September 26, 2012 - Carnivores of Oxford rejoice for a Montana's Rib and Chop House is coming to town to serve up the protein you crave.
"We tentatively hope to be open the first week of December," said owner Charlie Bish, who's a resident of Meadville, Pennsylvania. "Our general hope is to start training (staff) sometime after Thanksgiving and open up sometime in early December."
Montana's plans to lease the 5,800-square-foot vacant building that used to house a Chili's Grill & Bar from September 2007 to February 2009. The building is part of The Promenade at Waterstone retail development, located on the east side of M-24, between the Meijer property and E. Market St.
"It's a great opportunity with a nice existing building," Bish said. "It fits our concept very well with the way the kitchen and dining room are laid out. It's a nice building to adapt to what we do."
Montana's will employ between 40 and 50 full and part-time staff members.
"We think it will be a nice addition," said Thomas Guastello, president of the Birmingham-based Center Management. "We think they'll do a very good job and be a very good fit for our project."
The 11.47 acre Promenade development was purchased by Center Management earlier this year. The company has specialized in commercial real estate for more than 25 years. It owns and manages properties that include both national and regional tenants encompassing retail, restaurants, hotel and hospitality, and offices.
After visiting Oxford, Bish knew this was where he wanted to open his debut restaurant in Michigan. "It just felt right," he said. "It was a really cool place. The downtown seemed fantastic . . . We've had great experiences hanging out in town. We were there for Celebrate Oxford. My kids are just completely stoked about the town."
Founded in May 2001, Montana's has three locations in Montana, two in Pennsylvania and two in Wyoming.
Bish owns the two locations – Meadville and Hermitage – in Pennsylvania. The other five are owned by founders Burke and Melissa Moran, of Montana.
"People always ask me, 'Is it a chain?' There's seven chop houses right now, so it's tough not to say we're a multi-restaurant entity," said Bish, noting it's more of a "loose" association. "They'll come out here and help me train, and I stay in touch with (the Morans), but we have a lot of autonomy to do what we want to do locally with each restaurant."
But then again, why mess with a good thing? "It's a very successful restaurant, so we pretty much try to follow what we've been taught," Bish said. "So far, so good."
Bish noted this is Montana's first venture into Michigan. There was another restaurant in Michigan called Montana's, but it closed and has absolutely no association with this group.
"We are not affiliated with any other restaurants up here at all," he said.
Montana's serves both lunch and dinner, which Guastello believes "will bring more people there."
Unlike most chain restaurants that rely on reconstituted frozen foods to make up their menus, all of Montana's dishes are made fresh in their own kitchens.
"It's not cookie-cutter," Bish said. "The majority of our menu comes from recipes, so you've really got to work on that consistency and making sure that you execute it at each location.
"When you talk about separating us from large restaurants or chains, we're following a concept and we're following recipes that we've learned, but there's not a Rib and Chop House truck backing up every day to the loading dock, unloading prepackaged and pre-made food. It will all be prepared by Oxford hands."
"I think it's a fantastic menu," Bish added. "I fell in love with it in 2000 or 2001 when my wife and I were out skiing (in Montana). We ate dinner at the first Rib and Chop House in Livingston, Montana. I looked at my wife and said, 'One of these places would be awesome back home.'"
When asked if he believes Montana's will succeed where Chili's failed, Guastello replied that "Chili's had national problems rather than local."
Chili's headquarters "drew a line in the sand" and "said we're going to get rid of restaurants that aren't doing this (sales) number," he explained.
Oxford's Chili's location was still "relatively new" when that decision was made and its sales figures were "just below the number Chili's was looking for."
"Restaurants usually take two or three years to obtain full potential," Guastello noted.
He believes Montana's will do "very well."
"Their dinner business is solid," Guastello said. "And the (Oxford) area is a little more populated now."
Montana's big attraction will be that it provides a "higher-end" dining experience for a reasonable price.
"I think these folks know how to run a restaurant and they have a menu that people will like and find very affordable," Guastello said. "They're a big draw in terms of people really liking the atmosphere."
Originally, Center Management was looking to go in another direction with the old Chili's building.
"We had actually talked to a couple of the major drugstore chains about coming in, but we like the idea of having a restaurant there," he said.
Guastello has high hopes that Montana's presence in the Promenade is only just the beginning in terms of securing other tenants.
"I think Oxford has a very good story to tell," he said.
Right now, Center Management is talking to three or four other potential tenants.
"We have a very strong discount store that's interested. It's a national brand," Guastello said. "We have an office supply store that's interested. We have been talking to a couple of the larger shoe stores, too."
When asked if any of them could sign on the dotted line before 2012's over, Guastello replied, "With the way lease negotiations are, it can take four to six months.
"So, it would be tough to do before the end of the year. But I think by spring, we should be in real good shape . . . I think there's a lot of interest."
Guastello sees signs that things are improving in the business world.
"I think people are pretty optimistic," he said. "Some of the larger firms have had their best year ever."
Guastello noted that plans are still in the works to add a Tractor Supply Co. (TSC) store to the Promenade development.
A purchase agreement is in place for 3.42 acres of the development. It's on this site that TSC wants to build a 19,097-square-foot store complete with an additional 22,306 square feet of outdoor sales and display areas. The agreement is subject to TSC gaining approval from the township. A site plan was previously submitted, but no action has been taken since that time. The planning process was put on hold at the TSC developer's request.
"It's taking a lot longer than we had hoped," Guastello said. "I think we'll know within the next 30 to 60 days, and when we do, I'll get back with you on it."
CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.