So many rumors have been flying about the future of Harper & Madison, a popular café and bakery on the edge of downtown Billings, that owner Joanie Swords thought it was time to spill the beans.
But about those rumors: “The biggest one is that we’re closing,” she said. “I also heard I sold it. But no one knows who I sold it to, and I haven’t seen a check.”
For a change, the truth is much better than the rumors. Swords plans to close for several months starting Christmas Day, do a complete renovation, especially to the overworked kitchen, then unveil a reinvented business, keeping the best of the old but adding much that is new.
The biggest change is that she is partnering with Jeremy Engebretson, the owner-chef at Lilac restaurant on Montana Avenue, who will work with Swords’ staff to bring Lilac’s ethos of local food and made-from-scratch meals to Harper & Madison.
She’ll still serve breakfast and lunch but will be doing special dinners much more often, and bringing in live music on a more regular basis. Eventually, Harper & Madison could be offering dinner five nights a week.
At the same time, Swords will help bring to Lilac her indefinable knack for creating community, for making people feel welcome and satisfied.
“We’re both motivated by the same thing, and that’s not money,” Engebretson said. He is happy with what he’s done at Lilac since it opened four years ago, he said, but he can’t try any harder or cook any better. He needs what he called Swords’ “magic.”
“She just knows things,” he said. “She makes people happy, and she makes the staff happy.”
Swords said they are going to think of Lilac and Harper & Madison as “sister restaurants,” and Engebretson said “there’s going to be a lot of nice crossover in food, customers, staff and events.”
The two started collaborating three years ago on farm-to-table dinners. Twice a year, they would close 10th Avenue North in front of Harper and Madison, line the street with chairs and tables and serve 100 people a three-course meal paired with wines. The dinners had live music and benefited the Housing Authority of Billings’ Community Gardens.
Swords and Engebretson also worked together for special events at both restaurants. On one memorable evening, when Swords and Marian Booth Green sang jazz standards at Harper & Madison, Engebretson came out of the kitchen to accompany Swords on guitar for one number.
Their shared love of music is one reason that having live music has been part of the plan from the start.
“I might be most excited about that part,” Swords said. “It seems to me that the talent pool in music has really grown in the past few years.”
When the two restaurateurs started thinking about collaborating, they looked all over downtown for a spot to house their new venture.
“A couple months ago, I said, wait, I have a building, a really cool building,” Swords said. That would be the stucco building at 3115 10th Ave. N., a block north of McKinley Elementary School. It was built in 1925 and was home to a succession of grocery stores until Swords opened Harper & Madison in March 2011.
She had another realization in regard to their original plans to make Harper & Madison into an event space exclusively, open only for special events, mostly at night. She realized how much she enjoyed presiding over her popular breakfasts and lunches.
“I love that place too much,” she said. “I love the way it brings people together and I didn’t want to give that up.”
To accommodate the new emphasis on evening events, Harper & Madison will be open Tuesday through Saturday from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., instead of Monday-Saturday from 7 to 4. Engebretson will be helping her staff overhaul the menu, which will also be changed more frequently. Swords is in the process of obtaining a beer and wine license.
Harper & Madison will be open on Christmas Eve, then will close for several months for the renovation. Most of the work will be in the kitchen, where the Harper & Madison crew has been doing all the cooking on a series of small propane stoves. They will be getting a proper stove and hood.
For the dining area, Swords is working with designer James Kordonowy on a look that will feature some moveable pieces, including some sort of stage and a partition that could wall off the kitchen during musical performances and come down during chefs’ dinners and the like.
Swords plans to continue catering and making custom desserts during the remodel, so many of her 13 employees will stay on. When she announced the changes to her workers, she said, “they were very understanding. I was the one who cried.”
At Lilac, Engebretson won’t be changing his hours, mostly because his kitchen staff already works from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. just to prepare the nightly dinner. Lilac, at 2515 Montana Ave., is open Tuesday-Saturday from 5 p.m. to close, with seating generally continuing until about 9:30. It is also open for brunch on Sunday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., having recently changed from 10 to 2.
Engebretson is an experienced chef, but Lilac is his first restaurant. Swords has been involved in the food business in Billings for decades. Her ventures have included the Poet Street Market and Dancing Oven Bakery, which made custom desserts and wedding cakes.
She once took a break to paint houses for several years with Mark McGiboney, who is now a chef at Harper & Madison and a drummer in the trio that backed up Swords and Green when they sang jazz. In Swords’ life, all her interests seem to get mingled up like that.
“The whole driving force is to have fun,” she said. “Have fun every day.”