MISSOULA — The Dram Shop in Missoula quietly celebrated its fifth anniversary this year, and while the pandemic quashed big plans for a bigger celebration, the summer lull provided an opportunity to open outdoor seating at the pub’s new Midtown location.
In doing so, Dram Shop Central and its neighbors, including Big Dipper, have slowly transformed a strip mall into something a little less conspicuous, adding to the district’s growing vibrancy.
“It’s definitely a local scene out here compared to downtown,” said Zachary Miller, who founded the business with his wife, Sarah, in 2015. “In downtown, we have our regulars and we love them, but on this side of town, there seems to be more regulars and locals. There’s aren’t any big hotels or much tourism based out of this end of town, so it’s fun to fold ourselves into a different part of Missoula.”
The Millers opened their fist location on Front Street in downtown Missoula back in 2015, and the concept was a hit. The business was the first in Montana dedicated strictly to refilling growlers, and with 40 beers on tap, along with wine and cider, the idea proved successful.
As their downtown business grew, Zach began scouting a second location, ideally with a large population base and a thriving commercial district. He found it in the Midtown district near Southgate Mall.
“We wanted to hedge the work we did in the first shop into a second shop, and I knew we needed geographic elbow room,” he said. “For me, I was looking mainly at North Reserve and the south end of town. Frankly, it was not easy to find a location that was zoned for our premise of alcohol licensing. There are a lot of commercial spaces in town that are not.”
Five years ago, when the Millers opened their first location downtown, the Midtown area was just beginning its revival. Portions of the strip mall were razed, as was an old motel that sat nearby. The mall itself was still a windowless block surrounded by a sea of asphalt.
But the aesthetics have slowly evolved, thanks to a blend of public and private investment. A number of businesses have followed, some new and some investing in the area with a second location.
Great Burn Brewing entered the district with its hand-crafted ales, and Bridge Pizza renovated a dilapidated building nearby. Big Dipper opened its new location this summer, joining the Dram Shop in adding to the area’s growing array of outdoor dining.
While the pandemic has disguised the activity this year, Zach Miller and others see an area of Missoula on the cusp of positive change.
“It’s been a long time coming for us,” said Zach. “The design idea of putting the patio on the end of the building was to make the focus of the design off Paxson Street rather than the parking lot to make it feel a little less like your average strip mall. If you’re sitting at a table at night, it doesn’t feel like you’re sitting on the street or near a parking lot.”
The Missoula Redevelopment Agency has played a hand in the district’s transformation. It invested around $7 million in tax increment to complete Mary Avenue between Brooks and Reserve, including boulevard trees and landscaping to break up what formerly served as a massive parking lot.
A number of businesses have followed with their own investment and jobs, and the redevelopment activity isn’t yet finished.
“The mall has a lot of big projects coming and they have a real long-term vision in what they want the area to look like and how they want it to function,” said Zach. “It’s a long game. I’ve lived in Missoula for a long time and it’s neat to be part of the way the city is changing.”
While finding the new location wasn’t easy – something Zach attributes to Missoula’s antiquated zoning laws guiding drinking establishments – Dram Shop Central has settled into its new digs, offering another Midtown draw.
“We’re just over a year into the new place and it has kept us busy,” said Zach. “We’ve been learning how to expand and manage everything and keep our team up to speed while ensuring the culture we created goes on and the employees get the most of out of it.”