'll serve is brewed in Hawaii by the Maui-based Valley Isle Kombucha Co. The sisters entered into an exclusive agreement with Valley Isle and the Grotto will be the first and the only place on the mainland that serves it. 

Kombucha is a type of fermented, sweetened tea. It's naturally carbonated and popular for its purported health benefits. It's also an acquired taste. 

"The first time I tried it I hated it," Ashley Klaus said. "I thought it was the worst thing."

She ended up trying it again and that time "it just clicked," she said. 

Katie Klaus started drinking it too and, by their own admission, she and Ashley became obsessed with it. And that got them talking.

"What if we could turn this obsession into a business," they asked themselves and the idea for the Grotto was born. 

It's been a family affair. The Klauses father has done much of the remodeling and their brothers have helped with the physical labor. 

They've put together a business plan, which was tricky, Katie said. It was hard to research business models for a business that currently doesn't exist in Billings. And they've already hired four employees.

When asked what's been most challenging about the whole process, the sisters answer in unison, "everything."

Still, they're excited about opening and showing off what they hope will be the next big thing in Billings. 

"It's been a complete labor of love," Ashley Klaus said. 

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Business Reporter

Business Reporter for the Billings Gazette.