Homecooked goodness: Family-operated café celebrates 17th year
At the corner of Highway 93 and Highway 212 sits one of the best-kept secrets in the Mission Valley. Connie’s Countryside Café, a humble, family-owned business run by Connie Stevens, reached a milestone April 1. This is the 17th consecutive year Connie’s restaurant has been in business, something many restaurants in the area can’t say.
“Every restaurant in the Valley has either closed or changed hands since I’ve been here,” Connie said. “This is a family-run business; all of the family works here.”
The hustle and bustle of restaurant life has made for some memorable moments during the past 17 years, and Connie can’t believe how the years have flown by.
“It actually went really fast,” she noted.
In 1978, Connie’s mother Ruby opened the establishment, along with another restaurant in Missoula. When the two eateries became too much for Ruby to juggle, she sold the Missoula restaurant. A year later, Ruby opened Up Town Café in Ronan, which is now the Red Poppy.
On April 1, 1985, Connie opened the Countryside Café, where she continues to serve heaping portions of home-cooked goodness to her loyal patrons.
“This is all I’ve done (my entire life); it’s what I know,” Connie said. “When I was 14 I began washing dishes during the graveyard shift at Crossroads Café at the ‘Y’ in Missoula. When I was 15, I started working for my mom.”
Nowadays, Connie and her mother Ruby, who has retired from the business six or seven times, work together to keep the restaurant going. Connie works six days a week, arriving at work at 5 a.m. to cook up an array of tasty pies. She also sells homemade soups, dinner rolls and biscuits. To maximize taste, she orders from local meat processor White’s Meats and tries to buy as much local food as possible.
“We’re a home-cooking restaurant; everything is homemade.” Connie said. “Everything is cooked to order; it’s a dying art.”
To be fair to customers and herself, Connie keeps the prices low, and refuses to charge a dollar for coffee. A cup is only 75 cents.
“We try to keep the prices where people can eat here and I can afford to make a living, too,” she said.
Connie prides her business on being family owned and operated, and often has three generations helping out, as her daughter Brandy and son Jason frequently help out. Non-relatives who work at the restaurant have worked with Connie for so long they might as well be family, she said.
Despite being located right on Hwy. 93, Connie says 90 percent of her business comes from locals, with the busiest times of the year coming in the spring and fall, when local farmers have time to take away from their crops and livestock. Most tourists bypass the small eatery to eat in Polson, she says.
“People ask if I depend on tourists, and yes I do; but I also depend on my locals,” she said. “The summers are real spotty. Tourists usually go to Polson, and I only see the farmers when they head to town for parts.”
Connie’s restaurant took a big hit when the lumber industry dwindled, as her parking lot is one of the few between Missoula and Kalispell that can accomodate big trucks.
“The mills shut down in Frenchtown and Plum Creek, and I might see two to three (wood) trucks a day,” she said, adding her parking lot used to be packed with lumber trucks when the industry was in full swing.
Local regulars can expect their meals to already be cooking before they set foot in the restaurant, as Connie and Ruby know exactly what they order. When daily patrons know they won’t be in for a few days, Connie says they call so she won’t be worried. One of those patrons is Stephen Small Salmon, who comes in each morning for his routine oatmeal and poached eggs.
Bob Rosenbaum is also a daily customer, and a few years ago made a sign that said, “This is Bob’s table,” to keep people from taking his prized seat.
“I like the business,” Connie said. “Some days I get frustrated and I wonder what I’m doing here, but I love people.”