Food scene evolving, revitalizing downtown

Through decades in business downtown, Sandra Thares has seen the evolution.

Her father bought the O’Haire Inn in 1968 and it housed a café they rented out.

Twenty years ago, they decided to take it over themselves as a restaurant.

The downtown was a happening place in the 1970s, okay in the 1980s and died in the 1990s, Thares said.

Over the last decade, she said there’s been a resurgence and downtown is “better now than it has ever been.”

Part of that resurgence has been due to bars, restaurants and coffee shops that chose to take a chance on downtown and the Great Falls community.

For this year’s Feasting in the Falls, The Electric talked to a number of food and drink folks to see how the local food scene is growing and helping drive downtown revitalization.

Seth Swingley, owner of the Mighty Mo Brew Pub, said that when he and his business partner, Casey Kingsland, were looking for a building, they weren’t thinking of downtown.

They couldn’t afford to purchase a building at the time and after striking out a few times, ran into the owner of their current location.

“We were a little nervous though because there wasn’t a lot going on in downtown at that time. But we did a little research and learned how breweries can help turn around downtown. It was happening all over the country at that time so we kind of took it as a challenge and thought, ‘Okay let’s do this,’ and we’re happy we did,” Swingley said.

Leah McCloskey and Lindsay Hager own Crooked Tree Coffee and in July, will celebrate 11 years at their downtown location at the corner of 1st Avenue North and 5th Street.

The business partners said it had always been a dream to open a coffee shop and they looked at other towns and didn’t have a plan to be in downtown Great Falls, but their space opened up.

Hager said she parked at that corner and counted cars while developing their business plans.

It was slow at the time, she said, but traffic has since picked up.

During the permitting process, they said were asked a few times why they would open downtown since downtown was dying.

“Now here we are,” Hager said and it seems as if the 5th Street corridor has “blossomed.”

Tara Strunk of 5th and Wine said they opened the wine shop in 2010 in a different spot and moved to their current location on 5th Street in 2013 with just a few tables in the wine shop area.

They were selling gourmet foods in the shop and people would ask what to do with them, she said. That’s when her dad, Mark Tronson, said ‘we should show them.’

“So that’s how food started. We cooked one sandwich at a time” on a purple George Foreman grill Strunk had. Her grandfather later brought them a two-sandwich grill.

Things grew from there and in 2018 they opened the restaurant side.

“We’re focused on doing things slow and right,” she said. “Things have changed so much. I’m so proud of Great Falls. It’s changed so much. It’s awesome. We’re proud to be a part of it.”

Hager and McCloskey said it’s been fun to see other businesses open up and all supporting each other.

They said that they’ve borrowed coffee beans from the owners of Miss Kitty’s Coffee more than 20 blocks to the east when they’ve run out of coffee beans and vice versa, to help each other out.

That support has grown throughout the downtown restaurant community.

“I think the collaboration when you do help other businesses within the community just speaks volumes. It gets people excited and when people come to visit, they’re not only visiting your place, they’re visiting other places,” said Tara Beam, owner of Roadhouse Diner.

Swingley said that growing up, his family owned some businesses in town and they looked at each other as competition.

When he and Kingsland got into brewing, they found that the small brewing industry is all about helping each other and sharing recipes and resources.

“The better beer you make, the better beer I’m going to have to make” and it’s good for industry, Swingley said.

They brought that mentality into their business as a whole, Swingley said, and talked to Mike Hallahan at Enbär when they were opening.

“I wanted them to succeed, because the more people that are on this block, they’re going to stumble into my place at some point,” Swingley said.

Strunk at 5th and Wine said that they welcome competition and that the more people come downtown, the better everyone does.

She said they’ve seen an increase in traffic on nights when The Newberry has events and that there’s been an influx of people and new businesses since they first opened in their current location a decade ago.

Strunk said if they’re full in their restaurant, they’ll give recommendations for other restaurants, such as Enbär down the street or others depending on what they’re looking for.

“Some people look at competition in a bad way but we don’t,” she said.

Thad Reiste, owner of Electric City Coffee, said they used to think new places would take away from their business but have seen it draw more people to downtown.

“We’re going to have the thriving downtown that every other city wants and eventually what that’s going to lead to is what you’re seeing now,” he said.

But, there’s been challenges lately as building that houses Crooked Tree Coffee has been sold twice over the last decade and Hager and McCloskey haven’t met the new owner. As rent and cost of good keep increasing, they also struggle to keep prices attractive to customers and also cover their costs.

Rising costs are affecting most local business owners and Swingley said it’s something they hear often, that people won’t come downtown because it’s too expensive.

“You’re paying for a local business to survive. These local businesses support your kids, support fundraisers. Just come support us and see what it’s all about,” Swingley said.

Thad Reiste said that inflation has been an issue for every restaurant and Great Falls is its own market.

“We want to charge enough to cover our expenses, but right now expenses are so high,” he said.

That impacts labor costs and the eventual cost to customers, Thad Reiste said.

Jason Beam of Roadhouse Diner said that challenges from transportation, availability of ingredients and cost, have pushed them to more experimentation.

He said as ingredient selection decreases, they’ve had to get more creative in the kitchen.

Jason Beam said that people are experiencing change on a regular basis and that can be difficult for some.

He said that while they like to get creative and experiment, they also want to be consistent with their food and building their brand around being able to meet customer’s needs.

“Long-term that’s going to be the hard part for anybody in this business, is making sure we always achieve those customer desires and what their expectations are,” Jason Beam said.

It’s more of a challenge now, he said, because the world has changed in the customer’s eyes.

At Roadhouse Diner, they like doing business with other local businesses and get their meat from McCafferty Ranch that’s processed at Central Avenue Meats, and their buns come from Great Harvest Bread.

“That’s a source of pride for our business,” Jason Beam said. “We enjoy working with those fresh ingredients and always having that because it provides a unique product for our customers and we’re really proud that we’re able to utilize as many local ingredients as we can.”

Mike Hallahan of Enbär and The Block said that the culinary scene continuously evolves in Great Falls and the more variety, the more of a tourism destination the city becomes.

He said that Great Falls is a melting pot of people with different experiences and backgrounds and “I think people love that variety, I think they want those creative things, they’re looking for that.”

Sandy Thares of the O’Haire Inn said, “anything new that we can do, it will bring them back for a return visit.”

Swingley of the Mighty Mo Brew Pub said that people are coming downtown for more occasions now and staying longer.

“There’s so many different reasons to come down now,” he said, and with more restaurants, bars, coffee shops and retail, people go place to place and he said it’s cool to see people walking the downtown area.

The future is bright for the food scene and downtown, according to these local entrepreneurs.

Heidi Reiste of Electric City Coffee said that they’re all working to bring new, innovative ideas to the Great Falls food scene.

She said customers show up for those ideas, such as when they held the passport dinners.

Thad Reiste said that “we’ve all contributed our own little piece, but then collectively we’ve brought more customers to downtown, which is a great thing.”

Thares of the O’Haire Inn said that there’s lots of opportunity for new types of restaurants in Great Falls, particularly.

“There’s some cuisines we aren’t seeing downtown that I would sincerely like to see open and if that takes helping to promote an idea or problem solve for a location, we’re all going to step in to do that. If it’s answering a need that the people of Great Falls want then we’re going to help get them down here.”

Hallahan of Enbär and The Block said that the success of locally owned restaurants downtown is encouraging others to take similar risks.

“People want to be a part of it and they’re really trying,” Hallahan said. “If you’re someone in Great Falls and you haven’t experienced it in the last five to 10 years, step outside the box, come downtown see what it’s all about. It’s a lot different than what you think. The stigma that it used to have, that’s really evolved and changed. You come on a Wednesday night and there’s activity everywhere. It doesn’t always have to be a weekend. There’s a lot happening. A lot evolving and changing, there’s a lot of excitement that I think people would see.”