Ted's Montana Grill
Part of the allure of the West is our celebration and desire for hearty, delicious food. Looking at our heritage and history, food is what brings people together for nourishment, both in body and in soul. It’s easy to imagine a group of exhausted cowboys sitting around a campfire after a day of working from sun up to sun down, preparing something satisfying and delicious over the open flame. It’s the kind of food that has you undoing the top button of your pants and sighing in complete gratification. That’s the kind of food and experience Ted’s Montana Grill brings to its guests, without the scent of campfire lingering on your clothes.
Ted’s is tucked into the gorgeous Baxter Hotel in Downtown Bozeman and walking through the wood and marble entryway is all part of the experience. The lighting is set low, and you’re greeted by a friendly face, which adds to the welcoming ambiance at Ted’s before you even think about what you’re going to order. Of course, the pride of the menu is their bison burger. Succulent, moist, and delicious, any way you order your bison you are in for a full-belly meal that will have you thinking about the days of the Old West. However, their vision extends beyond reminiscing about the past. Ted’s Montana Grill has a focus on sustainability and giving back to the community. Their “Eat Great, Do Good” motto extends far beyond the delicious food you’ll experience. They look for ways to support the community, including their No Kid Hungry program where they advocate for kids all across the country to be able to enjoy a nutritious, fulfilling meal. I sat down to talk with Chris Van Bockel, proprietor of Bozeman’s Ted Montana Grill, to talk about food, advocacy, and western hospitality.
CM: What made you want to be in the restaurant business?
CVB: Well, I got into the business at a very young age, at 16 I think. I started out as a cook at a Golden Corral. I worked all kinds of positions in all sorts of places, lots of mom and pop restaurants and cafes through college. I was actually a psychology major, believe it or not. After college, I worked in sales and was doing some work for a nonprofit. But then the recession hit, for me it was in 2008, and that job was no longer an option. So, we relocated to Colorado for another sales job. Unfortunately, it was a time when nothing was really stable, so I again found myself looking for something I enjoyed doing. Actually, I had a friend who was part of Ted’s Montana Grill and he said, “Hey. Why don’t you come work for us here?” So, I have my friend to thank for helping me get my foot in the door. I started as a dishwasher and worked my way up to manager. It took me about a year and a half to get to manager and from there I became the proprietor. I’ve worked every position you can possibly work at Ted’s.
CM: So you know what’s expected of everyone, right?
CVB: And no one can tell me I’m wrong either. Ha!
CM: So, what do you enjoy the most about being a part of the Bozeman community?
CVB: For me personally, it’s about the outdoors. I am an avid, avid fly fisherman. In fact, when we first moved here, I had to go fishing before we unpacked the moving van. It was like, we’re here. I’m doing this. I have to do this. I love anything to do with the outdoors. But, I also love the atmosphere of Bozeman. It’s calm and friendly. People still say hi to each other on the street. We actually know our neighbors and their names. And of course you get all seasons here: summer, winter, winter, and winter!
CM: Boy is that ever true! Tell me what you love specifically about running a restaurant in Bozeman?
CVB: That comes back to the people, too. It’s all about the people. Bozemanites are really just good customers. Their very Montana-oriented, so they enjoy what we have to offer. And, they are understanding. It’s our goal to make everyone happy who walks through our doors. We do well with that, but of course, there will be, every once in a while, a time when that doesn’t always happen. You know, in bigger cities, people come in with expectations of what their food should be like, and if you don’t meet that expectation, they see it as a negative experience, even if it was the expectation that was too unrealistic to ever meet. But, here in Bozeman, people come in with a more understanding attitude. They generally enjoy the experience and are quick to say so.
CM: So, tell me more about the Eat Great, Do Good motto of Ted’s. What’s that all about?
CVB: Well the “Eat Great” part is obviously about the food. The food here is authentic American fare. Of course, our center piece is the American bison. It’s one of the few animals that we can say comes from America, actually comes from right here in Montana. So we strive to serve quality meat and produce to everyone here. We buy local whenever we can, but of course sometimes our demand is too high. We make everything from scratch though. We want to create a final product that really highlights that western authenticity. Now, the “Do Good” part of that motto focuses on charitable giving. Ted’s partners with a campaign called No Kid Hungry, an organization with the mission to wipe out child hunger in our country. We actually just wrapped up our campaign at the beginning of October and we ended up being number one in donations. Being involved in programs like that and giving back to the community is also about getting to know people in this community. We could easily just be an establishment out to make as much money as possible. That’s not what we’re trying to be though. We give to schools, both the high school here and with some partnerships with Montana State, and we always try to stay involved in the Chamber of Commerce in Bozeman, too.
CM: So as part of the food community of Bozeman, what makes Ted’s unique?
CVB: For starters, it’s quality of service. I’d have to say that we have the best service in town consistently. We’re always looking for opportunities to improve and ways to give our staff what they need to be successful. But also, it’s the ambiance of Ted’s. Anyone and everyone can feel comfortable here. It feels like home. We speak to everyone who comes through the door. People can drive to Yellowstone and back and eat meals from what they’ve seen on that trip. That means something to people. They know they can come as they are and enjoy a good meal here.
CM: And what would you say you want people to experience here?
CVB: It’s something that other places don’t have. It’s that Old West feeling. They can be relaxed, and they can be comfortable. We don’t have a particular style of dress here. If people come in pants, shoes, and a shirt, we’ll serve them. We have a good bunch of regulars, too, and we know their names. We greet them by their first name and always ask, “Will it be the usual today or are you looking for something else?” You can’t find that in other places. It’s very much like the Old West Saloon feeling. It’s authentic. We talk to them as friends and people in the community. It’s all part of our atmosphere here.
CM: My final question. Do you have any specials or upcoming events you want people to know about?
CVB: Well, the main thing people should know for November is that we are open on Thanksgiving. We’ll be doing a limited menu, but we’ll also have our Thanksgiving feast, which includes our open-faced turkey that is so good. We’re open 11-9 and we are taking reservations. Even if you don’t have a reservation though, still come by. We’ll find you a table and get you something good to eat. Bring the whole family on Thanksgiving if you want. Another thing people might not know is that we cater. We do weddings, birthdays, celebrations, bat mitzvahs, you name it and we’ll bring our good food and western authenticity to you.
In the many times that I’ve frequented Ted’s, I’ve always gotten that sense of western charm from the place and the people who work there. Friends have been inside, seen me walking down the street, and run out to hug me and say hello. I’ve been asked to step inside on cold early winter days, much like today, and enjoy a drink or some delicious salt and pepper onion rings with an already rambunctious party. While waiting to chat with Chris, I watched him effortlessly get a party of seven a great table and return a credit card to someone who had left it behind from an earlier lunch. They were met with a jovial smile and clearly appreciated the pleasantness of the interaction. That’s the kind of warmth that Ted’s inspires in people. It is a place where friends gather for food and revelry. Combine that with their true desire to be a part of the Bozeman community, to help others, and you do get a longing for a simpler time, for a time when people cared for each other and cooked food as a way of giving back to each other. That time, that feeling, can still be found at Ted’s Montana Grill.