Story By: Jared Ritz
Photos By: Nikki Carlson
Page design By: Stacy Mantle
The Plainsman bar has seen many different owners and some changes in its 32-year history, but nothing quite like this.
Keeping the original name but adding a twist, a trio of out-of-staters purchased what is now the Plainsman Sports Bar and Steakhouse - about midway between Havre and Chinook - in March. Those who were there before the Plainsman's doors closed last fall will hardly see a resemblance.
Gone is the linoleum flooring, the outdated wallpaper and the wood paneling. In fact, nearly every stylistic choice that was either made - or not made- by the building's previous owners has been changed. The roof was redone, new carpet was installed, a new air conditioning and heating system was put in, the plumbing was replaced and the layout was changed. Walls were knocked down, space increased, and, thanks to a new ventilation system and restaurant lighting, the place isn't the least bit dingy. Even the gigantic rock that used to sit in front of the bar's double-doors has been moved near the highway.
Before anyone starts mourning another good ol' Montana watering hole gone soft, they should check out what's sprung up in its place, and listen to the story of the people who are making it happen.
"It's something I wanted to do my whole life," Rod Highfill, 47, said while sitting at a table in his soon-to-be-realized dream of owning a sports bar. "Come to Montana, open a sports bar, and get away from the big city."
He never would have gotten the chance if a string of bad luck hadn't come his way. The same goes for his sister, Robin Conner, 51, and his girlfriend, Cheryl Fenzau, 53, who bought the place with him.
Highfill worked for the shipping company DHL for 21 years, Conner worked for Pacific Telecom Services for 24, and Fenzau worked for Diageo North America for 17 years - before they were all laid off within a two-year period, they said. When Fenzau got the word, it seemed like it was time for all three to leave Washington state behind, take their severance packages and try to make Highfill's dream a reality.
They made a five-day trip to Montana in late February, a fact-finding mission to find a property that would work for them. They got word from a friend about the Plainsman, which was closed after being sold at auction last fall, and stopped by one day to check it out. After seeing it, they didn't hesitate to make the deal. "We fell in love with it," Fenzau said.
Less than a month later, they drove their RVs into the Plainsman's driveway and called Montana home.
Since then, they have been working day and night, along with area decorator Betsi Pollington of Montana Style Interiors in Havre.
Huge logs form hitching posts out front. Logs populate the inside of the building as well, including a centerpiece with some of the business's 12 televisions - all to be tuned to sports, of course - encased within. The interior looks very rustic and, well, Montana, and both Pollington and the owners are happy with the results of their hard work.
"They wanted to do something that was kind of in a Montana style," Pollington said. "It all seems to flow really well."
Pollington has lived near Havre for more than 20 years, and remembers going inside the Plainsman before its transformation. Now, nearly five months into the remodeling and days until opening, the remnants she remembers from the old days can be counted on two fingers.
"They are using the old bar cooler and countertops," she said. "Everything else has been changed."
The buiding now houses 13 gambling machines and a banquet room that used to be an apartment for the former owners, and a capacity to hold 164 customers at any one time. The bar also has a full espresso bar, not to mention everything one would expect in the Plainsman.
The Plainsman also has artwork done by local artists Dave Waters, who has a large painting displayed, and Cory Holmes, who made light fixtures and a chandelier from barbed wire for the business, Fenzau said.
And although they decided to move the boulder from in front of the door, it was important to not get rid of it completely.
"We like the rock. It's kind of like a landmark," Fenzau said.
Another big change will be the menu. Pineapple halibut, garlic ginger king crab, and baby back ribs are a few of the choice items, and everything is guaranteed to be fresh, not frozen, chef Johnny Jantz said.
"I think people are going to be impressed," he said. His description of the the menu, which he put together himself, is steakhouse standards "with quite a nice flair on it."
Jantz has been in the restaraunt business for 25 of his 37 years, and has spent the past five opening restauraunts in California, where he lives, and Hawaii.
He drove here Sunday, and has since been busy getting the kitchen ready for opening night.
The grand opening of the new Plainsman Sports Bar and Steakhouse will be Aug. 27.