The word “sassy” exhales confidence and liveliness with irreverence sifted in. The Sassy Biscuit Co. in downtown Billings bakes up such sassiness that it has become one of the more popular places in town for brunch. Founder and owner Jilan Johnson opened the bruncherie serving breakfast everyday and into the evenings from Wednesdays to Saturday in 2018.
Walking through the glass framed yellow door, I stepped into a space reminiscent of a good friend’s loft apartment. Light streaming in through west facing windows seemed to push me inside. The décor whispered from the catalog pages of Crate and Barrel and Restoration Hardware intermixed with treasures from garage sales and thrift stores. Clocks of all sizes and shapes covered one wall across the room from a wall decorated with industrial muffin pans and framed chicken wire adorned with the words “Fresh” and “Local.” Different seating options from stools at the counter covered with Scrabble tiles to a group wooden high top to wrought iron chairs portray a comfortable Western hip vibe.
When Jilan’s husband DeMarco, an U.S. Marine, was called to duty in Billings, Jilan wanted to find another endeavor to support her family. In San Diego, she was leaving behind a job where she had just received a promotion.
After high school, Jilan attended the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute. Here she met her husband and both pursued short lived cooking careers. With a growing family they decided joining the military would provide a more stable livelihood. Also after working less than a year in the field, Jilan realized being in a commercial kitchen was not for her, but ironically have decided to open a business in food.
“I was just watching a Food Network channel show on waffles and I thought to myself, what about a biscuit waffle?” Jilan said of getting the idea for The Sassy Biscuit Company. She tested recipes on her children and to this day wonder why they still like to eat biscuits.
In starting her business, Jilan sought the help of food professional in Billings, “Joanie from Harper and Madison spent quite a bit of time with me telling me about her business. I learned from her the rights and wrongs, and the dos and don’ts, and from other chefs in the industry. They connected me with other people who connected me with other people, and it just started forming this network of professionals.”
“When you learn from other people’s mistakes, it allows you to not to make them, and to make better choices. So I think it is instrumental as an entrepreneur to just take a second and really make sure you’re doing everything necessary to be successful,” Jilan pointed out.
Executive Chef William McCormick was the Johnson’s first hire. He helped establish a menu highlighting the biscuits balanced with other breakfast choices such as pancakes and French toast. Oatmeal offerings were named after Jilan’s parents. McCormick said, “She always tells a story about how her mom would always have a piece of lemon bread with her oatmeal with blueberries every morning. Her dad would always have apples and cinnamon raisin combination on his oatmeal and that’s why we named our oatmeal “the Ma” and “the Pa.”
McCormick proudly pointed his homemade “house smoked cured bacon” and “saged sausage.” A smoker in the back and a grinder downstairs help make these savory accompaniments. At the Sassy Biscuit Co., a “from scratch restaurant,” he shared, “We don’t buy anything premade and we make it all in house.”
So what’s the secret to the biscuits? The drop style biscuits that are batter styled rather than dough styled. According to McCormick the secret is, “It’s frozen butter that we shred. That’s one of the keys in making sure the butter stays cold. We add a butter and shortening mix, about a little 70 percent butter and 30 percent shortening. The reason we do a drop style is because it keeps them more moist.” When butter melts in between the layers of batter or dough, it forms air pockets while infusing in buttery goodness. The “PRESSED SHORTCAKES” or “waffled pressed biscuits” came from a similar batter to the biscuits with shredded frozen butter.
McCormick has found family at The Sassy Biscuit Co. “Jilan and DeMarco have become family. Family like we are all here. It’s definitely a restaurant where we treat everyone as family.” He continued, “We hire a lot out of recovery so it’s a sober kitchen, one of the few in town that is big on sobriety.” Because of the staying power of the staff in an industry where turnover is high, McCormick proudly admitted that he has not had to hire a new employee for 8 months. “I definitely feel as though Sassy Biscuit is a part of me as I am a part of it.”
That sense of family continued to Dover, New Hampshire where the Johnsons are opening a sister restaurant in spring or early summer. DeMarco took a position at the Pentagon so the Johnsons live in Maryland. With investor Roni Pekins, who McCormick lovingly called “Mother Roni” the team was looking into a second concept for nighttime dining. Jilan said of the location, “It’s actually a cool, quaint spot in New Hampshire. Lots of the attributes that remind me of Billings.”
In Billings and in Dover, The Sassy Biscuit Co. planned on feeding family and friends with liveliness and confidence one biscuit at a time.