Two local restaurateurs are bringing the once-popular neighborhood gathering and dining spot back to life. In the process, they hope to become a model for community sustainability by paying living wages, creating career opportunities and ingredients from local producers.
Business partners Ben Burda and Drake Doepke have purchased the former Caffe Dolce building at 500 Brooks St. in Missoula and plan to give it a refresh and make a few changes to the interior. Then this fall, they’ll open it as Florabella, an upscale-but-affordable Italian-inspired restaurant with a coffee café.
They had been planning a new project in the South Hills, but construction costs were astronomical. One day, they decided to reach out to Peter Lambros, who had closed Caffe Dolce during the pandemic but who still owned the distinctive building. Lambros didn’t want to sell to out-of-state investors, and he wanted it to be used as a restaurant. Burda and Doepke, who both are from western Montana and have run and owned successful restaurants in Missoula, fit the bill.
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“He didn’t want someone from out of town to open their version of an Applebee’s,” Burda explained. “And we’ve been in restaurants our entire career. And so, we want to bring it back to the neighborhood. It was the social hub of Missoula. Everyone came here.”
“We love this building,” Doepke said. “It’s such an iconic building. And driving by and not seeing people out on the patio was such a bummer, you know?”
They’re going to install a raised pergola on the patio to allow three-season outdoor dining. The duo will remove the drywall over some windows that face the parking lot, which means the section that used to display fine plates will now be a coffee shop exclusively featuring a special blend made by Black Coffee Roasting Co. in Missoula. They’re also going to move from the kitchen to the dining room, so customers and chefs can interact. And they’re going to make some changes to the acoustics.
The menu will feature handmade pasta made with Montana grains, along with fish, meat, small bites, salads, gelato, Neapolitan-style pizza and other treats.
They’re already researching ingredients like farm cheeses and black garlic butter. The menu will rotate with the seasons, but they’ll always have the basics like a dumpling pasta, gnocchi and ravioli.
The restaurant will also have a beer and wine license, with a wide selection of local beers and Italian wines.
But the most important aspect to Burda and Doepke is to make Florabella a place where people want to work and can earn enough to afford housing and health care in Missoula. So many service industry workers in town have multiple part-time jobs and bounce around, constantly trying to keep up with rising living expenses, that it burns many of them out and they leave town. Burda wants to end that cycle.
“Let’s get these professionals together all in the same room,” he said. “Let’s get our heads together. Let’s create real careers, sustainable food and beverage jobs. Let’s do that together, so you don’t need to move to Portland to get a great culinary job.”
Burda wants to bring back restaurant workers who’ve moved away and “fan the flames” of building a community for them here again.
Doepke said they don’t have big-pocketed investors on board for the project, which is risky but it also means they get to do things their way.
“The way I see it is this is a community building,” he said. “But then if we can throw in this rad food and rad wine and it just becomes, you know, kind of an epicenter of Missoula again.”
He said they don’t plan to charge exorbitant prices in order to pay their staff higher wages. Instead, they’ll be smart about what ingredients they use.
It’s not often that restaurant owners come up with a mission statement for their endeavor, but Burda and Doepke are serious enough about their plans that they want people to understand exactly what they have in mind.
“The mission of Florabella is to assemble a beautiful marriage of Italian-inspired food and wine for the community and bring Missoula together as a family in our dining room,” Burda explained. “Through sustainable staffing practices and food sourcing, Florabella will become an integral part of the fabric that will shape tomorrow’s Missoula.”
They’ve already reached out to agricultural producers in Montana, and hope to form partnerships for a very long time.
“By bringing the farmers’ work closer to the fork, Florabella’s honesty to the product will drive our passionate professionals to root this community beacon as a mainstay for years to come,” Burda said.