Reality show boosts restaurant business in Plains
MISSOULA, Mont. - The cable TV series "Restaurant Impossible" recently featured two western Montana restaurants on its national reality show. We wanted to know how much help a TV makeover can give a Montana restaurant. The show and its producers wouldn't tell us how many restaurants stay open once the show has finished the makeover, but when you look at its western Montana success rate, it's 50 percent. Before the fall of 2013, Heather's Country Kitchen in Plains was only seeing around 70 customers a day. "We had some really slow days, where it was like, I don't even know why we have the doors open," owner Heather Worrall told NBC Montana. Enter "Restaurant Impossible." It started with a remodel of the quaint roadside stop. According to customer Mary Egbert, "It was ok. It had some Montana things to it, but this is clean and nice." Then the show took on the menu. Chef Robert Irvine added new items like elk and bison burger. "Oh, it's gotten better. The variety is better," explained customer Wayne Egbert. Doug Simpson said, "The service has been fantastic. They are cheerful and smiley and make sure I have everything I want. In here, it is nice." Worrall also focuses on fresh foods. "Believe it or not, frozen is more expensive than fresh. So we try to keep things as fresh as possible," she said. We tried one of Heather's most popular items -- chicken fried steak. The gravy was delicious. When asked for the recipe, Worrall said no way. She told us the reality show boosted sales at least 40 percent. "In the summer, we are having 100-150 people coming through here. Especially on the weekends, we get a lot. We're busy from the time we are open until the time we close. " Not everyone believes that a whirlwind makeover on television is enough to make a restaurant succeed. Flathead Valley Community College Executive Chef and food writer Howard Karp told NBC Montana, "It's hard for me to think anything can be turned over in 48 hours when it takes a long period of time to make a restaurant really work. Maybe in that time period it worked, but Robert leaves, and it could fall apart quite fast." "Restaurant Impossible" transformed the Rising Sun Bistro in Kalispell but the business has since closed. The owners didn't want to talk to us. Restaurant managers nearby say the bistro struggled with issues like wait time. Francois Zanni is the chef at North Bay Grille. He explained, "The ladies were very good at what they did. The food was excellent. They had a great following when they were in Whitefish, but getting people from Whitefish to come down here wasn't the easiest thing. When you do the quality of food and everything is fresh and cooked to order, when you go from a smaller place to a bigger place, if you don't have the right staff to do it, food is going to take longer and a lot of people just don't want to wait anymore. " Whatever type of food you serve, the chefs and managers we spoke to agree knowing Montana's unique clientele is key. "Canadians visit us, so we have a bit of an international flavor. So there is another way of opening up the concept of people who do visit you. We are a big area for tourism, so we get people from all over the country as well as the world visiting Glacier. So that helps add to who we can be in the valley here," Karp added. So far, that's paying off for Heather's Country Kitchen, where you can get an elk burger with a side of Worrall's super-secret gravy. Heather's Country Kitchen still struggles with the winter months, but Worrall hopes a firmer management style and keeping the menu new and fresh will keep business flowing enough to stay open for a long time.