Making it in Big Sky: Keith Kuhns of Scissorbills Saloon
By Bay Stephens EBS Editorial Assistant
BIG SKY – Scissorbills Saloon is a locals’ restaurant and bar in Mountain Village beloved for its après scene. Keith Kuhns, the operating partner, bought the restaurant as the Bambu Bar and Asian Bistro 10 years ago with brothers Adam and Kyle Olson as well as their father, Scott Olson.
“Scissorbill” is an old Western term that greenhorn ranchers earned for not knowing what they were doing. From around 1983 to 1999, the restaurant and bar was named Scissorbills. Three separate restaurants and owners came through and with that a name change.
After two years of locals asking the owners to change the name back to Scissorbills, Kuhns and the Olsons decided to make the switch. They changed the menu, rebranded and have been operating under the name for the past eight years. Scissorbills also caters special events in Bozeman as an offshoot of their main operation.
As part of an ongoing series, EBS sat down with Kuhns to find out what it takes to achieve longevity as a small business in Big Sky.
EBS: What’s been the key to your success?
Keith Kuhns: The key to our success has been the increased traffic that is making it through Big Sky these days. We’ve been able to go from open four or five months just in the wintertime to being open for almost 12 months a year. And that is [thanks] to all of the media that surrounds Big Sky, whether it’s stuff from the resort or whether it’s Outlaw Partners and the magazine, EBS, or a lot of the other marketing that goes into [this] place with all of the different chambers of commerce around the area.
We’ve always been kind of a locals’ kind of place too, so we’ve found that trying to keep the locals in there has been a very good foundation for what we do.
EBS: How has the business landscape changed since you started out?
Kuhns: I’ve gone from a lot of print media to a lot of online media. … You start to realize how many people make up this online community and it’s a large segment that really needs to be tapped into and used correctly to keep people involved. I’m doing more this winter where I’m trying to get more videos on Facebook [with music] playing.[There’s also an] acceptance of restaurants changing their platforms regularly or changing items on their menus regularly. We change our beers all the time, and staying fresh is important. You don’t want to get stagnant, especially when you have a tough location like we do.
EBS: Why do you think so many new businesses fold relatively quickly?
Kuhns: Capital problems, I would assume. With high rent and increased cost of goods, you really have to make sure you have cash in the bank [so] you can weather the storm for a year or two while your brand grows in Big Sky.
It’s just getting that breakthrough. I think you probably need more capital to do that than anything else. The other problem [is] it’s tough to find employees in Big Sky. … There’s not enough reasonably priced housing [for] workers.
EBS: What advice would you give to small business owners just starting out in Big Sky?
Kuhns: Try to avoid turnover with employees. … It basically just comes down to treating your folks well. That could be with pay or how you deal with them or converse with them—anything like that. Folks want to be there for a good time on the hill. My staff, they’re all ski bums so they want to have fun on the hill and fun at work too.
EBS: What’s the best piece of business advice you’ve received?
Kuhns: If you treat people well, they’ll work hard for you. … You just have to give back to the community and treat your folks right and do what’s right by you.
Scissorbills by the numbers
- Number of beers on tap: 6
- Staff size: 8 in the summer, up to 20 in the winter.
- Money spent on renovation: “Enough to pay someone a handsome salary for a year.”
- Number of Best of Big Sky awards for best après: 4
- Numbers of months open in 2009: 5
- Numbers of months open in 2017: almost 12
- Approximate percentage of employees who ride on powder days: 50
- Number of days on snow for Scissorbills’ most dedicated riders: 80+ per year