It’s hard to imagine now, but back when Todd Miller opened his coffee shop in downtown Billings, nobody in town was roasting coffee and probably half the small number of people who had heard of espresso called it expresso.
“Coffee was whatever they slopped in your cup at the local cafe, and everybody bought their coffee for home consumption in two-pound red cans,” Miller said.
That all began to change in 1990, the year Miller opened Todd’s Plantation Gourmet Coffee Roasters at 115 N. 29th St., ushering in a new age of coffee in Billings.
The idea of a stand-alone coffee shop was almost unheard of then. Bob Zuklic, who would become a regular at Todd’s, remembered thinking, “How in the hell can anyone make a living selling coffee in downtown Billings, Montana?”
A little more than a year after Todd’s Plantation opened, I wrote a review of the fledging coffee shop for the Billings Gazette, in which I said one of the few flaws with the place was that it didn’t allow smoking. I wasn’t joking, which is another indication of how different the world was back then.
For the record, owner Todd Miller said he wasn’t opposed to smoking per se.
“I didn’t have a particular stance, personally, on smoking inside or outside,” he said, “but I found out when I started roasting that coffee is highly absorbent of other odors.”
Miller would prove the doubters wrong, but when a second downtown coffee shop, Café Jones, opened about a year after Todd’s Plantation, there were many who predicted one of them would surely have to close. How could there possibly be enough people willing to pay premium prices for good coffee at two locations?
The answer was that Miller and his growing number of competitors continued educating palates and expanding the market for good coffee, and the number of coffee shops, kiosks and espresso machines increased steadily over the years.
Miller grew up in Great Falls, went to college in Havre and worked at several jobs around the state before moving back to Great Falls. His father, who used to have morning coffee with a group of friends, told him about a new business in town, Morning Light Coffee Roasters.
Miller didn’t know anything about coffee at the time, but he was intrigued. He went to the coffee shop and introduced himself to the owner, Mike Anderson, who was only too happy to tell Miller what he knew.
“Completely unusual for an entrepreneur—he spilled all his trade secrets,” Miller said. A friend of Anderson’s had opened a similar coffee shop in Helena, so Miller started thinking about pioneering a shop elsewhere in the state.
He and his then-wife, Suzie, made several reconnaissance trips to Billings in the spring of 1990 before finding a vacant storefront, formerly a jewelry store, at 115 N. 29th St., next door to Brockel’s Chocolates. At the age of 26, in August 1990, he opened the business. And while he was the first commercial coffee roaster in Billings, his espresso machine was not the only one in town.
By coincidence, just down the block at Bert & Ernie’s, a tavern and eatery in the space now occupied by Catherine Lane Interiors, co-owner Mark Kennedy had already had an espresso machine for a couple of years.
“I bought it without telling my partner because it cost 2,500 bucks,” Kennedy, now a financial adviser, said. Kennedy had acquired a taste for good coffee in Portland, his hometown, and his wife, Shauna, had studied in France for a year and was also familiar with “exotic” coffees.
Unfortunately, Kennedy said, “I was the best espresso customer we had,” and few of his customers were interested. “It was a great hot-water machine,” he said with a laugh. “You could steam stuff really well.”
Kennedy became a regular at Todd’s Plantation, and he said Miller would often stop by his place after work for a beer and a sandwich. Kennedy loved the smell of roasting coffee and he was amused by Miller.
“His eyes were always vibrating,” Kennedy said. “Probably because of all the coffee he drank.”
Todd’s Plantation wasn’t very big—about 1,200 square feet, which included an office, a small kitchen, bathrooms and the roasting area. Things were slow for the first few months, Miller said, but after that he did so well that he worried about getting too big too fast, a phenomenon that had shipwrecked other small businesses.
Miller said learning how to make caffe lattes and other specialty drinks wasn’t that difficult, but roasting took a bit longer to master. He admits he probably ruined “a batch or five when I started.”
He worked with a coffee broker in Southern California, who made it “surprisingly easy” to get good coffee beans from all over the world. He would sell Miller a single bag or a whole pallet of beans at one time, whatever Miller wanted to buy at the moment.
Miller charged 75 cents for a cup of coffee and one refill—“Some people thought that was outrageously high,” he said—and $1.50 for a latte. He made the decision not to make food on the premises, but he served cookies, cakes, pastries and other treats from Poet Street Market, now gone, and Caramel Cookie Waffles, still going strong.
He said probably a third of his customers had been introduced to real coffee elsewhere—in bigger cities or abroad—and the other two-thirds “had no idea but were adventurous.” He quickly developed a group of regulars.
“I remember first thing in the morning, the regulars would sit at the bar there. It was like a TV show,” he said. The front door squeaked, and every time someone entered the shop all the regulars would lean back from the bar to see who was coming in.
Zuklic used to gather across the street, where Stella’s Kitchen and Bakery used to be, and one time he saw his old friend, Bill Thompson, going into Todd’s Plantation.
Zuklic said he and his wife, Bobbi, “just started going and we made it a habit. We made quite a few other acquaintances in there and became regulars.” Zuklic, a banjo player and singer, was also one of the first people to perform at Todd’s Plantation, after which live music became an occasional offering. These days, Zuklic said, he and Bobbi are regulars at Rock Creek Coffee Roasters, at North Broadway and Second Avenue North.
Miller figures he made about half his sales on in-house coffee and treats; the other half was people buying roasted beans for home consumption. He even had a few diehard patrons with tiny stovetop roasters who would buy green coffee beans from him.
Miller sees some parallels between micro coffee roasters and micro beer brewers. Both had to educate people on why they should spend more to drink something handmade and truly tasty, and the market for their products has grown beyond all early expectations.
The big difference, Miller said, is how much beer people will drink, compared to coffee, and he sometimes wonders if he shouldn’t have gone into the beer business.
“It’s been kind of rewarding and at the same time a little disappointing,” he said. “People will spend their last nickel on a beer, but maybe not a cup of coffee. I wish I had ridden that wave.”
He and his family stuck it out for six years, then decided to sell Todd’s Plantation in 1996. It stayed in business under that name, with several different owners, until 2004, when it became Romancing the Bean. Most recently the space was home to Los Mayas Restaurant, which closed a couple of years ago. The space is still vacant.
Miller now lives in Laramie and works as the accounting manager for a moving company in Cheyenne. He has a daughter in Bozeman, so he passes through Billings every so often. He has fond memories of the downtown community, recalling how many other business owners went out of their way to welcome and support him, and he’s been pleased to see how well downtown Billings is doing these days.
He’s also amazed at how much the culture of good coffee has spread “and become so much a part of daily life.”
At the same time, he said, the growth of coffee shops like Starbucks has changed the market considerably, to the point where people are going into places where real coffee is available but walking out with high-calorie, high-sugar drinks that barely have any resemblance to coffee.
“We’ve backed away from specialty coffees to Frappuccino,” he said. “We’ve regressed in a way.”