When she decided to open a new restaurant, Jilan Hall-Johnson said, her goal was to offer something “completely different from anything you’ve ever had in Billings.”
A glance at the menu of The Sassy Biscuit Company, which is in the midst of a soft opening this week at 115 N. 29th St. in downtown Billings, would seem to suggest that she has accomplished her mission.
How about the Cluck, a fried chicken breast atop pressed shortcakes, with apple cider gravy? Or the Sojourner, a tower of biscuit french toast with strawberries and chantilly cream? Or the Kitchen Sink, home fries, sage sausage, peppers, onions and mushrooms, topped with bacon gravy and a fried egg on dropped biscuits?
She also has three kinds of porridge, made with steel-cut oatmeal or granola, a beef and tomato chili served on a sweet corn biscuit, and four kinds of “sammies,” including the Fin, stewed huckleberries and cashew cream served between biscuit slices. The signature dish is the Sassy, a cinnamon vanilla shortcake served with buttermilk sweet gravy.
Hall-Johnson also bought a “cabaret” beer-and-wine license from the state of Montana, which means you can wash down all those dishes with local beers, a variety of wines and five different mimosas.
The restaurant, which bills itself as a “bruncherie,” had a soft opening on Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., with no advertising, and then was open from 10 to 2 on Sunday and 11 to 2 on Monday.
The soft-opening hours will continue for as long as it takes, she said, because “we will not open for real until everything is as good as it can get.”
She wants to use the time to get a feel for what hours people want, and what days of the week The Sassy Biscuit should be open. She’d love to have it open seven days a week, she said, but people with experience in the business have warned her about burn-out. For now, you can call (406) 200-7530 to check on hours, or wait for an announcement on the restaurant’s Facebook page.
The Sassy Biscuit is one door south of Brockel’s Chocolates, in a space that has been home to more than a few restaurants in the past couple of decades. But Hall-Johnson and her husband, DeMarco Johnson, completely gutted and remodeled the large space, with the look designed by Ann Jackson of Jackson & Co. Design.
The demolition was a lot more difficult than anyone expected, Hall-Johnson said, which mostly explains why they didn’t open in February, as originally planned. But at least they had help, from friends and fellow Marine Corps colleagues of Hall-Johnson’s husband.
It was the Marine Corps that assigned DeMarco Johnson to Billings a couple of years ago. Hall-Johnson said they were living in San Diego and were told they were being sent to Japan, when the assignment unexpectedly changed.
Hall-Johnson, 32, a native of Syracuse, N.Y., had no idea what they were in for.
“I said, ‘Billings, Montana? Where’s that?'”
She and her husband and three children have since settled in here and hope to stay a while, though the future is uncertain, given DeMarco’s active-duty status with the Marines. But Hall-Johnson said they’ve been rolling with the punches for years and will deal with whatever the future brings.
“Hopefully, we weren’t given this opportunity for no reason,” she said.
Hall-Johnson met her husband in Pittsburgh, where she was attending the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute, from which she later graduated. It was while they were living in San Diego that she decided it was time to start her own restaurant. DeMarco was away from home for long stretches with the Marines, and she was making a lot of meals for her kids, who like breakfast as much as she does.
She started experimenting with making biscuits in a waffle iron, then branched out into griddlecakes and spooned cakes, also known as dropped biscuits because the biscuit dough is dropped from a spoon onto a pan for baking.
She started reading up on restaurants that specialized in biscuits, “and whenever we traveled I’d always get biscuits and gravy, even if it was just at the airport.”
When she found out they were being sent to Billings, she checked out the menus here and discovered that most places offered biscuits and gravy. She figured maybe people would appreciate the opportunity to try something familiar but made in a whole new way.
“Eating should be an experience, I think,” she said.
Even before she moved here she was in touch with Emilio Campos, of T&E Realty, who had some spaces to look at when she arrived. She thought she’d found a spot on Montana Avenue for a while, but ended up on North 29th Street. She credits Rebel River Creative, which helped with branding and marketing, for transforming her dreams and notions into everything she could have hoped for.
Hall-Johnson obtained a $40,000 loan from the Downtown Revolving Loan Fund, and relied on conventional financing for the rest of what she she needed. She has 18 full- and part-time employees.
Hall-Johson said her husband “has been a knight in shining armor,” taking three weeks’ vacation to watch the children, cook some meals and do whatever needs to be done while Hall-Johnson devotes herself to launching the restaurant.
Some people have mistakenly called her offerings Southern food, Hall-Johnson said. She prefers to think of them as “Southern-inspired” comfort food. And though some customers have made suggestions about expanding into other areas, Hall-Johnson said her experience has been that successful restaurants focus on a few things and keep it simple.
“We’re not IHOP and we’re not Denny’s,” she said. “We’re biscuits, and that’s what we’re going to be bringing, all day long.”