A one-of-a-kind competition near Bigfork has been canceled, after the hoped-for number of entries failed to emerge.
Last year, the Woods Bay Grill’s owners launched an essay contest with a unique prize: ownership of the family-style diner. They were ready to let go of the business, but wanted to use the essay contest to find someone who would lead it well. “We want to find someone to carry this on as a restaurant,” Leslie Browning said in December 2017. Browning, her mother Terry Browning, and her aunt Margaret Davis-Stiger co-own the restaurant.
But their target goal of 3,333 entries proved elusive. As of Monday morning, a mere 30 had come in, according to a post on the restaurant's Facebook page. As a result, contest coordinator Kyla Niva said that “we will have to cancel the contest and refund everyone.”
The contest wasn’t just about finding the right owner. Niva, her mother Margaret Davis-Stiger, and Terry and Leslie Browning aimed to cover the costs of handing the business off. The 3,333 entries, priced at $150 each, would have brought in nearly half a million dollars. According to the Montana Cadastral, the property has been appraised at roughly $200,000 for the last three years. Niva said the target amount also reflected the owners’ personal investments in the business and the costs of running the contest.
Since it went live, Niva said, “there were some times when I teared up reading those entries, because people really put a lot of thought and care into making their case. … Young, old, male, female, there was just no pattern that I saw in the entries.” They also had eclectic origins: “California, Bozeman, Wisconsin, Bigfork, Wisconsin, Missoula, Alaska, Colorado, Washington.”
But she surmised that the farther-flung entries were “maybe a friend of a friend” of someone in the area. Despite strong local interest and coverage by regional media outlets, it failed to gain the level of attention the owners sought, Niva explained.
“I’m emailing ABC, and Good Morning America, and Fox and Friends, Ellen DeGeneres … and we just couldn’t get it to get picked up on that national level, and I think it just really hurt us.”
A deadline extension from June 15 to Sept. 30 failed to boost entries, and the organizers have called it off with no winner or transfer in sight. The contest’s rules had anticipated this outcome, stipulating that all entry fees would be placed in an escrow account and refunded if the entry target wasn’t reached. Niva said that contestants should have their fees back by mid-October.
Asked about their next steps, Niva said, “We haven’t really made a plan yet.” But the end goal remains the same: preserve the Woods Bay Grill for future diners to enjoy.
“We just hope to move forward and do what’s best. Not just for us, for the community,” she said. “So it’s not like we’re going anywhere. People don’t need to think we’re closing down or anything like that.”