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Like nurses covering up the trauma around them, the waitresses at the Kit Kat Cafe laughed this week because they couldn’t cry.

“Some of us aren’t talking because we’re depressed, so we joke with customers or give them hell because we’re sad, too,” says seven-year veteran Sandra Johnson. “Betty’s been a great boss. She’s probably the best boss in Billings.”

After half a century of serving near-homemade meals to their friends and a few strangers, Betty Miller and her husband, Carl, are closing the cafe.

They don’t “Hold the butter, hold the mayo” at this landmark cafe along Main Street.

And over lunch, there is no holding back Betty’s tears.

After the last dinner roll plops down on a plate Saturday at 9 p.m., a half-century of friendships and memories will be cast adrift.

When the new owner, Missoula businessman Craig Langel, takes over Sept. 1, he’ll level the Kit Kat and quickly build a Taco Bell franchise.Friendship and fry-cook philosophyCarl Miller met his wife, Betty, 14 years ago while eating at a back table in the Kit Kat.

He asked her to go out for dinner and dancing the next time he came to town.

“Six months later, we were married. Some of her friends disapproved. They thought she was moving too fast,” Carl says. “But I knew I had an answer in my arms, so I asked her.”

Betty

I love the customers. A lot of them I’ve waited on since I was 13 or 14 years old … selling the place was the hardest decision I’ve ever made in my life.

— Betty Miller Kit Kat Cafe owner

started working in Billings restaurants as a teenager, owned a couple cafes, went broke a couple times and bought the Kit Kat in 1972.

When a generous offer came along for the cafe recently, Carl says he liked the idea.

“She was supposed to retire at 65. Age is the big thing, and health. Betty is 68 and going on 69,” he says. Last Wednesday, he took Betty for only the second boat ride of her life at Yellowtail Reservoir.

“She’s in here all the time. We had a blast. Everybody got sunburned,” he says.

Other than one term on the Billings City Council, Betty spent 55 years working in the demanding restaurant business. After running the Kit Kat 15 hours a day, seven days a week, Betty still wasn’t ready to quit.

“I love everybody. I love the customers. A lot of them I’ve waited on since I was 13 or 14 years old,” she says. “It’s been a long, hard road running the cafe, but selling the place was the hardest decision I’ve ever made in my life.”

After agreeing to the deal a couple of weeks ago, she backed out.

Carl says he pushed the issue.

“The decision to close lays entirely on my shoulders,” he says. “I said, ‘Enough is enough.’”

The buyer was a native Montanan, which helped ease the decision, and he understood Betty’s feelings, Carl says. The couple signed the papers July 20 but didn’t file them until Monday.

“Last weekend, she could have changed her mind,” he says.

“It’s sad for the customers, but there comes a time you have to enjoy your own life and step down.”End of an eraOn Monday, the Millers told their 36 employees the Kit Kat was closing. Word filtered down to the diners, and the parking lot was jammed.

Customers started snapping up kitty coffee mugs, Kit Kat caps and other souvenirs. A male customer sitting at the counter asks for a menu.

“I don’t have many left. They’ve become highly collectible, all of a sudden,” a waitress says with a laugh. “I guess that’s better than taking the pictures off the walls.

Leaning over his boiled dinner with pork, Dick Marcotte, a contract engineer from Billings, says he doesn’t know where he’ll eat now after 40 years at the Kat.

“No, you can’t find this anymore,” Marcotte says, adding he’s not coming back this fall.

“I don’t like tacos,” he says.

Ervin Naasz, a retired dairyman from Worden, agrees.

“Whenever I come to town, I always eat here. It’s the only place where I enjoy the food and the atmosphere,” Naasz says.

Next to the cowboy boots and bib overalls, a young woman with twin rings in her left eyebrow, chats with her boyfriend.

For retired ranchers, Eleanor and Henry Ostwalt, the closing is a personal loss and a loss for Billings Heights.

“This is upsetting to a lot of people,” Eleanor says.

Ivor and Margaret Johnson amble slowly into the Kat, an inch of mortar sticking out beyond the tan and rust bricks. A half-smoked Camel lies in the window sill.

“I’ve been eating with Betty since she was at the Stockman Cafe down on Montana Avenue,” Ivor says. “I’m going to try to eat one more meal, then I don’t know.”

“I don’t like casinos, and I don’t like fast-food places,” adds Margaret, a former breakfast chef herself. Coffee, conversation and plenty of gravyTimes change, of course, but Betty hasn’t in half a century.

At the Kit Kat, you get a chuckle with your chicken fried.

The black cat clock with the swinging tail and eyes switching from side-to-side keeps time over the pass-through window into the kitchen.

A kettle of brown gravy simmers on the gas stove. Two huge hams cool, waiting for the carving knife.

The pies and breads are made from scratch.

And Betty, Carl says, won’t turn away any child or anyone who’s hungry.

“Her motto is, ‘Serve the need of the people, not the greed,’” Miller says.

Out-of-state customers who eat dinner then whip out plastic to pay are told the Kit Kat doesn’t take credit cards. They get a business card instead.

“A week or two weeks later, here comes the check in the mail. We’ve never gotten stiffed,” he says. “I know it’s unbelievable, but it’s the truth. She trusts people. She’s one of a kind.”

When Lonnie Bell belts out a radio commercial on Sunday mornings claiming business people from the West End drive clear across town almost every day to eat at the Kit Kat, he’s not kidding.

A rotund retired teacher, Don Peterson, often logs 10.5 miles from his home at the Yellowstone Country Club to eat with friends he met at the cafe.

“My motto is, “Get fat at the Kit Kat,” Peterson says.

Bud Corbell, a cattle buyer from Billings who moved to Lethbridge, Alberta, gets the news about the closing while downing lunch at the counter.

“You’ve got to be kidding. There’s no reason to,” Corbell says. “The waitresses have a lot of personality and that adds up to success.”Tomorrow’s another dayMyrna Smith, who has worked at the Kit Kat for 22 years, remembers Betty’s generosity lending employees money during hard times.

Smith never borrowed money from Betty, but she remembers wanting a dresserthat she couldn’t afford.

“So, she went out and bought it for me,” Smith says.

A few years shy of retirement, Smith says she’ll need another job and is planning to apply at the Esquire Country Kitchen at 3324 1st Ave. N.

Betty owned the cafe decades ago when it was called the S-Quire Fine Foods. She plans to return as well when she can’t eat at the Kit Kat.

“A little gal named Pam just took it over. I’m going to eat there,” Betty says.

Carl and Betty thank their staff and customers they call the best in the world.

“Thank to you all for helping a grade-school dropout run a business,” Betty says.

A male customers hugs her, saying, “Bye, sweetheart.”

“Bye hon,” she says softly, and starts crying again.Jan Falstad can be contacted at (406) 657-1306 or at jfalstad@billingsgazette.com

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