Winding up Highway 191 that cuts through Sweet Grass County in Montana, there isn’t much for civilization until the road widens just a bit about 20 miles north of Big Timber. A log building sits just off the road, indicating you are passing through the town of Melville.
“Melville is a very tiny, generational ranching community,” said Bonita Cremer, owner of Café 191, a new restaurant housed in that aforementioned log building.
One of those generational ranches that call Melville home just so happens to be Sweet Grass Land and Cattle, a fifth generation ranch, owned and operated by Bonita and her husband Matt Cremer.
Sweet Grass Land and Cattle has a history not unlike most ranches in Montana. Matt’s great-grandfather headed west out of Wisconsin, looking for opportunity. He originally started ranching around the Shawmut area, just to the east of Melville, and like so many of those early homesteaders, sheep was what he could afford to raise when he was starting out.
Raising sheep was never the end goal, and even when the economic pitfall of the late 1920s and 1930s threatened the livelihood of so many Americans, Matt’s great-grandfather got creative and diversified in an effort to keep the ranch afloat.
“My husband’s great-grandfather actually started a rodeo company and that rodeo company kind of helped build the ranch in the 1920s and 1930s,” Bonita said.
With some patience, elbow grease and years of running rodeo stock, the Cremer ranch was built into a successful multi-generational family cooperation, running predominately Black Angus cattle.
It wasn’t just the ranch that grew in size all those years though, the Cremer family grew as well, and as time went by it became evident that to sustain the ranch it could no longer be run under one corporate umbrella, so some restructuring had to occur. Bonita attests, the process was an emotional investment, but the Cremers had worked so hard for so long to build a ranching dynasty and keeping it sustainable was everybody’s goal.
Bonita and Matt settled into their rolls operating on the family land around Melville, but an entrepreneurial spirit never stopped burning inside of Bonita, so when the log building on the side of the road in Melville became available in 2019, she jumped at the opportunity to start a restaurant.
Just like the Cremer forefather that saw a unique business opportunity that could grow the ranch, Bonita also felt a restaurant could compliment the family’s agriculture endeavors. Café 191 was born with the hopes of not only helping sustain a generational ranch, but to also share a story – a story about Montana, a story about family ranching and a story about food production in the Big Sky State.
“They always tell us people in agriculture to share our story and to make it personal, so that is what I am doing,” Bonita said.
Café 191 opened June 4. Their simple, hearty menu is made from wholesome ingredients, many of them sourced from Montana. The eggs come from a Hutterite colony just north of Melville and several of the bread products come from Grains of Montana, a family-owned company with farms around Nashua and a bakery in Billings. The lettuce is grown just west of Melville in a small greenhouse, and the ground beef, of course, comes from Sweet Grass Land and Cattle.
Deciding to open a restaurant is a difficult enough task in and of itself, but doing it while the world is in the middle of a pandemic is a whole other challenge. Supply chain issues in particular have been cause for frustration, says Bonita. Café 191 is still waiting on dining tables that were ordered from Pennsylvania in February and things like paper towels and to-go containers have also been difficult to acquire at times.
“Supply has been interesting. The first week I was open I wasn’t sure I was going to get bacon because that was right when all that stuff was going on with the hog industry,” she explained.
Nevertheless, she persisted, and opening day was an overwhelming success despite the fact COVID-19 restrictions meant seating was limited due to social distancing requirements. Café 191 is open Thursday through Saturday and every day it has been opened, locals and passers-by alike stop into the old log building off the side of the road to enjoy a cup of coffee and a delicious meal while they watch cattle, owed by the Cremer family, grazing outside the window.
Success and strength are often terms that are used hand-in-hand, but before a business can be strong and successful, there is first a lot of hard work, patience and passion to see the goal through to the end. Bonita has a passion for Montana agriculture, more specifically, she has a passion for sustaining the Cremer family ranching legacy because she knows the ranching lifestyle isn’t one she and her husband inherited, but rather one they are borrowing from future generations.
Using her culinary talents, perfected over years of cooking for branding crews, Bonita has found a way to share her agriculture story through plates of delicious food. Her story tells how Montana agriculture is diverse, viable and most of all, strong, even during a time of economic uncertainty.