There are cafés, and then there is Harper & Madison.
It has an urban touch in its unique offerings and simple decor. But, at the same time, the downtown bakery and lunch spot feels like a small-town café where everybody knows your name.
Chef Shane Weigel knows many customers by name or by their favorite order. There’s the dad who brings in his toddler every morning for pastries and coffee. And the little boy who arrives almost daily with his mom for a buttery croissant. McKinley Elementary kids often stop by the café for a treat to eat on their way home. So Weigel named a sandwich after them.
If Weigel doesn’t know someone’s name, owner Joanie Swords probably does. The café, located at 3115 10th Ave. N., just hit its 10-month anniversary and the joke is they never had time for a grand opening.
“We have been busy since Day One,” Weigel said.
And busy for Weigel and Swords means 12- to 14-hour days, filled with dreaming up new offerings and fine tuning the current offerings. Swords and Weigel met when they worked together at the now-defunct Sidney’s restaurant at Rimrock Mall. He was the chef and Swords was a server.
Now, 20 years later, they are collaborating on their dream job.
Weigel studied cooking at the Restaurant School in Philadelphia and did a stint in Europe, traveling and eating seven-course meals. He worked for seven years as a private chef in Portland, Ore., then lived and worked in Pittsburgh before returning to Montana in 2006.
Swords stayed in Billings, raising her family (she named her café after daughter Harper and son Madison) and opening bakeries, including Great Beginnings, Perfect Endings and the Dancing Oven. Then, in late 2010, about three months before Swords opened Harper & Madison, they teamed up again.
“I can’t believe my good fortune in hiring Shane,” Swords said. “I’m just now starting to realize his genius.”
Weigel adds, “Joanie said, ‘Come and play and let’s see what we can do.’”
That’s what the collaboration feels like to Weigel, creative play.
“You have to be half nuts to be a chef,” Weigel joked. “We show up between 4 and 5 in the morning and leave at 7 or 8 at night. That’s the nature of the beast.”
Weigel grew up in Billings, graduating from West High in 1986. But he spent many happy days at his grandparents’ ranch in Two Dot, enjoying his father and grandmother’s great cooking. Some of the sandwich recipes Weigel has developed since coming to Harper & Madison came right out of his childhood.
“We wanted fresh and we wanted light. We wanted something that Billings hasn’t had yet. So I thought of the sandwiches I had when I was a kid. That’s where the Harvest Moon came from. My dad would make a sandwich out of butternut squash and andouille sausage. I added the spiced pumpkin seeds, apples and cranberry stilton.”
The Harvest Moon is one of 11 panini sandwiches on the menu, which changes about every three months. Some of the sandwiches, including the café’s most popular — Market Club — never goes off the menu. It is available as a grilled panini or a deli sandwich.
Weigel handles the savory side, which includes making a daily quiche and soup, along with specialty breads. Swords oversees the baking of the café’s from-scratch pastries and desserts.
“Never underestimate the power of sugar and cream,” Swords notes on the café’s website.
On Weigel’s savory side, he quotes chef James Beard: “Too few people understand a really good sandwich.”