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Staying the Course

The Montana Club's resiliency is a product of their devotion to customers

In 1999, the German-themed bistro “Heidelhaus” took on a new identity as The Montana Club when Bob Powell and Nick Alonzo took over the location on bustling Brooks Street. Since then, more Montana Clubs have popped up all across Montana, offering a culinary experience that caters to the customer despite unforeseen challenges.

“The restaurant business is just a people business,” says Bob. “You have to like making people happy, and you have to like the hostility part of it because it’s a grind.” And that perfect marriage between people and restaurants was jeopardized when the pandemic came into the picture, forcing community staples like The Montana Club to prove their adaptability.

“The last couple of years have really been a challenge because, you know, we’ve had to deal with some of these issues from the pandemic, and my generation has never gone through anything like it,” says Bob. While most restaurants were struggling to keep up with the shifting mandates of one county, Bob was at the helm of multiple restaurants—juggling 60 to 80 employees at each location, all while remaining flexible and attentive to daily changes. “We’re in six or seven different counties throughout the state. Each county was different, and they were asking us to do different things.” But Bob kept his common sense sharp and at the ready for whatever each day presented. The challenges were bigger than anyone in the industry ever anticipated.

“We weren’t designed for take-out and delivery. We were designed to seat a couple hundred people and give them a real Montana experience. That’s always been our goal, and we wanted to maintain that,” says Bob. His day-to-day responsibilities became centered on being progressive. With industry experts telling Bob to scale back the menu, get toss-away menus, and ask customers to scan a bar code to see what was available, Bob had to rely on his own industry intelligence and local knowledge for the answers that made the most sense for the community he was serving.

“Our goal through it all was for our customers to have the least amount of change humanely possible when they came into our restaurants,” says Bob. “We spent a long time building these stores and building our clientele and building our brand. And so, as we emerged out of COVID and people were able to come out and eat again, I didn’t want their experience to be any different than it was in the first 20 years we were here.”

Thinking outside of the box and being innovative were no-brainers for Bob and his team. He admits that they ran all around town to fill the shortages from their wholesalers. Whatever didn’t come to them, they pursued through other local resources. His fear of having a waiter or waitress say “no” to a customer became his driving force to keep the culture they worked so hard to build stay intact. The two biggest challenges came cuffed together—staffing and sourcing—and Bob knew that he couldn’t think of them as separate entities in the overall success during this stressful, high-energy time. If a member of his staff has to say no, that position just became a lot less desirable.

“Consumers wanted normalcy, and to me, normalcy in Montana Club is not choosing from 10 or 20 items—it’s to have the same experience,” says Bob. “If it means that we need to pay a little more for something that our wholesalers shorted us on by going to Costco or by going to a different supplier, we’re going to do that.”

Bob also admits that he had to remember the real reason people choose to come to The Montana Club. Why do customers come to dine here? “I put my consumer hat on every day,” says Bob, who is proud to have been loyal to the feedback he’s received over the years. He’s listened to what people had to say, and it shows.

“If you’re trying to make happy customers, you do whatever it takes and that’s what drives us,” says Bob. It’s not lost on him that our community has changed its perspective because of this pandemic. We’ve had to turn proven concepts on their heads and think creatively to keep our people and restaurants safe and thriving.

“I think we’re more appreciative of what we do have,” says Bob, thinking back at all the extra energy that went into the last few years and all the perspective those years have offered. He knows that he couldn’t have survived through the last couple of decades or this unprecedented time in our world without his family of a staff.

“I want our staff to know that they work for real people and not a corporation—we’re a good-sized company, for sure—but we like to think that our culture is very different from corporate,” says Bob. He’s seen his employees celebrate each other’s birthdays and go camping or hiking together, and he is also proud to offer competitive advantages to his business family. “When customers see that our staff is treating each other like family members and we’re treating them like guests in our house, there’s a whole different approach and a different feel that an employee gets from that.”

Catering to the culture that has remained a foundation of success for The Montana Club was the right recipe to overcome a trying time. And now that we’re a little more back to “normal,” Bob is focusing on the really important things, like what he’d like for lunch, which is of course, a pint of Blue Moon, a steak and a baked potato, and some mud pie. “That’s the ultimate meal.”