There are two kinds of family at Spencer & Co. Steakhouse, owner Paula Davey aptly points out.
“There’s the family you’re born into, and the Spencer family,” she said.
And to Davey and her mother Donna Dawson, who started the popular restaurant north of Kalispell 25 years ago, both families are equally treasured.
The steakhouse has a loyal following, in large part because customers are treated like family, Dawson said, from the free bag of Skittles each child receives to candles on birthday desserts and a casual come-as-you-are atmosphere.
And, of course, there are the steaks, hand-cut from Montana beef on the premises by Davey’s husband Kent, a meat-cutter with 30 years of experience. While the steaks are the big attraction at Spencer & Co. — the restaurant has served more than 660,000 since it opened in 1992 — it’s the constant and sincere customer appreciation that also keeps folks coming back for more.
There are plenty of other menu choices such as chicken, fish and salads, plus the unique side dish Spencer’s also is known for — spaghetti. In recent years the steakhouse has added mashed potatoes as a side dish.
There are now generations of Spencer & Co. patrons.
Dawson is largely retired since selling the steakhouse to Davey in 2011, but she still helps out wherever needed. She has worked for much of her life in the restaurant business. “It’s a passion,” she points out. “It’s what I was meant to do.”
She started in the business in the early 1970s at the old Hennessy’s restaurant in Kalispell that was part of the Outlaw Inn.
As a single mother, she raised two daughters on waitress wages. Dawson’s fate changed one day when she was waiting on a regular customer at a Kalispell steakhouse in the early 1990s.
He was so taken with the extraordinary service, he asked Dawson why she didn’t have a place of her own.
“We had really nice customers we loved,” she recalled. “This customer said ‘you girls work so hard,’ you should have your own restaurant.’”
Dawson promptly told him: “It’s a matter of money, and we don’t have any!”
This particular patron was a man of means who proceeded to help Dawson and her sister, Barbara Lipp, finance the purchase of the former Rustic Inn, a “good ol’ boys” bar south of the county landfill that was for sale at the time.
“Everyone thought she was crazy for going so far out,” Davey recalled.
Dawson added with a laugh, “Even my loyal people thought I was crazy.”
Their benefactor had assured them, however, “if you build it they will come.” And he was right.
Dawson said if she hadn’t developed such a huge clientele of faithful customers, she’s not sure she would have made it “in the middle of nowhere.”
Lots of Dawson’s family members have helped out at the steakhouse through the years — aunts, nephews, nieces, sisters, daughters, cousins and her parents. Her father, 89-year-old Leo Brandt, has been the janitor “since Day One” and still comes in to work every day.
Spencer & Co. doesn’t take reservations, though Dawson’s mother, Margaret Brandt, was known to slip a few of her favorites through the door.
“They’re so nice I couldn’t help myself,” she’d apologetically say after promising space and pushing the envelope on the restaurant’s policy.
Margaret and Barbara Lipp still help out around the restaurant; Margaret tends the flowers and Barbara helps with deliveries and maintenance.
Treating the staff like family has created a lot of employee loyalty, too. Janelle Cavender, the grill chef who has cooked the steaks to perfection for 16 years, started there as a dishwasher when she was just 15.
Irene Jensen, a beloved bartender, had worked with Dawson in Kalispell and has been part of the Spencer & Co. team from the get-go. Lynn Engel is an equally beloved member of the wait staff; she’s been with Spencer & Co. for 25 years, too.
The restaurant is open at 5 p.m. daily, seven days a week. It’s a daunting schedule that doesn’t give Davey much time off, but that’s OK with her.
“It’s like your house,” she said. “We paint our own walls … you take pride in it.”
And where did the name Spencer & Co. come from?
Dawson’s former last name was Spencer. Many of her longtime friends still call her simply “Spencer,” so it was the obvious choice.
Besides, her sister’s last name — Lipp — “well, that was not going to work,” Dawson said with a laugh.
Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or firstname.lastname@example.org.