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Em's Café bringing half a century tradition of family business to Plains

Montana is full of family-owned businesses, and in June, it gained one more.
Posted at 4:47 PM, Jul 26, 2023
and last updated 2023-07-27 11:50:36-04

PLAINS - Montana is full of family-owned businesses, and in June, it gained one more.

Emily Sexton opened Em’s Café in Plains on June 6, 2023, with the support of her family — and with the restaurant, she continues the Sexton family’s 47-year history in the restaurant business.

Em’s Café is filled with decorations collected over the 47 years of different restaurants, carrying a bit of history into the new space.

“I’ve collected most of this stuff through the years, and I took it with us and said, you know, if we’re going to do a new place, we can put up the stuff we have and give us a little more comfort of home,” Emily’s father, Murray, says.

Caricature Painting
Murray Sexton purchased this caricature painting 30 years ago, only to find out it was painted by an artist in Plains when a customer told the staff at Em's Café.

Emily loves to bake, first and foremost, so the café is always stocked with seasonal pastries, from huckleberry mousse to strawberry angel food cake.

“All the recipes are from my grandparents,” Emily says. “We’ve adapted some of them or made our own, but a lot of them originated from our grandparents.”

Homemade recipes are a big part of the charm for Sexton family restaurants.

“Good home-cooked food is very good for everybody,” Murray says.

The history of those recipes started in Idaho.

Emily’s grandfather, Dallas, moved himself and his family from Moscow to California for his job. Later, in 1976, he opened a restaurant called Bridgehead Café, the beginning of a decades-old tradition.

Framed on the wall of Em's Café is a copy of a menu from Dallas Sexton's first restaurant in 1976.

The family owned the restaurant until the early 80s when Dallas sold Bridgehead Café and opened Brentwood Café with Emily’s uncle. Soon after, Murray opened Snow White Drive In.

Murray eventually expanded his business and reopened a larger Bridgehead Café, which he ran for 37 years.

Emily, on the other hand, did not have ambitions to buy her own restaurant.

“Since I was four I wanted to be a veterinarian,” she says.

She even went to school for a biology degree. However, when COVID-19 hit, she was forced to move back home and help her father run the restaurant.

She went heavily into baking, spending all the time in the kitchen — time that inspired her to apply for culinary school.

According to Emily Sexton, her father, Murray's culinary specialty is soup. Secret recipes that he has not yet shared with his daughter.

“I was surprised,” Murray says. “Because that was her goal, ‘I wanna be a vet,’ but you know, things change.”

After graduating from culinary school, Murray spoke to Emily about opening a restaurant in Montana.

Dallas owned a house in Montana for over 23 years, and Emily’s uncle already lived in the state, running Minnie’s restaurant in Thompson Falls.

Emily had fond memories of the area, as she spent every summer at the Sexton family farm in Harvard, Idaho.

It was a farm originally purchased by Emily’s great, great-grandparents, but sold by Dallas.

All the time spent on the farm made Emily hope to one day move out of busy California, so she jumped at the chance to move to Plains.

The building they purchased for the café sits on top of a house, making the move a bit easier.

“It’s convenient too because sometimes we have longer days especially being new, so it’s nice to be able to go right downstairs and go home and crash,” Emily says.

Emily Sexton
Emily Sexton always wanted to be a veterinarian but is happy to run a restaurant with her father at her side.

Being closer to her grandfather means they’re able to spend much more time with him. Something they say 83-year-old Dallas appreciates.

“It’s nice to have family around, and you know I was 1100 miles away, so you couldn’t do like we’re going to go to lunch today,” Murray says.

And Emily feels the same.

“It’s so nice because I’ve never lived in the same state as my grandfather, I haven’t lived in the same state as my uncle since I was a couple years old, so it’s really nice to be back around this side of the family and be with them.”

Emily moved with her boyfriend, Alex Bullington, who also has a history in restaurants and shared the same sentiment of wanting to leave California.

“When we got together she said ‘eventually I’m moving to Montana with or without you.’ And I said ‘I’ll go with you’,” Bullington says. “The first time that we drove up here was the very first time I was in Montana. And I’ve loved it ever since.”

Alex Bullington
Alex Bullington and Emily Sexton have been together for two years. Bullington says he had no doubts that Emily's café would be successful.

Emily got into the restaurant business for her family, but she decided to stay because of the people.

“You make new friends, you make new family,” she says. “The restaurant, growing up, my dad always told me it’s the biggest family you’ll ever have.”

And the Sextons have several stories exemplifying that family feel. Murray had seven generations in his restaurant, with the oldest customer being over 100.

Recently, he says a woman came to Em’s Café and told him she had eaten in every Sexton-family restaurant, from California to Plains.

Emily sees that family feel in the support they’ve received from the community, from local businesses like Big Sky Restaurant Supply to nearby residents who’ve brought fresh produce and bread.

“We’ve had such a warm welcome, like everybody in town has just been so fantastic,” she says.

“Everybody knows everybody, everybody is here to help people out,” Bullington says.

Emily is dedicated to buying and hiring local and often asks her staff for advice on what the locals want to see in a diner. And so far, it’s worked.

“You know, this has brought such a place to this community. We are so busy. We can barely keep up with it some nights. And it’s just wonderful that this can be that place for the community,” she says. “That’s kind of what I was raised by, is always help your community.”

The restaurant is open Wednesdays to Sundays from 4 p.m. until 8 p.m. Emily hopes to expand the hours but says she’s committed to the restaurant for the long haul.

At only 23 years old, Emily says she plans to retire in Plains.

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