Bigfork Inn New owners aim to preserve history, tradition

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  • Christopher Languein, one of the new owners of the Bigfork Inn and general manager, stands outside the historic building on Thursday, Jan. 3. (Brenda Ahearn photos/Daily Inter Lake)

  • 1

    The Bigfork Inn pub features the chalet-style architecture of the rest of the structure.

  • 2

    The new owners of the Bigfork Inn have changed the appearance of the dining room slightly with black tablecloths.

  • Christopher Languein, one of the new owners of the Bigfork Inn and general manager, stands outside the historic building on Thursday, Jan. 3. (Brenda Ahearn photos/Daily Inter Lake)

  • 1

    The Bigfork Inn pub features the chalet-style architecture of the rest of the structure.

  • 2

    The new owners of the Bigfork Inn have changed the appearance of the dining room slightly with black tablecloths.

Since the Bigfork Inn came under new management in July 2018, the most visible change is the addition of black tablecloths in the dining room.

“They used to do that, and we liked the way it looked,” Manager Christopher Languein said. “It’s an extra touch that adds a little more atmosphere.”

Languein, Francois Zanni and a few other partners now own the landmark structure on the north end of Electric Avenue that has played a big role in the history of Bigfork.

The current building, with its rustic wooden beams and Swiss chalet exterior, was rebuilt after a fire during the latter years of the Depression. Originally called the Bigfork Hotel, its name changed in 1972 to the Bigfork Inn.

Honoring the history of the building and its place as a Bigfork social hub is a big part of the mission for the new owners, Languein said.

“Primarily we want to keep the aesthetics the same,” he said. “It has a good rich history and heritage. The tradition of the place is pretty deep.”

Bob and Suzie Keenan were instrumental in shaping that history. The Bigfork couple owned and operated the inn for 37 years altogether. They purchased the property in 1982, and as the years went by, added the library, the “red room,” the balcony and deck, and phased out the hotel portion as the restaurant business expanded. The business was leased-to-own by another party from 2006-11, but the Keenans took over again in 2012.

Bob Keenan said the time had come to sell the inn.

“Thirty-seven years was enough,” he said.

His long career as a Montana state legislator made his decades in the restaurant business even more challenging. He is currently Republican president pro tempore of the Montana State Senate, and served in the senate from 1999-2007 and the Montana House of Representatives from 1995 to 1999.

Despite the stresses, the decision to part with the Bigfork Inn was still an emotional one, Bob said. The property served both as the Keenans’ livelihood and family home for many years.

“Bigfork Inn was a part of our family,” he said. “Three of our five kids came back to the inn from the hospital when they were born.”

Keenan said he is confident the business he and his wife nurtured for so many years is in good hands.

Zanni has been part of a number of Flathead Valley restaurant ventures, at different times running The Docks in Lakeside, the restaurant at Blacktail Mountain Ski Area, and the former North Bay Grille in Kalispell. He is currently the general manager at Silver Star Steak Company in downtown Helena, where he will continue working through this year’s legislative session before making the move to Bigfork permanently.

Zanni tapped Languein, who was working as a manager at Silver Star, to join him in ownership of the Bigfork Inn. Languein, an Oregon native, has been in the restaurant and hotel business for 16 years, with five of those in management. He was part of the team that opened the Broadwater Hot Springs restaurant in Helena a few years ago, working as general manager for a year and a half before returning to Silver Star.

Languein moved to Bigfork in June and learned the ropes with the Keenans before they left the establishment in his care. He put in long days to make it through the frantic summer season.

“The first months were busy and exciting, but I thrive on chaos,” he said.

Now that Bigfork is in its off-season lull, Languein said he’ll have time to pursue some ideas for the inn.

Tentative plans include a marketplace in the space recently vacated by Sweet Peaks, an ice cream shop attached to the Bigfork Inn started by the Keenans’ daughter, Marissa. (Though closed in Bigfork, Sweet Peaks still has six other locations.)

The marketplace is expected to be a place for coffee, pastries and other to-go breakfast and lunch items. Languein envisions summer customers grabbing beer or wine and pastries for spending the day out on the water.

A more extensive wine list might also be part of the Bigfork Inn’s new model.

“I’ve noticed that this is a wine-heavy place, as far as sales of alcohol go,” he said. “We’re looking at upping our wine game.”

As far as alterations to the food menu, certain dishes seem to be non-negotiable with customers, Languein said. The Cajun shrimp pasta, the crispy duck and the schnitzel are Bigfork Inn favorites.

He isn’t specific with other items, but would like to see more “upscale comfort food.”

“I love the style of food we do, we want to see it elevated,” he said. “Nothing too fancy.”

Under its new owners, the Bigfork Inn has already made a return to one tradition. After years with no live music, Montana Lite now plays classic jazz, blues and standards on Friday and Saturday evenings for listening and dancing.

“New Year’s Eve was a kick,” Languein said. “We had everyone on the floor.”

Taking over the running of a venerable establishment like the Bigfork Inn was a little intimidating, Languein said.

“But the people here have been great and I’ve felt very welcome,” he said. “It was a little nerve-wracking coming to a brand-new area, but then here was this big beautiful restaurant.”

He said a grand opening celebration that will include all the owners is planned for late spring.

For more information, visit bigforkinn.com .

Business reporter Heidi Gaiser may be reached at 758-4438 or hgaiser@dailyinterlake.com.

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