Following the lead of this month’s Business to Business progress theme, I will focus on three area businesses that exemplify impressive and innovative growth techniques. Plonk, the 320 Guest Ranch, and High Country Rental shared their individual approaches to staying successful. These entrepreneurs and countless other businesses are rolling up their sleeves every day to remain viable and growth oriented. Many companies in our area are expanding or differentiating themselves in order to keep up with the changing consumer and market demands.
Located in the heart of downtown Bozeman, Plonk was established in 2002 in a historical building that was renovated over the course of a year, yet preserving most of the original décor. Though opened as a wine bar, a liquor license was acquired in 2004 and creative culinary menus were introduced. In the early part of this year, the business was purchased by the operating partners Michael Ochsner, Brett Evje, and Chris Lohss. Plonk has developed a division of the company focused on bar catering. The business has been selected to carry the catering contract for Montana State University as well as other private and non-profit events around town. The owners have turned their focus back to the roots of Plonk and the development of a food and wine program that is both consistent and progressive.
Recently, three Plonk employees took and passed the Sommelier Certification program and continue to bring new and exclusive wines to Bozeman consumers. Winemaker’s dinners held monthly in the private wine cellar of Plonk have been another promising venture. There are currently thirty-six full and part-time employees at Plonk, and the partners feel that the quality of these people is what retains customers. Servers are consistently urged to teach the customers something new with each visit and to inspire them to try something that they haven’t in the past. These employees participate in weekly classes on wine and service. Chef Weihler and his crew are challenged with food pairings and menus for the private guests in the wine cellar. The nightly dinner specials provide an additional outlet for creativity. In responding to the economy and the decrease in disposable income, Plonk has made adjustments in order to offer high quality food at a more reasonable price for those who are looking for a way to reward themselves on a smaller budget. A main goal is to constantly strive to create an experience for the customer that will keep them thinking about Plonk until they can visit again. Building relationships with local customers is the key to sustainability in a seasonal market such as Bozeman’s.
Celebrating its 111th year, the 320 Guest Ranch provides customers a historical glimpse into the early days of the West while enjoying a customized ranch experience nowadays. Combining two homesteaded 160-acre parcels, the Wilson family originally named their Gallatin river residence the "Buffalo Horn Resort." The property changed hands in 1936 when it was purchased by Dr. Caroline McGill as a retreat for patients and friends. Dr. McGill, Montana’s first woman doctor and pathologist, is recognized as the creator of the museum at Montana State University which would become the Museum of the Rockies. From a capacity of 20 guests in the early days to its current occupancy of over 200, the 320 has evolved from a private homestead to a personalized vacation experience that people travel cross country to enjoy. The original Wilson homestead cabin is now a part of the steakhouse where customers can enjoy deliciously prepared home-made meals and exchange stories about their day on the trail.
As guest ranches are becoming a dying breed across the west, the 320 Ranch remains alive and adaptive. Current owner, Dave Brask, employs 20 individuals in the winter and 50 during the summer to create and maintain the ideal guest experience. John Richardson, general manager of 320 Guest Ranch, attributes the guest ranch’s success in an evolving economy to personal attention to service and providing value to customers. “From reservation to checkout, we focus on creating value for our customer. Other businesses focus on the numbers and forget to pay attention to the customers in front of them,” said Richardson. He noticed early on that the ranch’s pricing structure was in need of adjustment. “We reduced the length of stay required and offered group discounts.”
Ask a Big Sky local for a dinner recommendation on a summer Monday night and they will direct you down the road to the 320 Ranch. “Featuring live music, locally brewed beer and made from scratch barbeque, this $10 deal drew an average crowd of 275 guests per night,” said Richardson. He credits much of the 320’s recent success to a grass-roots marketing effort. “We focused on locals, but also expanded our geographical influence by going business to business in Jackson, Billings, Helena, Missoula, Great Falls and Cody.” Richardson found this personal campaign much more effective then mass mail or email.
High Country Rental is located just south of Livingston along Highway 89 South. Aaron Funk is a co-owner of the business along with his father Clyde, which has been providing quality rental equipment to Park County since 1990. Aaron states that the company is considered a general rental company which provides lawn, garden and construction equipment, as well as being a U-Haul dealer. In the past few years, while Livingston was experiencing some promising growth in the new housing industry, the company dealt more with contractors who needed access to larger equipment to construct homes from the ground up. There has been a shift in Livingston with the slow down of new construction and an increase of remodeling projects, both large and small scale. This has led to a different type of rental market with homeowners and handyman businesses performing the bulk of the work. The company has mirrored this change in the types of equipment that they purchase and carry in the store. Aaron also noted an increase in the small engine repair portion of the business since people are now more willing to fix a piece of equipment versus upgrade to a new and improved model. As a smaller company (they employ 4-7 employees, which includes the owners), one key to their success has been the ability to work directly with their clients and to make certain that their employees are well-trained and reflect the same straight talk attitude that the owners do. The company seems well positioned to be able to judge the local market and remain flexible enough to make further adjustments as needed to stay vibrant.
The list of businesses in our area of the state that work tirelessly to create their own personal success stories goes on and on. The entrepreneurial pioneering spirit of Montana is alive and well.