Missoula Restaurant Owners & Chefs:
Justin Philbrick – Red Robin and Jakers

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 Justin Philbrick at the Red Robin Restaurant in Southgate Mall. I found him to be articulate and engaging, two qualities every restaurant owner should develop. Justin and Jake Jones are the principal partners of Jakers. They are also partners in the Red Robin.

Justin literally worked his way up starting with Jakers at minimum wage as a salad prep cook and learning all of the stations. After a couple of years with the company he was asked to be an assistant manager. Two years later he was the General Manager and two years after that became the Supervisor and Director of Operations for the whole company which operates 5 restaurants, 2 in Montana and 3 in Idaho including the original Jakers in Idaho Falls. Originally from Maine, I could hear faint trace of his Maine accent as we spoke.

There are a lot of restaurants in Missoula, why should I go to yours?

JP: They are both unique places in their own realms. Jakers is a local favorite and there is something for everyone at Jakers. From the quality of our steaks and the fact that we prep everything that we serve…we make our own dressings, make our own soups, cut our own steaks, grind our own burgers…the list goes on and on. The scones and honey butter are kind of a signature thing at Jakers.

Red Robin is just a fun place. If you love a great burger or a great salad, and you want a place you can get in and out in forty minutes or so with an average ticket in the 10-12 dollar range and for how good we are at taking care of families that culture of great service is what drives people to Red Robin.

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

JP: Tough question. I have to pick one dish?

BZ: Well yeah because going into this every restaurant owner wants to think that all or most of their dishes are signature dishes, but what is that one dish?

JP: I’d have to go ahead and say Prime Rib. At Jaker’s Prime Rib is a promise to our guests that we will have it every night, seven nights a week, all cuts, all temps, all night long from the time dinner starts at 4 o’clock to when we close. We use Double R Ranch Prime Rib from Loomis Washington. It is the top third of “Choice” grade prime. It is grain fed along with grass. It gives the meat the right of marbling and flavor where it isn’t too fatty. I would definitely say Prime Rib is our signature dish.

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

JP: These guys do it the best. These guys do it right. I want them to take that first bit and go: “Wow. These guys know what they’re doing.”

What is your favorite dish prepared in another Missoula restaurant?

JP: I really don’t have an answer to that. Most of my meals are here or at Jakers. When I’m not working, I usually eat at home.

As a place to do business, why Missoula?

JP: It’s where I live first of all. It’s a University town. I love the people in Missoula. We have had awesome support from them now for the last fourteen, fifteen years. The Red Robin is a great fit, I mean it sounds like a no brainer, a family restaurant in a mall, which of course is totally family oriented. We had this awesome space that we had access to and it just worked great for it. We do pretty good year round here. We obviously love our summers with the huge tourism traffic and then we get the fall with the University and Griz games which are wonderful for us. At Jakers we have such a steady lunch crowd. It really works for a number of reasons.

What is your least favorite cooking trend?

JP: Well it’s not really a cooking trend but the nutritional labeling on menus to me is taking it too far. People go out to a restaurant and they want a great meal. Your menu isn’t going to look the same. It loses that charm. I think that people have to be responsible to make decisions about what they are eating that day. If it is an issue for them, there is plenty of information available the operator shouldn’t have to put it on their menu. I guess there could be a supplemental menu that could be handed out for those who ask. While it’s not a cooking trend it is a real buzz with in the industry right now. If you have more than 20 locations you have to have all of your nutritional information on the menu. The process of figuring all of this out is very high. You have to have it analyze in a lab for accuracy…yeah it’s expensive.

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

JP: Probably not Bobby Flay so I’ll go with anyone else. The guy could make something out of nothing. He can really take the most basic things and make them amazing. I think that’s what we do with our concepts. Jakers isn’t one of those crazy off the wall food places. We just take good basic food and prepare it right. So, Flay would be tough.

You are a minority partner in both businesses.  How much a free hand do you have in making decisions?

JP: Jake gives me free range to make decisions and run the restaurants. Jake draws a line in the sand and is very clear with it. Any recipe changes have to be cleared by him. Final menu proofs go through him. Those are two major control points for any restaurant.

The flip side is that I welcome any input that Jake has to offer. I got into this business and bought into this business because of his wisdom and his reputation and really because of his past successes. I got a degree in business from the University of Montana while I was the GM of Jakers. One of the things that my Entrepreneurship teacher taught me was that to become an entrepreneur you don’t have to start a business. You can buy one. I was in a supervisory role in a business that I wanted to buy into and so when the opportunity came about I did.

Jake and I have quarterly meetings with each other and all of our GMs. We see each other and talk to each other more frequently than that. We have a great relationship and both have a great ability to compromise. He doesn’t treat me like a minority partner. He treats me like an equal partner.

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

JP: I can think of several of those types of situations that haven’t worked out. I think that if you don’t like 110 degree kitchens and you don’t like flipping burgers you shouldn’t own a restaurant. You will have a tough time. If you’ve ever watched those tv shows where the chef goes into failing restaurants, what’s the first thing he does? He dives into the middle of it and sees people that are being controlled by all of the things going wrong. If the kitchen isn’t running smoothly they can’t just jump in and fix it. They are overwhelmed by their experience.

Jake told me I must be born to do this business because it is the craziest business to get into because in the end you’re dealing with time and temperature. At this point I focus on averaging around 50 hours a week and I try to encourage my GMs to do that because one of the things that Jake has told me all along is that family comes first.

Give me 5 words to describe your restaurant.

JP: Real good, feel good food.

BZ: Perfect, thanks Justin

Jakers Bar and Grill
3515 Brooks
(406) 721-1312

Red Robin
Southgate Mall
(406) 830-3170

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 Cashew Chicken!

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Bio:  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.