HELENA — It’s closing time, for the last time, at Bert and Ernie’s restaurant.

After 48 years of business, the Helena institution turned off its lights on Dec. 1, leaving behind memories of shared meals, wine and company. 

Bert and Ernie’s “was a hub of things that were happening downtown. We’re going to miss it terribly,” said Helena City Commissioner Sean Logan, a frequent customer. “It’s just this mainstay of downtown, not only of food and beverage, but for many years there was a lot of music going on down there.”  

More than a place to eat, Bert and Ernie’s was a business anchor, an innovator, a fundraising center, a de facto museum and a link to the past through its owner, Toby DeWolf, son of Bill DeWolf, of the famous and former Union Market, which was located just up the street in the building that now houses Pita Pit. The DeWolfs were longtime butchers in Helena from 1889 to 1989.

Though he said he’s sad to close the restaurant, DeWolf also said he’s pleased that the building at 361 N. Last Chance Gulch could become a meat store, in his family’s tradition. He purchased the building — formerly the Globe clothing store — in 1987, remodeled it extensively and moved the restaurant there from its original location in the Iron Front Hotel.

Four Montana ranch families organized as Old Salt Co-op are working toward purchasing the 12,000-square-foot building. They hope to develop a retail meat market, café and restaurant called Butcher’s Table, according to co-op founder Cole Mannix.

Toby DeWolf, manager/owner of Bert and Ernie’s for 36 years, poses in Sommeliers, the upstairs wine bar. Credit: Jill Sundby Van Alstyne/MTFP

The co-op includes the Sieben Livestock Company outside Cascade, the Mannix Family Ranch near Helmville, the J Bar L Ranches in Centennial Valley and Melville, and the LF Ranch near Augusta. The co-op also plans to build a USDA-inspected slaughter facility on a prospective site between East Helena and Montana City by May.

DeWolf is leaving the restaurant business after working seven days a week for 33 years, plus three sporadic COVID years. In a recent interview, he discussed his reasons for leaving: staff shortages, food and wage costs, and just plain weariness. The building was uncharacteristically quiet as DeWolf took down the Helena memorabilia that has adorned the restaurant’s walls for decades: an old metal “Eddy’s Bread” sign, black-and-white photos of Helena’s eclectic past, and Carroll College football jerseys.

“Cole’s vision has always been a Union Market,“ DeWolf said. “That’s the only thing that feels good to me right now is that it’s going back to my family roots.”

DeWolf, who described Mannix as an “entrepreneur,” was himself an entrepreneur, re-inventing and expanding Bert and Ernie’s through the decades. He created distinct dining sections — “inside, outside, upstairs, downstairs” — where customer could find solitude, camaraderie or raucousness.

“Most restaurants are just one thing, that’s all they do,” said Wes Ross, a former employee who now works in finance and insurance. “Toby had three or four atmospheres in one building.”

These dining areas included the first sports bar in Helena, the first non-smoking restaurant in Helena, the first wine bar in Montana, and the first outdoor patio in Helena (he wrote the ordinance enabling it), according to DeWolf.

“I put together something that worked,” he said. “It was just fun. We were making money, and the community was coming in by the droves.”

He said he learned his work ethic from his father, a butcher, and his mother, Betty Mae Coleman DeWolf. They had eight children, of whom Toby is the youngest. He credits his good health to his mother’s fresh, home-cooked meals from ingredients raised on their acre lot near Kessler Elementary School.

“My mother was an amazing cook,” he said. “She would make 65 pork chops for one meal. We had 18 [people] at every single meal. She always let us bring a friend.” DeWolf said he’s worn her silver cross necklace every day since her death in 2012.

From his mother, he learned about giving as well as cooking. Many local nonprofits launched fundraisers at Bert and Ernie’s: Habitat for Humanity and Kay McKenna Youth Foundation dinners, Big Brothers Wine Crush, Alive at Five, the Cool Dog Ball Iditarod fundraiser, the Black Tie Blue Jean Ball for West Mont, Paint the Town Pink for the Florence Crittenton Home and more.

Susan Bartels, former owner of McDonald’s restaurants in Helena with her husband Lowell, said DeWolf also helped raise money for Farm in the Dell, homes for adults with developmental disabilities. “He’s always been community-minded,” she said. “I think he knows everybody.”

Over the years, DeWolf has hired hundreds of people to work at Bert and Ernie’s. Wes Ross, who worked there from 1997 to 2002, said he was a “typical 16-year-old kid who didn’t have a lot of confidence. Toby took me and whipped me into shape in how to be accommodating and helpful and hardworking.”

DeWolf also worked as a community anchor in other capacities, with the Chamber of Commerce, Helena Business Improvement District, Downtown Helena Inc., the parking commission, and recycling and community policing initiatives.

Over the years, DeWolf said, Bert and Ernie’s has served among its customers Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan, actor Tom Cruise, and, prior to his arrest, Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. Kaczynski would stay at the restaurant from opening till close. “He was very shy and quiet,” DeWolf recalled. 

Bert and Ernie’s was especially known as a headquarters for St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. On March 16, 2019 — the day before St. Patrick’s Day — the restaurant was ready with 300 pounds of corned beef and four kegs of Guinness.

“I put together something that worked. It was just fun. We were making money, and the community was coming in by the droves.”

Former Bert and Ernie’s owner Toby DeWolf

Then COVID shut down everything.

DeWolf’s challenges soared. He and his employees spent the first three months of the pandemic deep-cleaning the building. “I paid them the whole time,” he said. “I had the best staff in the world. By the end of the year, I had to let them go.”

DeWolf became everything at that point: bartender, server, cook, dishwasher. “I had to stay open and do the best I could,” he said. “Hundreds of people came in and gave me and my staff money [as gifts]. It was very moving.”

Business came back strong in the spring of 2021, but there were continuing problems. Beef went from $5 to $30 a pound, and food availability was erratic. Wages rose from $12 an hour to $21.

“I basically had to start over. Build a new team,” he said. It became increasingly hard to find reliable employees with customer-service skills and a work ethic. “I washed dishes for 13 months straight every day. You get to a point where you hire a dishwasher, and you think you’ve won the lottery. And then they quit.”

Even some customers became rude, and he had to escort people out for the first time ever.

“There were so many days I thought, ‘I just can’t go on — financially, physically, spiritually,’” he said. “I knew I couldn’t quit because that’s not who I am.

“When the restaurant business is good, it’s really good. And when the restaurant business is bad, it’s really bad. It’s an animal, and it will eat you for lunch if you’re not ready for it.”

The downtown Helena restaurant is the third and final Bert and Ernie’s restaurant to close. A Billings location closed in 1998, and one in Great Falls closed in 2018. DeWolf, who began working at Helena’s Bert and Ernie’s as a manager in 1986, right out of college, has been sole owner of the Helena business since 1997. The restaurant was started in 1974 by Tom McCarvel and Tim Kennedy (aka Ernie and Bert).

Manager/owner Toby DeWolf says goodbye to customers in the Tuscany wine room on the last day at Bert and Ernie’s. Credit: Jill Sundby Van Alstyne/MTFP

When DeWolf began as manager, “I said I would do it for a year, that’s all,” he laughed. But the restaurant became his “passion,” he said. “This was like my child.”

DeWolf paused to look around the darkened, upstairs wine room. This northern side of the structure had once been part of Li’l Palace Bar, which had a brothel upstairs. The bar was a separate building that was later combined with the Globe clothing store next door, which was run by the Grossberg family from 1896 to 1986.

There will be one last chance to see inside the historic building before it’s sold and remodeled: a public viewing of auction items on Jan. 6, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Bidding in the online auction runs from Dec. 27 to Jan. 10 on pateauction.com. Items include the Marcus Daly Hotel backbar, historical photos by Helena photographer Les Jorud, furniture, fixtures and memorabilia.

“I’m happy in the sense I get to move forward and start my next chapter in life,” DeWolf said. “The sad part is that it didn’t get sold as Bert and Ernie’s.”

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Elected by their geographic peers, 150 citizen legislators representing every slice of the state head to Helena every two years to make laws. What develops is a distinct, if temporary, social ecosystem of its own within the capital city, a self-contained society swirling with veteran and freshman lawmakers, lobbyists, journalists, temporary employees and average citizens with agendas to advocate and bones to pick.

Jill Van Alstyne

Jill Van Alstyne is a former eastern Montana reporter for the Billings Gazette and city government reporter for the Helena Independent Record. A graduate of St. Olaf College, MSU-Billings, and South Dakota State University, she taught English on the Crow Reservation and in Japan before joining the English department at Helena High School.