MERIDIAN — For three years, the question was repeated again and again. “When’s Montana’s opening?” The answer was a standing joke: “Soon.”
Although he’s the target of the joke, Ken Montana chuckles and admits his restaurant opening on August 24 was a long time coming. As expected, it was the cannonball splash in the rapidly changing Meridian restaurant scene. Still in the “soft opening” mode, Montana’s is serving from 800-1,200 meals daily — their record was 1,350 on Sept. 6. And all of this with only word-of-mouth advertising, aside from the quarter page ad in the Yellow Pages that’s been running for three years.
The cavernous building on Meridian’s historic Front Street has a huge outside mural depicting a 19th century railroad steam engine, a steamboat and a grizzled cowboy astride his horse. And it’s all cheek-by-jowl with the railroad tracks that are so closely linked with the city’s past. When you enter Montana’s with its attractive period motif, collectibles and antiques, you’ve stepped back in time.
Combined with the revival of other businesses and developments in the locale, the street is now combating modern-day traffic and parking problems.
‘This thing’s too beautiful’
All this started eight or nine years ago, according to Ken Montana who opened his first restaurant in Gulfport in 1988. “I broke down on the interstate outside Meridian and I was treated so nicely and it was just an interesting and friendly experience despite the problem with the vehicle,” he said. “Then once my son and I decided to expand to a third location, Meridian was a natural that fell within a 150 mile radius of our Gulfport and Pensacola locations.”
Local Realtors Larry Dudley and Gil Carmichael tried to sell him on some of their properties.
“But both of them were selling Meridian, too, and they pushed me toward the downtown area,” Montana recalled. “Then we had lunch with the mayor (John Robert Smith) and they showed me the old Southern Pipe Building and said they were getting ready to level it. I said, ‘No, no, no, no! This thing’s too beautiful. I’m going to make it work.’ And that’s how it came to be.”
That was four years ago and construction began soon after. Ralph Young was the general contractor. Then came the problems that go with remodeling an old structure and an understanding of what took so long.
Bouquets to an unlikely trio
“Robert Polk, an architect out of Jackson, was the major influence because of his experience with old buildings,” Montana said. “My biggest problem was conveying the concept of what I was picturing in my mind to the contractors and trades. Then I was unable to salvage some of the old building that I had hoped for.”
So there had to be some demolition by contractor Billy Shumate and Norman Roofing, and Montana had to find compatible replacement bricks and timbers. “And of course, nothing was straight, nothing was level and nothing was plumb.”
Then the congenial Montana passes out bouquets to people who normally only get brickbats.
“I owe special thanks to Mary Ruth Sharp, the city’s code enforcement officer, and Jeff Homan and Jimmy Hoffer of the Meridian Fire Department,” he stated. “They understood what I wanted, so thanks to them we ended up with a safer building. Without them, I still wouldn’t be open.”
The 20,000-square-foot structure can hold 375 diners plus 100 customers in the lounge downstairs while the upstairs can accommodate parties and meetings of as many as 150-400. Then there are three private rooms for groups of 20-30. It takes more than 70 employees to handle those crowds.
Although there are individual menu items, practically all of the customers go for the bountiful buffet that’s basically smoked meats and ribs and Cajun seafood combined with vegetables, a salad and dessert bar. Weekday lunch price is $6.75 and the more elaborate dinner is $8.95 (not served on Monday). Then there’s a special $13.95 seafood buffet that includes fried oysters and boiled shrimp on Friday and Saturday nights. And there’s also off-site catering — he once accommodated 12,200 from his Gulfport location. Montana’s is closed on Sundays.
Another feature that’s drawing special attention is a complex model railroad constructed, laid out and operated by the Queen City Railroad Club. Montana donated 3,000 square feet of upstairs space to the hobbyists.
“We expect it to be a statewide attraction,” Montana said.
Competitors and other problems
A “grand opening” is planned for October, but so’s the much-anticipated Weidmann’s just around the corner. Then there’s the Crescent City Grill September opening, operated by Hattiesburg’s acclaimed restaurateur Robert St. John. All that competition doesn’t bother Ken Montana.
“People are dining out much more than they used to,” he responds. “They like a variety and expect quality and value. We give that to them, so we’ve met our projections. Our projected customer profile is anyone who dines with us three or four times a month.”
The major concern at his new location is the parking problem. He has a parking lot that accommodates 60 cars, but the lunchtime traffic and need for space frets him and his customers. He contends that the city needs to expand its limited parking zones for several more blocks so that there can be retail circulation of vehicles. He cites the success of Gulfport and Biloxi’s downtown by doing that.
“Almost all of the merchants have welcomed me because we’ve drawn potential customers for them, but we’ve created some real parking problems and I understand that — I’ve been there, too,” he said. “When the city addresses this problem, then we’ll all benefit.”
Another location elsewhere?
Ken Montana’s an ex-Marine and at a graying and bespectacled 53 with three grandchildren, he keeps his good humor in the face of the many demands on his time. He’s widely known for his support of church events and other worthy causes and is a regular visitor with his customers.
It’s likely he’ll look for another city next year in which to locate one of his restaurants, but he’s in no hurry. He’s making sure that the Meridian operation continues its good start.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Bill Johnson Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org.