It’s been a surreal six years during which Missoula has been not just the name of this city, but also of a deer-logoed, Montana-themed chain of bars in the U.K. owned by pub conglomerate Stonegate, which has a portfolio of more than 600 bars. Company chairman Ian Payne was inspired by his annual visits to Montana — and the service at Darby’s Triple Creek Ranch — to export Missoula’s special huckleberry something to Britain. He was way ahead of Justin Timberlake.
The past two weeks have been rough on the Missoula brand: Two Missoulas, in Romford and Chelmsford (think of them as the Bonner and Drummond of London), were rebranded into different properties owned by Stonegate, and a Missoula club in Durham remains closed following the recent crushing death of a young woman in a line outside. Last year, another location was closed to pivot to an Australian theme. Stonegate had not responded to a request for comment on its Missoula-branded properties by press time.
As the Indy has previously reported (see “The Answers Issue,” Aug. 25 2016), Payne hired Triple Creek manager Molly Smith to consult on the brand, which he was trying to refine. Smith recently left Triple Creek to pursue a restaurant career, and is currently living just across the Washington border from Portland. She told the Indy that it isn’t surprising that Stonegate is rebranding some Missoula locations, based on what she saw and heard on her last visit, about a year ago. She says that in a conversation with Payne last year, he talked about how difficult it was to maintain a small group of high-end bar-and-grills within a company where volume is crucial.
“What we were creating was a premium brand,” Smith says. “It was too much money and time, so that’s not surprising. They try to do more of a fast-paced, get in, get out.” Smith’s involvement with Missoula ended after her consulting work was over, but her friendship with Payne continued. Coincidentally, this fall was the first time since 2005 that Payne didn’t make his annual trip to Montana, Smith says.
One cultural barrier was the brand’s emphasis on customer service, something Smith says was difficult to get British staff on board with, in part due to differences in service-worker compensation. “In England, they don’t work for tips. People there don’t automatically tip like we do,” she says. “The servers were like, ‘Why am I going to work harder?’”
It’s not that customers never tip, she says. “I was trying to explain to them, I traveled around the country and worked at a bunch of pubs they owned and I was able to get tips,” Smith says. “I don’t know if that’s because I was American? It was hard to change the mindset of people in the industry.”