Missoula Restaurant Owners & Chefs:
Tom Hilley – Sean Kelly’s and Stone of Accord

By BOB ZIMORINO “Owners and Chefs” is a restaurant section with a twist. To fill either position, chefs and owners must be able to wear many hats: Cook, server, human resource manager, repair person, negotiator, mediator, psychologist, bookkeeper, and more.  Armed with his top 10 questions, Bob Zimorino takes a peek behind the kitchen doors to find out how these local restaurateurs view the restaurant business in their own words.

I met Tom Hilley as a real estate agent before I knew him as a restaurant owner. This interview was our first in depth conversation and it spanned over an hour and included lunch. He and his businesses are about to take a huge move forward by separating their menus so that each will stand on its own. As we talked about it I realized that he has a great plan and the capable staffs to do it. I found him to be very candid, and refreshingly honest. We felt the bond that is created between two people that understand what ownership means in the capacity of running a restaurant. Oh, and the memory of those Cheesy Chips still lingers.

There are a lot of restaurants in Missoula. Why should a diner choose yours?

TH: I think for us it is that you can get a fine dining meal at about half the price of a fine dining restaurant. We’ve purposely kept our price point at margin where we can attract families and people with smaller pocketbooks. At the same time we attract people that want a high end meal. We are very creative. We offer daily specials. Everything is made from scratch. We do everything from sandwiches to last night we had a catfish etouffee.

I have a great chefs in Dan Zachary here and Dan Brazington downtown.  We’re currently letting our menus separate completely. Downtown at Sean Kelly’s  we’re calling the restaurant The Empire Grill. It will offer British, Scottish, Irish and Indian food. It will be Chef Dan’s (Brazington) menu. He has an extensive background in Indian cuisine.

And there is Chef Dan (Zachary) out here and his menu is more Mediterranean and comfort food.  Our slogan is “Where the garlic and the Gaelic meet.”

What dish is your signature dish and why that particular dish?

TH: Well of course it’s impossible to pick one but we do have something that is pretty unique with our Cheesy Chips. It is gorgonzola cheese melted over our homemade Pub Chips.

What would you want it to say to the person that orders it?

TH: Wow! Zing! It is going to make your taste buds jump. It does do that, without a doubt.

What is your favorite dish prepared in another Missoula restaurant?

TH: Well I can’t pick just one. It depends on what I feel like eating that day. I love Thai, Mexican — why I love your pizza, Bob. (We both laugh). but I like too much variety to pick one.

As a place to do business, why Missoula?

TH: I’m a native Montanan. I graduated from CMR in Great Falls. My great grand dad homesteaded over in the Highwood Mountains. My folks had a place up at Finley Point (on Flathead Lake).

My academic decision to go to the University of Montana was based on its proximity to the lake. I got my degree in History/Poly-Sci Econ and then opened the Garden Bar in Bigfork and was there for 20 years. I got tired of the seasonal orientation of the community, even though it’s absolutely God’s country. I was married and had my family. I got tired of the seasonality of the small town. It’s schizophrenic — every year it’s like opening a new restaurant.

I moved down to Missoula because I’ve always enjoyed the community, it has the university, it has rivers all over the place, it is still close to Flathead Lake and Glacier Park, it has great skiing up at Snow Bowl, it’s a great place to raise your family, it’s quirky enough that it’s always interesting, and it’s a small town yet you have your anonymity. You can go to the grocery store without having to share your life story with everybody, where as in Bigfork you knew everybody.

What is your least favorite cooking trend?

TH: It feels like to me that the health department has more interest in us using more processed foods. It’s safer and makes their job a little bit easier. A lot of these franchise stores serve food in a bag. All they have to do is warm it up and serve it. It doesn’t have the same flavor as fresh cooked, and it certainly isn’t the same quality. I am disappointed in that because you do feel a lot of pressure from the health department to go to extremes in your food handling which could mean bagged food.

It’s the Iron Chef competition and you are up. Who would you rather be up against Bobby Flay or Cat Cora?

TH: Bobby Flay I think. I wouldn’t want to go up against either one of them. They’re both excellent, but Bobby seems like he’s maybe less of a workhorse in the kitchen. A lot of time on TV and not enough time cooking, but both of them are fantastic.

Your daughter Jessica is your General Manager out here (at the Stone of Accord). How is it working with your kid?

TH: It’s great with her because she cut her teeth on it. When she was like eight or nine years old she had a lemonade stand where she was knocking down between a hundred and a hundred and fifty dollars a day.

My wife and I started the Wild Mile Market and Deli in Bigfork. We had to make a box for her to stand on but when she was eleven Jessica was taking orders and teaching people how to make espressos. She’s a natural for this. She understands it and understands the numbers behind it.

BZ: Do you still get to be Daddy?

TH: (chuckles) Yes, but not in the business. Now my son has started to wait tables and host here too. He wants to go to the Berkley School of Music so I figure he better learn to wait tables.

What do you think when you hear someone say: “I think owning a restaurant looks like fun.”

TH: I think that’s why so many fail. A lot of people think that cooking at home is the same but it isn’t. That’s kind of what got me going down the trail though. I loved to barbecue and had some sauces that I loved to make. I thought this will be great. At first I started at the Garden Bar where I would hand you a raw burger and you would cook it yourself.

Then once I bought the whole building I stepped into the kitchen business and I decided that I would run the kitchen. My bartenders had a name for me, “The Kitchen Bitch,” because I was not very happy back there. People come to visit you, you’re trying to solve employee or business problems, you’re burning food.

It’s probably the most stressful thing that I’ve ever done in my life. It is both creative and redundant because you have to make things the same way time after time. I think that before anyone ever opens a restaurant they should go cook in one. Start in the dish pit. It is a lot of cleaning, prepping, and organizing, then cleaning up again.You deal with a lot of stress. It’s a tough job.

Give me 5 words to describe your restaurant.

TH: Warm, friendly, exciting, tasty, and inexpensive.

Sean Kelly’s
130 W. Pine St.
(406) 542-1471

The Stone of Accord
4951 N. Reserve St.
(406) 830-3210

Check out our comprehensive list of Missoula Dining options.  You may also want to check out Bob Zimorino’s Taste It blog or even watch one of his many video blogs–including this one on Chicken Picatta!

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Bob Zimorino is a full-time real estate agent with Lambros/ERA Real Estate, a retired Certified Executive Chef, a Musician with the popular local band Hellgate Rodeo, a dad, and a grandpa. He shares the experiences from his life that helped shape his careers and hobbies. His weekly “Taste It” blog is his take on the evolution of food in his lifetime.