Flavors: Ingredients for Success from a Restauranteur: Albert McDonald
Restauranteur Albert McDonald, owner of Backcountry Burger Bar and Pizza Campania in Bozeman and the Mint in Belgrade was recognized as a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation Best Restauranteur this year. The nominations go to “A restauranteur who uses their establishment(s) as a vehicle for building community, demonstrates creativity in entrepreneurship, integrity in restaurant operations, and is making efforts to create a sustainable work culture, while contributing positively to their broader community.”
Over the years, he has worked at different establishments and partnered in many eateries under the Big Sky. He said of success in the business, “For restaurants, you have to have a really good plan or money, and good luck, or you’ve got to be willing to take some risks.” “I’m looking for something where the opportunity isn’t obvious, and the opportunity is if you take something and you make it something of it, that in the long term, you will make money. I don’t look at restaurants as a quick thing in terms of creating wealth or security.”
McDonald came from a family who worked in the food business in Morristown, in northern New York. “As a child, my parents had a catering business, and my mom was responsible for making all the food, and my dad did the booking and handled the actual events in the front of the house.” “My mom actually put a knife in my hand when I was 5 years old, and had me helping with prep.”
With a business degree from the University of Colorado and a desire to live in the mountains, “I was going to work in restaurants at night to support my ski bumming.” Quickly he settled in Bozeman in 1993.
Here he worked for McKenzie Pizza Company that “was taking the town by storm.” The company was creating a more “sophisticated” pizza for the area and he wanted to learn as much as he could from the company. “I was learning how to manage within that company and moved around Montana,” working in Missoula, Kalispel and Billings. After a stint at Bistro Enzo in Billings, “I went to work and was the general manager for Montana Ale Works, and eventually a partner there,” to eventually go out on his own.
“An unfortunate event occurred where the founder of a small pizzeria died of a heart attack, and I was asked by the property owners to help the widow by taking over operations of her restaurant.” “She knew she wanted to sell it, but she also knew she needed to keep it running.” McDonald eventually took over Pizza Campania, a Neopolitan pizzeria located on the north side of Bozeman in 2014.
McDonald’s sister, Yvonne managed the restaurant for 7 years until she retired to take care of their ailing mother, “she’s a wonderful, graceful human being that prioritizes being closer to our mother over her own career.”
In 2015, McDonald the Mint in Belgrade. McDonald saw the opportunity in this restaurant that he believed many Montanans saw this as a place that was authentic to the area. “I think Belgrade was incorporated in 1906. The Mint started serving food in 1904.” He saw this restaurant as a place where people had been coming together for years for food and drink.
With the growth under the Big Sky, “You didn’t need a crystal ball to see that the Gallatin Valley was going to rebound and rebound hard. I’ve always believed in Belgrade.” Although others may have seen the town as “the scrappy little red headed stepchild of a community living outside of Bozeman,” McDonald believed it did not “get the respect that pretty little Bozeman gets.”
“The purpose of the food there was to draw that community in together, and I saw that at the Mint, in Belgrade, I had seen it in its heyday and I’ve seen it down in the dumps. And I had an opportunity, and it was bankrupt, and I bought it.”
McDonald then opened Backcountry Burger Bar where a craft burger was found. “It means we work with the same beef producer the entire time,” McDonald shared of sourcing from Montana Waygu Company and not from a food vendor. “It means they don’t patty the beef. We patty the beef. We punch our own fries.”
McDonald credited former business partner, Pete “Pedro” Hendrickson, from Montana Ale Works, for coming up with the idea for the business as he was “in love with a restaurant concept Hopdoddy out of Austin, Texas.” It made sense to pursue the endeavor with Backcountry Burger Bar opening in 2019 because “Montana has all the cows in the world, wheat production, great potatoes.”
Much of McDonald’s success came from dedication from his staff and support of customers. He celebrated the local people and diners. “Giving back to the community can take many forms and I think the important thing for all of us is to realize that no matter who we are within our community is that we rely on our community more than we realize and that we all have an inherent responsibility in whatever form resonates with us to personally invest ourselves back in to our community.”
For McDonald, his creativity in entrepreneurship, integrity in restaurant operations and efforts in creating a sustainable work culture along with bringing positivity to the community have brought him success as a restauranteur here under the Big Sky.