It’s common to see a few patrons waiting outside Burns Street Bistro, but this last Sunday, Oct. 1, a line stretched around the block. While the crowd cheered, paying their respects, there was a palpable sense of urgency to enter as the restaurant became another recent closure in Missoula.
While other establishments have closed and some have announced they will be closing soon, many citing the rising cost of employee salaries, Missoula still offers a broad range of restaurants. For some, like the Mexican Moose, business is good — although they note that in Missoula’s changing restaurant scene, support from the community and a hard work ethic are vital.
A month ago, in the heart of downtown Missoula, Second Set Bistro made an effort to serve the restaurant’s classics or bring back fan’s favorite dishes one last time before closing its doors, joining an unfortunate tally of local eateries in the city to shut down.
“We don’t feel that the restaurant ever connected with Missoula to the point where we could keep the place open,” said Razz Schnieder, the bistro’s head chef.
While there were loyal customers, the locale in the Florence Building on Higgins was a little bit hidden, he said. People had to know where they were going, as there was no street access.
“It wasn’t so much a question of our landlord was bad, or the rent was too high,” Schnieder said. “We didn’t think that signing another lease in this space where we were struggling to get that presence was gonna change things.”
Filling out a good roster of employees in Missoula is also difficult. There’s a lot of tourism in the summer, which makes business seasonal, and while the cost of operating a restaurant is “insanely” high, the margins for profit are small, Schnieder said.
“We can’t pay enough, here in Missoula. These people need to get paid more, and we just couldn’t,” Schnieder said. “A lot of our employees that we had in the past had to leave Missoula because they just couldn’t afford to live here.”
Second Set Bistro opened in August of 2019, and, when the restaurant had to close because of the pandemic less than a year later, it ran through its rainy-day fund pretty quickly, Schneider said. When things opened again, the restaurant survived, he said, but operated paycheck to paycheck.
“It just kinda takes your breath away, and it’s really hard to recover from that. We were just never really able to fully find our footing after COVID,” Schnieder said.
Despite the closing, Schnieder views the restaurant as a success. The customers and employees were all quality, he said, and he’s happy with what the Second Set was able to accomplish, despite the extraordinary conditions.
“I think we built a cool restaurant,” he said. “It’s just, circumstances put us in this position.”
Two other eateries, Firehouse Subs and Brooklyn Bagel and Bakery, both operated by Les Klienman and both on Reserve Street, also closed recently.
Klienman said he’s called his congressmen and let them know that he thinks small businesses aren’t getting the support they need. Increased interest rates on his loans cut into his margins, and additional costs of food and labor were difficult to cope with, he said.
From the time he opened Firehouse Subs in 2021, Klienman said he raised hourly wages from $11 to $18 an hour.
“Since the pandemic, the whole economy has been crazy,” Klienman said. “It goes from one extreme to the other.”
Some factors were more unique to Klienman’s businesses, such as a ransomware attack that closed some of his restaurants this year. In total, he owned six restaurants, between Idaho, Washington and Montana. He’s still keeping one Brooklyn Bagel open in Columbia Falls. About 100 people were working at these restaurants, he said, and have now been let go.
“It has snowballed severely since January,” Klienman said.
UPCOMING ADDITIONS AND SUBSTRACTIONS
Even some longtime Missoula restaurants are closing. For Burns Street Bistro, their closure on Sunday comes after 12 years of serving food in Missoula, and the Catalyst cafe will be wrapping up after 32 years on Nov. 22. Both restaurants declined to comment for this story.
In the final days, Burns Street Bistro customers Joe and Josh Hopper reminisced about the restaurant and the changing food scene in Missoula.
“Probably within a year after they opened we started coming here,” Joe Hooper said. “At some point, we started making it a weekly trek if we could. Just one way or another we would make it here.”
“The whole idea of a mom-and-pop breakfast place — those exist a lot of places — and I don’t know if that can be used to describe this place, but [it’s] definitely like a local cafe, and I feel bad that those kinds of places are closing,” Josh Hooper said.
Hob Nob, a longtime Missoula restaurant that closed in 2021, fit that description, Joe Hooper said. He said he was particularly fond of their corned beef hash.
“And then Catalyst. For my sister, she loves Catalyst, she was devastated when she heard they were closing,” he added.
Part of the appeal is that while the food isn’t fancy, there’s a touch of gourmet, Josh Hooper said, at both Burns Street and the Catalyst.
In Missoula, new places are in the works — such as Tres Bonne, promising French-American cuisine and a Miami-inspired art deco design when it opens downtown this fall — while some are even thinking of expanding. One business, the Mexican Moose, started in 2021 as a food truck, moved into a building by 2022 and is now toying with the idea of expanding to a new location, according to Santos Flores, part of the family business.
“It’s just non-stop people coming through,” he said.
The community’s support for the food truck quickly outgrew the space’s ability to keep up with demand, and customers had to search for the mobile Mexican Moose around town, Flores said. It’s easier having a restaurant space — the Moose is located on Regent Street in the same building as the Sunrise Saloon — as it’s not as cramped as a food truck, Flores said.
“I can’t thank the people enough,” he said.
Luckily for the Moose, it doesn’t face the same hiring challenges as many places. While the restaurant has recently hired some new people, its employees are still mostly family.
Customers keep asking when there will be more locations, Flores said, prompting him to consider another spot, perhaps something closer to downtown.
“It’s a lot of work; it takes a lot out of small mom-and-pop shops,” Flores said of operating a restaurant. “It’s a shame some restaurants are closing down. It was a lot of work to get where we’re at.”
This story was updated on Oct. 5, 2023, to correct the spelling of Burns Street Bistro.
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