MINT | CAFE | BAR
Angie Ripple | Thursday Feb. 1st, 2024
When given the opportunity to sit down with owners Albert McDonald, Joe Barnett, and Jesse Fetzer, it is evident that The Mint is more than just a restaurant; it’s a cornerstone of the Belgrade community. Read on to explore the roots of this beloved restaurant and the passionate team behind its current success.
Angie Ripple: How was The Mint conceptualized?
Albert McDonald: It was conceptualized, basically, out of opportunity. I had a liquor license at Rio Sabinas in Belgrade and I had previously done contract work for Jay Bentley and Mary Bentley at Open Range, and had struck up a good, strong friendship with them. Jay Bentley still owned The Mint space; a tenant who had taken over The Mint name was going out of business, so we had the opportunity to take over that historic space in the heart of downtown Belgrade, and we’ve made it work.
We took it over in 2015 and opened it in 2016. Basically, we rescued it. We had to get ourselves ready. Anytime a business fails, you need to do something to reset it in the community’s mind. So part of that was resetting the concept. We did some interior remodeling to return it to the look and feel that Jay Bentley had when he ran it.
A lot of what went into it being successful was the work that Joe (Barnett), our head chef and partner Jesse (Fetzer), our former partner Noah Corwin, and Makayla Tams put into the hospitality of the front of the house, really returning the restaurant to caring about and being connected to our community. And the hard work that Jesse put in returning the food to the standards that had led to the successful nature of The Mint in its previous endeavors.
AR: What would you like people to experience when they walk through your doors?
Joe Barnett: Warmth, comfort, hospitality, community.
AR: What menu items do regulars keep coming back for?
AM: You know, I think that one of the real successes of The Mint is that we’re a Central Valley restaurant. We’re an agricultural community in the Central Valley, and I think our menu reflects that. Montana is a beautiful place for cows, root crops and wheat, and we serve all of those things really well. We do a phenomenal job with our steaks, and I do believe that our meat program is the strongest part of us. That’s the core of our restaurant. Our steaks.
AR: Do each of you have a favorite menu item?
AM: Mine’s the prime rib.
Jesse Fetzer: We have this braised beef shoulder that’s just straight up meat and potatoes, done well. It’s good, and probably my favorite on the menu.
AM: And it’s such a real signature to what you brought into the concept, Jesse. Because, not only did you do steaks well, but by using more of the animal and taking cuts like the shoulder clod, which that dish is based on, you created an extremely flavorful, meat-based dish that is really filling, really hearty, that comes in at an appropriate price point for a blue collar family looking to have a great dinner, which most of us are in this community.
JB: I’ve certainly had several [favorite dishes] over the years. I was in two nights ago and had the beef stroganoff. Just back to classic Montana meat-based comfort food. Jesse’s recipe, shout out. Really well-balanced, filling. And, again, it has that homecooked meal kind of sentiment to it.
AR: What would you say makes The Mint unique in the greater Bozeman food scene?
AM: It’s sense of place.
When you look at the development of the Bozeman and greater Gallatin Valley food scene, it’s been tremendous over the last 25 years. The diversity of cuisine, the overall quality of operations… it’s been really fun to watch, and be a part of. But, for us and what we do and why that project was attractive to all of us was that we were watching so many businesses out in Belgrade go under. When we bought The Mint, there were no other night restaurants within the downtown core of Belgrade. That was our opportunity to take something that had been a food service operation since two years before the town of Belgrade was even established, and return it to its place in the community—drawing people together, getting people to think about something other than what was wrong in their day, or helping them move past whatever occurred in their day, and celebrating those moments with their family. It may sound corny, but it’s true. We’re just looking to have people walk out the door in a better place than when they walked in. And that is the heart of the restaurant business, the heart of the hospitality business — just making people feel better. And this restaurant is important in the Gallatin Valley because it is part of Belgrade. It is emblematic of, like I said, of the agricultural tradition and heritage of the Gallatin Valley.
There are a lot of restaurants in this area, but I feel like we’ve been successful because we’re part of our community. It doesn’t make us unique, but I believe it is one of the things that stands out about The Mint in Belgrade. When you drive down that street and you see that neon, it’s a core part of Belgrade, Montana.
JB: The only thing I’d expand on there is in the same vein of our connection with the community. It is our support of some of our neighbors. Over the past two years, we’ve been very supportive of the new library that’s being built on Main Street. We’re very proud of our relationship with the local Nicholas Bloom VFW Post, the Pro Start, the library, and our local parish. For the last eight years we’ve done a Belgrade Parish Christmas dinner… those are my favorite parts of The Mint, and my favorite events that we do at The Mint.
JF: I echo that, and, to expand upon that sense of place and the neighborhood joint, it’s seeing people walk in from the neighborhood, walk up, get a meal.
With the kids working here, their parents came in when [the kids] were in junior high, elementary school, and they get a job at The Mint. Seeing that, being a community-focused restaurant… that’s really, I think, some of the highest praise. Not only are we feeding this community and extending hospitality to this community and having that warm place that’s friendly to come into, but going a little bit deeper [we’ve] given somebody their first job, taught soon-to-be college kids how to feed themselves, taught them to cook, and cook well, to budget for food, and to engage with the community; that is something I’m really proud of.
AM: One of our highest compliments is when we get multiple siblings from the same family working in our restaurants. And that happens regularly at The Mint.
AR: What do you personally enjoy most about being part of the Belgrade community?
AM: I love being part of Belgrade, because it’s not Bozeman. And, I love Bozeman. I’ve worked in restaurants around Montana, and I’ve lived in communities around Montana, and as special and wonderful as Bozeman is, its affluence is not reflective of Montana as a whole. Belgrade is more reflective of the greater Montana community. So, we’re really proud to be part of the greater Montana community and not just the micro-climate that is Bozeman.
JB: For me, it would be the history; the space has been there since 1904 as a gathering place of some sort. The history is alive in the space. We’ve got dozens of photographs of The Mint as a diner, some of [it as] the bank. You know, the moniker of ‘Mint’ was somewhere people could cash their paychecks, oftentimes passing through from railroad jobs.1904 was before Belgrade was even established as a community. I love those old photos. I love showing people around the restaurant, and showing them the photos. Like, this is literally right here. This is where those stools were. This is where those people were. And that connects me to Montana history. So, the space and the history of everything really resonates with me.
JF: On a personal note, what hits the hardest for me is that I’m just a working person. I’ve been a line cook and chef my entire [working] life. It’s how I pay my bills and my mortgage, and fund my family, and the whole thing. I really like when I’m working at The Mint and I can take a moment to go look at the dining room and see people coming in for a beer and a burger after work. Clearly, they’re working people as well, you know, just like me. With the work boots on, or the nurse scrubs, or the mechanic’s suit, they come in wearing work clothes, and I really feel like I’m cooking for my people. That’s absolutely my favorite part about the restaurant and the work that I put into it.
AR: Why is it called The Mint?
JB: My understanding of it, which is not comprehensive, is that at the turn of the century, these small towns arose primarily because of the railroad connections. Typically, there were lots of Stockman Bars, rancher / cowboy bars.
AM: Cowboys would come into town to sell their cows and they needed somewhere to go. And the cowboys were the cowboys, the railroad guys were the railroad people, and they didn’t mix well.
JB: Our Mint Bar had shower stalls, cigars, sandwiches, and again, a mint, a bank, a safe, where you could cash your paycheck. And that’s what set the Mint Bars apart from the other bars. When you see them in Wilsall and White Sulfur Springs and Livingston, and numerous ones in Wyoming, there is no specific corporation or connection between them. The designation was that it was a place where you could get your wares, oftentimes get a shave and a shower, and turn your paycheck into cash. Hence, The Mint.
AM: They basically lived on the railroad, right? So they needed to change their clothes, they needed to shower. They wanted to cash the paychecks, meet people—young ladies of the community, if possible.
It’s interesting. I’m sure there was a Stockman in Bozeman, but I haven’t been able to figure out where.
AR: That’s super interesting, I’m glad I asked that. Is there anything coming up that readers should know about?
AM: I would just say, what we’re working on is maintaining the arc of what The Mint is. That’s not just resting on our laurels, that’s taking what we do, looking at and improving it, and not going backwards with any aspect of what we are in our community and in our restaurant. Just looking for another great year!
The sense of place and connection with the community are at the heart of The Mint’s identity, making it a true reflection of Montana’s rich heritage. As The Mint continues to evolve while maintaining its essence, we look forward to another year of culinary excellence and community engagement.