COOK - “The tourists are the logs, but the locals are the kindling.”
Rachel Fultz captured the special mix that keeps Cook’s iconic Montana Café going, creating a warm, hospitable gathering place for both local residents and seasonal visitors from across the country.
As the Montana Café prepares to close on Nov. 18, Rachel and her mother, Montana owner Valerie Ohotto, talked about the feeling of community the café provides and what the restaurant has meant to their family.
The Montana typically closes for the winter months, but this fall the Ohotto family is finishing its two-decade run as operators of the popular downtown café due to Val’s recent health issues. The building and the business are for sale.
On a recent visit to the cafe, Val made the rounds, visiting with customers, getting hugs, and (as always) sharing a radiant smile.
“People come from all over,” Val said. “They stop in and tell us, ‘We heard about you all the way from (name a state).’ And people stand outside and have their pictures taken with the sign.”
“Somebody came in from Indiana on his way to Canada,” said Rachel. “He said he’d gone in to see his optometrist and told him he was going through Northern Minnesota. The optometrist told him, ‘Oh, you must stop at the Montana Café in Cook.’ And he said, ‘I already always do!’”
Local residents—the kindling in the Montana’s fire—come for breakfast and stop in for coffee. The common scene used to be the “old boys” table in the middle, where the “city fathers”—business owners and political pontificators—would meet for morning coffee and hash over the issues of the day.
In current years the middle tables more often host a large group of local women—friends, sometimes the quilting group—sometimes families with children, sometimes buddies on the way to the hunting shack.
A long history
Beginning as the Brintz Meat Market in 1913, the building in the middle of Cook’s downtown has served the community in many ways over its 100-plus- year lifespan. Owners in recent decades included local residents Doug Nakari, Kirsten Reichel, and Don Simonson.
Val updated the traditional frame storefront with bright red panels and window frames. She also added air conditioning, an expanded and updated kitchen, additional insulation, and new bathrooms. The business has employed as many as 12 or 13 staff at times. Currently there are five full-time employees. Val’s son Travis is also part of the crew.
Val also owns the lot next door, where she always wanted to create a deck or patio for outdoor dining in the summer—much needed, since on Saturday mornings the restaurant is often filled to overflowing. A two -bedroom apartment in the upstairs of the building is always rented.
A community gathering place
The Montana Café serves as what sociologists have recently come to call a “third place”—not the intense intimacy of home, not the formality of work. Rather, a third place—a coffee shop, a restaurant, a place where young mothers gather in the park with their children—provides a setting where family-like relationships can develop and endure. It is a place where others know you when you come in, a place where people look forward to seeing familiar faces and sharing daily happenings with one another. A place where if you don’t show up for a while, people wonder if you’re OK.
Cook’s Montana Café certainly serves the role of a third place.
Cook resident and City Council member Liz Storm shared her thoughts about the role of the Montana in the community.
“It’s a place to communicate,” Storm said. “It’s been a gathering place for decades. Starting in the morning when people come in for breakfast or for coffee. They meet each other and discuss what happened the night before, who died . . . .”
Storm remembered the owners who named the restaurant “The Montana” back in the 1970s. “They introduced new things on the menu: sprouts, sunflower seeds. It was a whole new taste for people.”
If the Montana were lost, Storm said, “There would be a big hole in the downtown. Look at the Farmers Market in the summer. People come to the Montana for breakfast and then enjoy the Market. It’s all part of somebody’s day.”
“It’s never felt like work,” Val said. “For me it’s a second home. I get a chance to see the summer people coming back. We say, ‘Oh, they’re back. Summer’s here.’ It’s really like a family. We know exactly what they eat.”
This year on a snowy Saturday on the opening weekend of deer hunting season, the restaurant was filled with blaze orange and stocking caps. People coming to the deer camps look forward to the hunt and a chance to stop at the Montana one more time.
“How are the roads?”
“Did you get your deer?”
“How are the kids?”
It’s a tradition. It’s like family. It’s like home. It’s the Montana.