Ones to Watch | By Sabrina Davis
When brothers Kyle and Travis Nielsen hired consultants to help develop a restaurant tied to their family farm, they had no idea they would become their long-term business partners. But when consultants Tom Wilscam and Gary McGill showed up on opening day in 2005 at the Nielsens’ Grains of Montana restaurant in Billings, Montana, they realized they wanted more than they’d bargained for.
“We were involved strictly on a consulting basis,” says Wilscam, whose experience includes creating a bagel chain that became the Einstein Bagel concept. “But when Gary and I went to see what we’d created, we realized this was something really special.”
The Nielsens wanted to grow, but considered themselves experts in farming not restaurant franchising. Wilscam and McGill knew they could handle the operations necessary to create a national chain, so an equal partnership was born.
The Nielsens planned to open a bagel restaurant using wheat from their 15,000-acre farm and turned to Wilscam and McGill because their consulting firm had launched several bagel concepts. Despite their expertise in bagels, Wilscam and partner McGill convinced the Nielsens to offer a broader menu. Wilscam and McGill, whose background includes management and ownership in large restaurant franchises, also co-own Juan’s Mexicali, an eight-store fresh-Mex chain based in Denver.
“We took a page out of Panera’s book and started studying their concept to see what we could do better,” Wilscam says.
They came up with a variety of breakfast breads and pastries along with espresso drinks, for the morning. The lunch and dinner menu includes sandwiches; burgers (made hormone-free, injection-free), Montana beef; and brick-oven pizzas. The burgers and pizzas sell well at dinnertime, also bolstered by beer and wine sales.
The Nielsens source everything they can from their farm, which the USDA ranks in the top 1 percent in gross revenues for family farms. The more than 20 bread varieties, from artisan breads to pastries to burger buns and pizza dough, are made with the Nielsen’s Hard Red Spring Wheat flour. The restaurant also serves granola sourced from the farm and makes soups with the farm’s lentils and beans. “We’re growing malt barley and working on developing our own beer,” says Kyle Nielsen, president of Grains of Montana. “We are also going to make a wheat beer. We’re working with a local brewery in Montana now until we get to a scale where we can build our own.”