By fostering a family-like atmosphere, popular restaurant has been a model of consistent quality
Story by Myers Reece | Photography by Lido VizzuttiWhen a 98-year-old customer asked Echo Lake Café manager Debra Hunter for a favor, Hunter didn’t hesitate. The elderly woman was a loyal patron of the restaurant. Of course Hunter would take her on a motorcycle ride.
“It was on her bucket list,” Hunter says. “I was happy to help her check that off the list.”
The point is not that Echo Lake Café is a good place to get free motorcycle rides, rather that it treats customers like family. That might be an overused cliché, but it rings true here. People don’t live 98 years by placing their safety in the wrong hands. They know who their family is.
Christi Young, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Bob, says their adopted relatives extend to both customers and staff, some of whom, like Hunter, have worked there since it opened in 1999.
“We’ve gone through divorces with them, pregnancies,” Christi says. “With some of the employees here, I feel like I have more than three children.”
“Food is nurturing,” she adds.
The closeness of both the employees and customers has more than sentimental value. It’s a reflection of consistency and stability, which are cornerstones of the Youngs’ business philosophy. It also shows in the accolades.
Echo Lake Café, located on Highway 83 about 10 minutes from Bigfork, has been named the best breakfast spot in the Flathead Valley most years of its existence, only missing a couple here and there. And its online reviews are almost universally glowing.
As of early November, Echo Lake Café had 164 reviews on TripAdvisor, including 116 five-star ratings and only three one-star marks. The customer service law of averages, particularly online, assures a handful of negative reviews no matter what a restaurant does, sometimes constructive but often inane.
Other sources of reviews, such as Facebook and Yelp, similarly reflect an eatery that is not only well-liked, but widely beloved. You don’t get that kind of love and loyalty by glossing over the details; you get it by being reliably good, seven days a week, each and every meal.
“Consistency is very important to us,” Christi says.
Long before he got into restaurants, Bob Young ran a successful construction company in Michigan that specialized in building stadium bleachers. He sold the business and followed Christi to Lake Tahoe, where she had moved after toiling on the Los Angeles art scene as an acrylic painter. The Youngs have known each other since eighth grade but weren’t romantically linked until they were adults. They married in 1978.
In Lake Tahoe, they helped some friends remodel their restaurant and became partners in the business. By 1982, they had bought their friends out and were the sole owners of the Fire Sign Cafe, which they still own today. Their daughter, Amy, and her husband, Mark Herman, are the managers.
The Youngs’ next foray into the culinary world was as unexpected as their first. They were still living in Lake Tahoe when they began visiting the Flathead Valley and fell in love with it. The Echo Lake Café’s previous owners had closed down the restaurant and suddenly the Youngs found themselves signing paperwork to purchase it, drawn in by the strong gravitational pull of scenic northwestern Montana. They bought a ranch near the café and still live there today.
“Well, I guess we own a restaurant in Bigfork, Montana now,” Bob recalls thinking.
The Youngs dove headfirst into their new project, with Bob heading up an extensive remodel. When they opened in 1999, Tom McDougall was their head chef. Sixteen years later, he’s still there. Hunter came on shortly after McDougall, initially as a waitress before rising through the ranks to manager. She couldn’t imagine working anywhere else.
“They really are my family here,” Hunter says.
Echo Lake Café is particularly known for its breakfasts, though its lunches are just as high-quality, with priority placed on local ingredients. Popular breakfast dishes include benedicts topped with homemade hollandaise sauce. Meat selections on the benedicts include a house-smoked salmon. There are a wide variety of scrambles and omelets, as well as specialties such as chicken fried steak, crepes, huevos rancheros, and corned beef hash.
The reuben is a top-selling lunch item, along with the cheeseburger and vegetarian black bean burger. The rest of the menu is a smorgasbord of tasty salads and sandwiches. The Youngs make their own chorizo with tequila, laminate their own menus, and try to do almost everything in house.
During peak season, Echo Lake Café employs nearly 40 people. It’s open seven days a week year-round except for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Even during the slowest times, the Youngs don’t close, out of concern for both their customers and their employees, including single mothers who need the hours, especially before Christmas.
“I feel like we’re a solid part of the community,” Bob says. “It feels good. I’m proud of that.”