During a discussion about his new West End restaurant, chef Travis Stimpson talked about community almost as much as he talked about food.
That’s because he wants his Local Kitchen & Bar to foster a sense of community and to be an important part of the community as well. He wants people to enjoy good food and drink grown and made in Montana, and he wants them to stop thinking that eating at chain restaurants has anything to do with fine dining.
Co-owners John and Meagen Heenan feel the same way. John Heenan is an attorney with Bishop and Heenan Law Firm at 1631 Zimmerman Trail, and he lives about a mile from there. He said he wanted to help start a restaurant in the part of Billings he considers home, and he didn’t even consider franchising a chain restaurant.
“That was opposite of what I as a person wanted to do out here,” Heenan said.
Local Kitchen & Bar, which will have a grand opening Monday after an invitation-only soft opening this weekend, is located at 1430 Country Manor Blvd., near Shiloh Road and Grand Avenue, in a space that used to house Zpizza.
The space was gutted and has been completely renovated. The design was the work of the fourth partner in the business, Brian Johnson, an architect with Collaborative Design Architects. Johnson used to be a waiter at Walkers Grill in downtown Billings and became friends with Stimpson, who worked there as a chef.
That’s another aspect of the community feeling: most of the 16 people who will work at the new restaurant are former colleagues of Stimpson’s.
“I’ve got people who worked with me over the years at different locations,” he said. “It was pretty much a ready-made staff.”
They’re billing Local Kitchen & Bar as a “gastropub,” a trendy word that describes a restaurant that focuses on craft beers and what Stimpson calls “really good home-style food.”
That would include bison hash, a lamb shank, a skirt steak, a hamburger with whipped cheese and bacon and a variety of pizzas, including a ham-and-egg pie made with grilled broccolini, shaved prosciutto, Tallegio cheese and baked eggs.
They will also have a “board of agriculture”—literally a board displayed in the restaurant and on their website and Facebook page, listing prices they are paying that day for whatever produce the restaurant is in need of. Local farmers and backyard gardeners will be encouraged to bring their produce into the restaurant.
Stimpson has been working in kitchens since he was a teenager in Lame Deer. For eight years, starting at age 16, he was at the Custer Battlefield Trading Post Café, working under a group of “amazing older women,” most memorably Tela Rondeaux, a tiny Ute woman who imparted all sorts of culinary knowledge to Stimpson.
“She was the greatest woman I ever worked with,” he said. “But she could never remember anyone’s name. So for eight years I answered to, ‘Hey, boy.’”
He was still working in Lodge Grass when he first tried to open a restaurant, and he went so far as to buy a stock of equipment, only to have the deal fall apart at the last minute, as did a second attempt. Through the next 20 years he nurtured the dream of having his own place.
“Once you decide to open a restaurant, you never get it kicked out of your head,” he said.
In lieu of opening his own restaurant in Lodge Grass, Stimpson moved to Billings for some “big city” experience. He managed to get on at Walkers just after it moved to North 27th Street and First Avenue North, from its original location near the county courthouse. He worked as a sous chef under three different executive chefs during his years at Walkers.
He left there to gain baking experience at Grains of Montana, where he worked under the guidance of John Raney.
“I loved working for John Raney,” he said. “He literally taught me absolutely everything.”
From there he went to Café Italia on Montana Avenue. He worked for head chef Steve Marsh, who had worked under Stimpson at Walkers, and after Marsh moved on he ran the Café Italia kitchen for four years.
Stimpson became good friends with Jeremy Engebretson, the head chef and owner of Lilac, a restaurant just down Montana Avenue from Café Italia. Stimpson’s kitchen had some equipment Lilac didn’t have, so Engebretson would occasionally go down to Café Italia to do some prep work.
The friendship propelled Stimpson’s next move, to Lilac, where he was sous chef for nearly three years. He left there last year when he began working with the Heenans and Johnson on opening the Local Kitchen & Bar.
They considered building a restaurant from the ground up, but to justify the investment of that much money, the establishment would had to have been much bigger than what Stimpson wanted. Just about a year ago, Heenan found the vacant shop on Country Manor Boulevard.
Local Kitchen & Bar will have seating for 35 inside—about the same size as Harper & Madison, in the Pioneer Park neighborhood—and another 35 on an outdoor patio.
One of Stimpson’s first hires was Brad Banks, who had been a server at Lilac when Stimpson worked there. Stimpson said it’s not that hard to find chefs who are really into what they do, which isn’t always the case with servers.
“That’s one of the things I’ve always admired about Brad,” he said. “He’s passionate about serving. So was Brian (Johnson).”
Banks, who will be the floor manager at the Local Kitchen & Bar, said he misses being around so many people—colleagues and customers—at Lilac, and he looks forward to replicating the experience at the Local.
When things are going well, he said, a restaurant should feel like a good house party. And even the “uniforms” at the Local Kitchen & Bar—T-shirts with the restaurant’s logo and a good pair of jeans—will foster that sense of informal fun, he said.
Heenan said they want the restaurant to be a place where patrons don’t feel they have to dress up, or to leave their children at home.
In addition to what Stimpson calls “approachable food,” the Local Kitchen & Bar will serve draft beers made in Libby, Hamilton, Missoula and Billings. Mike Uhrich, the owner of Carter’s Brewing in downtown Billings, has already created a Belgian ale exclusively for the Local. He named it Class Action in honor of Heenan’s legal practice.
The restaurant will be open from 4 to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and for brunch from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. On one Sunday evening a month, cooking classes will be offered at the restaurant, and on one other Sunday evening each month, there will be wine dinners with four or five courses, each paired with a wine.
In keeping with the community focus, all employees will be paid for 10 hours of volunteer work a year at a local nonprofit of their choosing. Also, all proceeds from one day each month will go to a local charity or charitable cause.
Heenan said they will choose causes by looking for fundraisers for local residents on crowd-funding sources like gofundme.com.
“I don’t know how you get more hyperlocal than finding needy people in our community,” Heenan said.
The biggest change for Stimpson will be the West End location.
“My roots are downtown,” he said. “This is a very new experience for me.” But he also thinks people on the West End should be able to enjoy some of what people downtown have been experiencing for years.
“We’re not going into this to get rich off food,” he said. “We’re trying to get into it to be the next thing on this end of town.”