Entrepreneurs: Celebrating Traditions At The Heart Of Laurel Restaurant

Billings Gazette, Mont.
Photo Credit:James Woodcock

The restaurant is named for the great-grandmother of one of the cooks, and the old-fashioned aprons of other grandmothers hang on the wall.

And, once in a while, the restaurants hosts a dress-up tea party.

But owner Colette Decker doesn’t want men to think they won’t be comfortable at Emma’s Kitchen in Laurel at 401 East Main St.

She describes one of the restaurant’s challenges as “not giving the impression that we’re a girlfriend-out-for-lunch kind of eatery.”

“That being said,” she quickly adds, “girlfriends out for lunch are a mainstay of our business.”

Still, she coaxes men into Emma’s by offering dishes like meatloaf and pork sandwiches.

Emma’s Kitchen may be reached at 628-4111 or through its website,

Here’s what else Decker had to say about running her own business and the challenge of being found when you’re off the beaten path:

Co-owner with my husband, John.

Nature of the business:
Restaurant and bakery.

Why start this business?

Our daughter, Elizabeth, had gained great experience after finishing culinary school and decided to start her dream restaurant. John and I supported her decision, thinking we would stay in the background as advisers.

Where did startup funding come from?

John and I both lost our mothers in 2008, his in January, mine in December. In both families, the decision was made to sell the family home. The small share from both home sales helped fund the startup of Emma’s. This is part of the reason we honor past generations.

How long have you been in business?
Since August 2010.

What was done to overcome your challenges?

We want to attract both men and women by offering more than salads, soups and quiche. Home-cooked lunch specials, like meatloaf and pulled pork sliders, plus menu items like macaroni and cheese, chicken pot pie are all local favorites. Our sandwiches on home-baked breads are paired with hearty soups or the side of the day. We also serve breakfast all day. One signature dish is our own corned beef hash made with natural beef from the Nordahl ranch at Molt.

What is being done to expand the business?

We are selling our homemade and healthy monster cookies in local convenience stores. Emma’s cookies will also be sold at the Loco Express minor league football games. We are expanding the use of our parlor by venturing into trunk shows and Victorian tea parties. In May, our tea will honor relationships and, in April, the tea will feature the healing qualities of teas. The parlor is also used by local businesses and organizations for meetings, training sessions, catering and special events.

Your best business decisions?

Sharing the stories of the grandmothers and their aprons. And in the parlor we tell the stories of the grandfathers and the girls who stole their hearts. I have always been a collector of family stories and a researcher into the genealogy of my Swain/Lane/Friedly/Bliss families. Emma’s has been my venue for sharing those stories. The blessing in return is hearing stories of those who come into Emma’s and share their own stories, especially the stories of the aprons hanging on our walls. And also being part of the celebrations of life, the birthday parties, wedding and baby showers, those who bring in their grandmothers, their aunts, their dear friends, to share a meal and conversation. I hear lots of laughter and sometimes notice tears.

Your worst business mistake?

Not asking the City of Laurel for a variance on their sign code. Dylon Robertus, of Arc-Tech Industries, constructed a sign that is a wonderful piece of art. Because of city codes we were not allowed to hang it protruding from the side of the building where it would be visible to passing traffic. Customers looking for Emma’s Kitchen tell us they struggle to find us. We are helped by word-of-mouth referrals and smartphones. Customers searching for ‘homemade and healthy’ see the positive reviews for Emma’s and search us out.

What advice do you have for someone running a business?
Seek out wisdom from those who came before you
Write, review and revamp your business plan. Make it an interactive live document
Have an exit plan

Number of workers?

What’s your five-year plan for the business?

Find someone to take it over who will keep Emma’s going as a neighborhood cafe and coffee shop.
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It has so much character and promise in a 1923 building with an apartment upstairs on Main Street in one of the most up-and-coming towns in Montana.

A question you would ask other entrepreneurs?

How do you deal with negative online comments? It is a challenge dealing with people who have had one bad experience and say they will never be back. But then they post a negative online comment. No matter how many positive comments we get online, the negatives are so defeating and can be devastating for a small business in a small town. There is a new website called “Support Local” and it allows only positive comments. It makes so much sense to tout the positives, and the negatives are dealt with directly by an owner or manager.

If you weren’t doing what you are now, what would be your dream job?

Writing and illustrating children’s books.

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