WOODS BAY — Someone with a well-worded dream and a willingness to risk $150 will be the next owner of a popular restaurant near Flathead Lake this summer.

That’s the hope of the current owners of the Woods Bay Grill.

Back in 2004, sisters Terry Browning and Margaret Davis-Stiger took a leap of faith to purchase the grill on the east side of Flathead Lake.

Neither knew anything about operating a restaurant or running a business back then.

Over the course of the next 13 years, the sisters and Browning’s daughter, Leslie, worked long hours to expand the business to create a hometown café that now draws both locals and tourists year around.

“We want to find someone to carry this on as a restaurant,” Leslie Browning said. “We don’t want them to change it too much. The local community loves this restaurant. Our hope is that it will continue.”

From their own experience, the women knew that purchasing a restaurant and then trying to make payments from the profits they earned was difficult.

“We went for years without a paycheck because we had to pay for the place,” said Davis-Stiger. “We struggled a lot in the beginning.”

And so when they heard the story of how the owners of the Center Lovell Inn in Maine had twice found new owners through an essay contest, the three decided that would be the perfect route to find someone with the desire and passion needed to carry on the tradition of good food and friendly atmosphere that they had worked so hard to create.

Over the course of the next six months, the three women plan to spend a good deal of time reading what they hope will be thousands of 300-word essays from restaurant owner hopefuls. If all goes according to plan, by June 15 they’ll turn over the best 50 or so essays to a panel of local judges who will make the final decision on who will get the key to the business.

The essays they read won’t have a name attached. If they don’t get the numbers they need to turn over the business — a minimum of 3,333 entries, totaling $499,950 — the entry money will be returned in June.

“All of that money will go into escrow,” Leslie Browning said. “If we don’t get enough entries, then we’ll give people their money back. It’s not a use-it-or-lose-it kind of option.”

Giving up the restaurant wasn’t the original plan.

Back when they started, the sisters had hoped to turn over the business to their children, Leslie Browning and Margaret’s son, Kazz Stiger. They had even nicknamed the restaurant “Kazz’s Place.”

Tragedy struck in 2015 when Kazz died from a drug overdose at the age of 25.

“That threw us for a loop,” said Terry Browning. “It really knocked us down. Thank goodness, December was coming up and we were able to close down. That gave us time to figure out some way to move forward.”

It was back then the three really started looking for a way to keep the restaurant intact but in someone else’s hands.

“This place is an integral part of this community,” Terry Browning said. “They don’t want to see it change very much.”

Stepping into the Woods Bay Grill is like taking a step back in time when people looked forward to seeing someone they knew at a place where locals gathered.

The grill is right behind the counter where customers sit on red-topped stools and watch their food being cooked. The counter and tabletops are adorned with thin-sliced agates collected by the sisters’ parents in eastern Montana.

“It’s like an old-time diner,” said Terry Browning.

“The cook isn’t stuck back in room where they can’t see the people,” Leslie Browning said. “It creates a relationship between you and your customers that’s unique from any other restaurant I’ve seen or worked in.

“It kind of has the feeling of a nonalcoholic ‘Cheers,’ ” she said. “Your friends walk in the door and it’s like you expect to hear someone yell ‘Norm!’ ”

“A lot of people know my name, but I often don’t know theirs,” said Terry Browning. “But if you say, 'It’s that man and woman and he eats this and she eats that; you know, the ones who get the caramel roll and the great big thick pancake with huckleberries.' Oh, yes, I know who you’re talking about now.”

Along the way, the customers became like family.

The restaurant even boasts a Jack Hanna room, where the famous zoologist has been known to bring guests.

“You never know who is going to walk through the door from one day to the next,” said Terry Browning. “One guy gave us a 52-inch TV that was brand spanking new. He had gone out and bought it because I gave him a free salad. I mean to tell, it just flabbergasted me.”

The women said they’re willing to share everything they’ve learned over the years about what it takes to create a place where people love to gather and eat.

“I think it would be a great thing if we can give it away to someone who will appreciate what’s here and be willing to give it their all, just like we did,” Davis-Stiger said. “We’ve put everything we had into this.”

They know taking over a restaurant debt-free could change someone’s life.

“For someone who has a love for cooking and love for being around people, this place can be their salvation because they can create a new life for themselves here,” Leslie Browning said. “That’s what we’re hoping to find.”

To learn more about the essay contest, go to woodsbaygrill.com.

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Northwest Montana Reporter

Northwest Montana reporter at the Missoulian