By Bay Stephens EBS Staff Writer
Wendy and Van Burton have run Milkie’s since April 1994 when they opened in their current location between By Word of Mouth and The Wrap Shack.
The name came about when someone saw the Burtons’ old business partner, Larry Hess, walking a golf course on a windy day wearing a rain suit in 1994; the onlooker said he looked like Milky the Clown—a kids’ television entertainer in the 1950s and ‘60s—and the restaurant found a name.
Serving pizza, calzones, pasta and drinks from the bar, Milkie’s has become a longtime locals’ gathering place, equipped with a pool table, TVs to watch sports, and a jukebox for making memories.
As part of this ongoing series, Wendy Burton shared her thoughts with EBS about what it takes to make it as a small business owner in Big Sky.
Explore Big Sky: What has been the key to your success?
Wendy Burton: Growing up with the community. Both of our children were born and raised here. Most of us parents were just starting out or were already established. We tried to support each other and that still continues today.
Our customers are also key to our success. Without their continued support, we wouldn’t be where we are. So, we strive to give them the best food, the best service, the best experience, [to offer] a place where they feel comfortable.
EBS: Do you remember your first customer or first sale?
W.B.: [Our] first customers were father and son, Dick and Dale Wambscan, and I think they had a pepperoni pizza.
EBS: What are the biggest obstacles to operating a small business in Big Sky?
W.B.: Our biggest obstacle was getting our liquor license. A community member protested our liquor license [because] he believed one bar in the neighborhood was enough. We had to collect over 500 signatures on a petition and present our case to the board of directors of the Liquor Division in Helena. Then we had to wait for their decision to come in the mail. We did win the case and received our license about six weeks after we opened.
EBS: How has the business landscape changed since you started out?
W.B.: When we first started out there were only a handful of businesses in Westfork. Southfork was beginning to grow and the Town Center was a long-term goal. Looking at Big Sky now, everywhere you look there is progress.
EBS: What is it about Big Sky that compels you to stick it out through the hard times?
W.B.: When you live in such a beautiful place where you can walk out your door and take a hike, go for a ride, fish, raft, ski or whatever you enjoy, that makes it all worthwhile.
EBS: What is one of the most memorable moments you have had as a resident/business owner in Big Sky?
W.B.: There are a lot of memorable moments but what stands out for us is how far we have come. We are a place where people come back year after year. Some that came with their parents now are bringing their kids. We have locals who call us home. We are able to give when needed. We are one of those places we dreamed about. We are very grateful for all of this.
EBS: What’s the best piece of business advice you’ve received?
W.B.: The best advice was to make sure you surround yourself with good employees, treat them with respect as they are your backbone. That’s one thing we believe, if you work for us, you are family and even if someone moves on they are still family.
EBS: What advice would you give to small business owners just starting out in Big Sky?
W.B.: Be prepared to work hard, take pride in what you do, be consistent, and surround yourself with good people who love what they do. Another thing to remember is be patient if you make mistakes. … We all do learn from them and move on.
EBS: Where do you see your business in 10 years?
W.B.: Not quite sure, tomorrow is not a given but for today I’m going to be the best person I can be and embrace the day.
EBS: Where do you see Big Sky in 20 years?
W.B.: Bigger than I ever thought or wanted it to be.
EBS: Would you do it all over again?
Milkie’s Pizza and Pub: By the numbers
• Staff: About 20
• Years in business: 24
• Longest serving employee: Rebecca “Bunny” Chupa, 16 years