Fresh Faces in Familiar Places

February 2024

article by jessica renstrom | photos by jamie blotske

Billings has seen enormous growth over the past 30 years, bringing a variety of vibrant new businesses. Amidst this expansion, it's wonderful to witness several business owners preserving the rich nostalgia and success of iconic local establishments.  

CJ’s Bar & Grill

After its initial opening in 1976, CJ’s Bar & Grill became a beloved gathering place for many locals, including long-time resident Marcie Smith and her family. “We love the previous owners and have been friends for 40 years. My daughter Alicia worked there for over 10 years, and it’s an incredibly run business.” So, when presented with the opportunity to purchase the bar & grill, her family’s answer was, “Let’s do this.” 

Despite having previously worked in various industries, Kyle and Alicia Solheim, Marcie’s son-in-law and daughter, and the rest of the family leaped into the restaurant industry with enthusiasm. “We naturally evolved into our roles,” says Marcie. “As a mom, it’s great to work with my kids. It’s brought us together even more.”  

While some changes have been made since taking over last April, including adding a rewards system and opening up the casino/gaming area, the new owners keep the staples that patrons have come to love. “In a growing, changing, fast-paced world, where there’s this push for bigger, better, etc., my goal would be consistency: you know exactly what you’re getting,” states Brittany Smith, Marcie’s daughter-in-law and co-owner. “You know the food and the feeling. You don’t have to worry about a change in recipes.” 

This desire to preserve Billings’ best flavors and a serendipitous turn of events led the family to purchase another iconic business: Village Inn. 

Village Inn 

Although Village Inn and CJ’s are separate entities, the family’s strong commitment to these two establishments is indistinguishable. 

“Village Inn was such an iconic place for so many people,” comments Brittany. “There was no way to keep the building, but we wanted to get the original things (as much as we could salvage) to give it the same feel.” With one glance inside, it’s obvious the new owners accomplished their goal. The building is filled with the original tables and chairs, stained glass, lights, and even the Pac-Man machine. Drinks are served in the authentic red cups, and pizzas are cooked in the original oven on “the same pans seasoned with love for 30 years.” 

The new owners opened Village Inn in what was CJ’s Garage and sold their first pizza on November 2 with the help of their incredible team.

“The biggest gift for Village Inn 2.0 (as we’ve come to call it) is the staff,” Brittany states. “We acquired the original staff. They had all gone on to jobs in different industries and came back to join us.” Marcie agrees, “Everything is made from scratch. We bought the original recipes, but the staff have the love and the knowledge to bring the recipes to life.” 

While keeping with the nostalgia of Village Inn, the new owners have implemented a few changes. In addition to a bigger beer and wine selection, gluten-free crust, and lunch specials, patrons may see future menu additions.  

The Base Camp 

Another Montana family keeping Billings’ businesses alive is the Brown family. After opening the first store in Helena in 1975, Scott and Deb Brown added a second store in Billings in 1990. Lauren and Cody, Scott and Deb’s daughters, grew up with a deep understanding of the stores but also felt free to pursue other interests. 

“Honestly, Cody and I never worked in the store growing up. Our parents allowed us to foster our own passions.” Among other accomplishments, Cody traveled the world, became a business owner, and earned fashion and merchandising degrees. Lauren pursued photography and has run her own successful business for 20 years. But when their parents announced they wanted to sell the stores, the sisters turned their focus to continuing The Base Camp legacy. 

Now, they bring their life experiences and love of The Base Camp to lead the stores into the future. “We want to continue to provide excellent customer service, supply the best products, hand-picked for quality, value, style, and comfort; and support our local communities,” says Lauren. “We are so appreciative of our customers and communities who support The Base Camp and shop local.”  

Patrons of The Base Camp can rest assured that the future of the stores is bright. According to Lauren, “We hope to have more in-store events and partnerships with other local businesses and non-profits. We are also looking forward to developing our online storefront. And, who knows, maybe there will be a third store sometime in the future as well.” 

Davidson Home Furnishings & Design 

photo by Miranda Murdock

Davidson Home Furnishings & Design is yet another example of a Billings-based business that has successfully transitioned from one generation to the next. 

Tiff Davidson-Blades, owner of Davidson Home Furnishings & Design, took complete ownership of the business when her mother retired around 10 years ago. Originally under the moniker of Patricia Davidson Designs in 1988, the store was eventually rebranded as Davidson Home Furnishings & Design as the mother-daughter duo worked to expand. Known for its stellar interior design work and excellent customer service, Tiff has maintained those ideals while adapting to clients’ evolving desires. 

“As design evolves and changes over the years, it was very important that we, as a design firm and home furnishings store, adapted and grew our product offerings to reflect the current styles and trends,” Tiff explains. “We have worked hard over the last 10 to 15 years to focus on what our clients are asking for, which includes everything from traditional, contemporary, and transitional looks.”  

In addition to seeking out desired offerings for clients, the company has started and grown a successful “trade program” with independent designers and cultivated a compassionate family culture for its employees. As she looks toward the future, Tiff is both grateful for their clients over the past 35 years and eager to help the new: “We have such wonderful people in our community, and as long as they all keep shopping local, I hope to be here for many more years to come!” 

504 Square Feet 

Community involvement and local shopping are also at the heart of the 504 Square Feet pottery studio in the East Billings Urban Renewal District. 

In November 2023, owner Cassy Crafton announced that she was selling the pottery studio to Shaundel Krumheuer, a studio member who loves creating and community. “My first thought when Cassy decided to sell the business was that if she were to close it, we would lose the community she has built. Honestly, the thought of that made my heart hurt. Of course, losing the place where I could play in the mud and create was a fear, but knowing that the 504 Square Feet community would be lost was the real gut punch!” 

Since then, Shaundel has jumped in to continue fostering and growing this community of makers. She plans to continue many of the studio’s services originally implemented by Cassy, including classes, memberships, and take-home projects during holidays. However, she also has many ideas for the future of 504 Square Feet, including more diverse classes and community partnerships.  

“I'd love to partner with other makers and maybe be able to offer workshops using materials outside of clay, too. I'm looking forward to collaborating with Jim Markel and Red Oxx and the BIRD to bring makers together and do what I can to grow the artisan and maker community,” says Shaundel. “I'm a Billings girl – it's where I was born and raised, so I'd like to be able to do my part to give back to Billings and be a part of the Downtown community!”  

The unwavering commitment of business owners like these ensures that our beloved Billings businesses continue to thrive. The beautiful balance between old and new makes our city truly special, and by shopping locally, you play an integral role in ensuring the longevity of all small businesses in Billings.  

Originally printed in the February 2024 issue of Simply Local Magazine

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