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Local landmark Burgertown celebrates 50 years

by MACKENZIE REISS
Daily Inter Lake | July 19, 2020 1:00 AM

It’s long been said that good things come in small packages — and that saying rings especially true when it comes to the much-beloved summertime eatery Burgertown.

Freshly cooked burgers in little white bags come out of a kitchen with just 3 feet of cooktop space, barely large enough to accommodate two people. Burgertown itself is of humble origins — the restaurant began as a small shack without the indoor dining space or decking it has today. Over the years, the restaurant has evolved and grown into the local icon it is today.

This year, the restaurant will celebrate half a century in business, a milestone that current owners Kim and Andy Sweeney say is due in part to their commitment to quality, investment in staff and customer loyalty.

“It’s one burger at a time,” Kim said, sitting at a table inside the restaurant. Around her on the red-hued walls were slices of Burtgertown past — images of its evolution from a petite building with a single-sloped roof to the modest, but much larger building it occupies today. Alongside these are old photos of Kim’s grandparents next to snapshots of Flathead Lake life from decades ago.

“I think there’s still a piece of every era of Burgertown still evident here,” she said, looking around.

The original Burgertown Dairy Freeze came to life in 1970 and was opened by Lonny Hanson when he was just 26 years old. The building itself was relocated from Condon to Bigfork and included a drive-thru window. The dining room was added in July of 1974 by then-owners Roy and Dot Plum, according to historic photos from the time.

Ray and Theresa Luft bought Burgertown in June of 1983 because Ray “had always been a good cook,” his obituary states. In 2000, Bruce and Margie Solberg took the helm and gave the red and white structure a face-lift, installing an awning with a new parking lot and deck. The Solbergs operated Burgertown for six years before deciding that perhaps owning a summer restaurant was not the ideal retirement project, and sold the outfit to the Sweeneys. However, their presence behind the counter helped establish the couple in the Bigfork community.

“Margie was able to meet all the locals through dealing with the vendors and the customers,” Bruce noted.

Kim Sweeney said it had always been a dream for she and her husband to run their own business, especially coming from a line of small business owners.

“We just wanted something that we could make our own and we knew that Bruce and Margie had been successful,” Kim said. “We thought we could put our stamp on it.”

The couple were living in Spokane at the time but decided to take the leap into the restaurant industry in Montana. However, in the first decade of their ownership, Kim continued to teach during the school year and drove to Bigfork on weekends to help run the restaurant.

“We just did what we had to do to make a go of it,” she said.

And they soon learned that operating a restaurant was no easy task. The hours were long and unrelenting — the couple still works seven days a week in the summer months — but they also felt they had a duty to Bigfork to keep the local landmark going.

“The town owns the idea of Burgertown and summer in Bigfork. You want to live up to what their expectations are,” Kim said. “Through sheer determination and hard work, we’ve been here for 15 years.”

The secret to their success is doing simple food well, and not giving into trends or trying to over-complicate their menu. The couple has kept the original mainstays, along with most of the Solberg’s additions, and contributed a few of their own — like the Notorious PIG — a burger stacked with bacon, cheese, ham, lettuce, tomato and mayo.

“We hand-patty our meat. It’s fresh. It’s made to order,” Kim said. For one, they prioritize freshness and two, they simply don’t have the storage. Sometimes this can result in longer wait times for customers, but the freshness is worth their while. It’s also a testament to the quality of their products that folks will stomach up to a 45-minute wait for a burger.

Customer Casey Wedge, a seasonal Bigfork resident, dines at Burgertown three to five times a week.

“I’m only here during the summer because Burgertown is only open in the summer,” he joked.

But in all seriousness, the things that keep Wedge coming back are the “quality and consistency” of the food.

“I haven’t had a bad burger, haven’t had a bad batch of fries,” Wedge said. “The customer service is pretty top-notch. It gets busy and you have to hang out sometimes, but that’s part of it. They’re making fresh food.”

Customers like Wedge are a major source of joy for the Sweeneys and their staff. Other standouts that came to Andy’s mind included a 107-year-old woman who used to stop by for a chocolate milkshake once a week after getting her hair done and longtime customer Buck who regularly enjoyed a junior cheeseburger and strawberry shake. The couple also recalled a woman whose water broke while she was waiting in line, who is still a customer of the restaurant and jokingly called her baby “the Flathead Lake Monster” — an ode to one of the establishment’s most iconic offerings.

“Being here so long, you develop these friendships and relationships,” Andy said.

For regulars, Burgertown keeps a box of pre-written tickets they can send down the line as soon as they see the customer walk up. They’re noted with either the customer’s name or an identifying feature — Thursday Ron, Cowboy Hat Bill and Don with his Dog, among others.

The Sweeneys also bond with their staff — some of whom have been Burgertown employees for more than a decade. The key to retention is investing in their staff and being present in the daily operations of the restaurant.

Olivia Frick, of Missoula, is in her fifth summer working at Burgertown.

“They are the best bosses I’ve ever had and probably will ever have. They really care about their employees, the business, the customers. It’s a fun environment to work in,” Frick said.

She explained that the Sweeneys show their appreciation for staff by being approachable, springing for coffee every now and then and hosting an employee appreciation day once each summer. It’s these little things that add up and make employees like Frick feel like a valued member of the team.

For the Sweeneys, Burgertown has been a labor of love. They’ve gotten to know the community, watch their team grow and mature and continue to dish up delicious burgers one hot summer day at a time.

Mackenzie Reiss can be reached at mreiss@dailyinterlake.com or (406) 758-4433.