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Old West-theme restaurant has jobs for deaf in Philippines

Old West-theme restaurant has jobs for deaf in Philippines

Old West-theme restaurant has jobs for deaf in Philippines
Dressed in a red bandana and coconut fiber cowboy hat, a Montana Room employee pretends to ride one the restaurant’s Western saddles. The Montana Room in the Garden Café restaurant has become a hit with Filipinos in Tagbilaran City on the island of Bohol. Chaps, cowboy boots, a branding iron and John Wayne’s image help give a wall of the Montana Room its Western flavor.

Take one restaurant in the Philippines with slumping sales. Use Montana saddles, spurs and chaps for Old West flavor. Add waitresses wearing cowboy hats woven from coconut fiber. And what do you get?

A stampede of customers.

Steaks on the menu and an Old West theme have transformed a restaurant on the island of Bohol into a hot spot.

The switch to a Montana theme in late January did more than just save a restaurant, it preserved the jobs of dozens of deaf waitresses and cooks.

The plan for the revitalized restaurant came from Dennis Drake's ties to Billings. In the 1980s, Drake, who grew up in Billings, started a nonprofit deaf-education program in the Philippines, the International Deaf Education Association. IDEA now supports 272 deaf schoolchildren in the Philippines and employs 100 deaf workers in occupations ranging from cabinet-making to landscape maintenance.

Eighty percent of IDEA's donors have ties to Billings, and Wes Robbie, the former president of the Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch Foundation, lives in Bohol and is the organization's vice president. Robbie's wife, Judy, is the education director of IDEA's new high school for deaf students.

Drake, who talked about the remodeled restaurant while he was in Billings for the organization's board meeting, returns to the Philippines on Tuesday.

The Garden Café restaurant opened in 1984 as a way to employ deaf workers. It grew from a little bamboo snack shack into an upscale eatery with indoor seating for 170.

For years, it had little competition from other restaurants in Tagbilaran City, the province's capital. But this year, 20 new restaurants, including several American chains, popped up in two new malls on the island, which was voted last year as the No. 1 tourist spot in the Philippines.

To keep up with the competition, Drake chose to remodel the Garden Café's second floor into a Montana Room, along the lines of Frontier Pies in Helena.

"I kind of did it in remembrance of my dad," Drake said.

His father, Vernon Drake, a Billings architect who died in January of 2004, was a lifelong history buff who grew up on a homestead in the South Hills. To make the Montana theme work, Billings friends contributed cross-cut saws, chaps and buffalo skulls. Drake filled a shipping container with Old West memorabilia and woodworking tools. An IDEA construction crew did the remodeling work.

Cowboy hats and lariats now share wall space with an image of John Wayne. Strains of country-western music fill the restaurant's second floor. Images of cowboys on horseback ride across etched-glass dividers, and red-checked curtains cover the windows. Trophy mounts - of a whitetail, mule deer and antelope - also hang from the restaurant's walls.

"We had to mount them up high," Drake said. "Everybody wanted to touch them."

Curious restaurant patrons, unfamiliar with the taxidermist's art, continually ask what prevents the meat inside the stuffed heads from rotting.

Some signature Old West pieces had to be fabricated in the Philippines by IDEA's deaf cabinet-makers.

"I couldn't find old wagon wheels, so we made old wagon wheels for chandeliers," Drake said.

They also made their own branding irons to emblazon the tables with brands.

"Then we had to have explanations of everything. The people there have no idea what branding irons are, what they mean," he said.

The Garden Café, with its re-created Montana Room, employs 45 workers, 36 of whom are deaf. About $1,800 a month in restaurant profits goes toward supporting dormitories for deaf schoolchildren.

"The Garden Café's success is not just monetary," Drake said. The interaction with the public has helped change people's attitudes toward the deaf on the island of Bohol.

Although it doesn't quite fit with the Western theme, Drake lifted one idea straight from a Billings restaurant. Like the Happy Diner on Grand Avenue, each booth has a telephone to place orders. In the past, customers wrote out their own orders to accommodate the deaf waiters and waitresses. Now customers punch phone buttons to contact the kitchen directly.

Before the Montana Room opened, it lacked one essential frontier artifact - guns. A restaurant worker came to the rescue, loaning the restaurant some old homemade flintlocks once used by his father to shoot monkeys raiding his farm fields.

"They look like old hunting rifles, but they're really old monkey-shooting rifles," Drake said.

The Garden Café had always been known for innovative food, but Drake was unsure how the menu's new specialties - steaks, wraps and chili - would go over. He worried that the entrees might be too expensive for the local economy.

To keep prices reasonable, Drake eliminated one obvious ingredient - Montana beef. The restaurant's steaks, which come from New Zealand and Australia, cost a third less than imported U.S. Angus beef.

Donna Healy may be reached at 657-1292 or dhealy@billingsgazette.com.

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