The 501 Lounge was empty. It was just Iron Horse Brew Pub owner Tami Ursich and me along with her golden retriever, Scout. She sat across from me all bundled up. Dressed in a black sweater, with black yoga pants, and a thick black headband made to keep her hair up along with keeping her ears warm. Her nose was bandaged from a battle lost with a hard concrete sidewalk. She stared aimlessly at me with drink in hand waiting for me to ask my first question. She was sitting straight up with her legs crossed. She looked prepared and eager, ready to tell me about her success.
“With me being a drinker, everyone wants to see me fail,” Ursich said.
Ursich said the hardships of being a small business owner in a competitive 21st Century economy have taken a toll on her, but she must have “thick skin.”
As a Montana State University graduate with a degree in physical education, Ursich did not think she would one day be the owner of one of the most successful restaurants in Missoula. She wanted to be just like her dad and take hold of a profession in teaching.
“It wasn’t going to cut it for me, it was not the profession that was on the rise in the moment. The bar and restaurant was where the money was. It was all about tips,” Ursich said as she stirred her drink, which was a light shade of pink in a small glass accompanied by two straws.
She was a waitress through college and at 29 she fell in love with a coworker. She said that she was young and felt as if she had the world at her feet. She and her boyfriend had the ambition and the money they needed to open up the first microbrewery in the state in 1989 before she moved on and decided to open up the Iron Horse by herself in 1991.
“I was excited and full of energy. I knew I could make it work,” Tami said confidently as she leaned back in her chair as if to tell me, look. I did make it work.
There were plenty of naysayers. One would think that being a female entrepreneur in the 1980s would be difficult due to her gender, but Ursich said no, her gender has never been an issue when it comes to doing business with others. When she talks about hardships her employees came up frequently.
“I’m responsible for them. I am the one that signs their paycheck, supports their family and if the bar is not doing well, they are not doing well,” Ursich said as she shrugged her shoulders and reached to take another sip of her drink.
Ursich tries to keep her relationship with her employees at strictly the professional level, but she said it can be difficult.
“It’s hard when I know them and their family so well. I see them as friends outside of work so I see them as friends in work as well,” she said.
Ursich said regardless of friendship the business does come first and she has to do what is best for it and everyone involved, if that means letting one of her friends go, or even some of her family that works for her, she will.
When it comes to the hardship of letting one of her employees go Ursich said it is really up to them.
“I can provide them with the tools to do their job. It is up to them to use them and be successful,” she said.
As Ursich took the final sips of her drink she went behind the bar to make another one and I asked her what she would tell hopeful Missoula business owners.
“Good luck,” she said without hesitation.
She followed up with, “Not good luck. It is harder than you think.”
Ursich went on to say that one does not know how to run a business or the challenges of it until they do it. She encourages younger generations to follow their passion because opportunity is out there
“The world is an oyster. Find your place and work hard. Everybody wants something for nothing, but that is not how the world works,” she said.
Ursich said she does not plan to throw in the towel on the Iron Horse anytime soon, but she does have some regrets.
“I am 54 and not a quitter. However, I do wish I could downsize,” she said.
She feels as if maybe she has done too much to expand the Iron Horse and as it grows the cost expands as well, as it becomes greater and greater with every new addition.
However, as the interview came to an end along with her second drink, Ursich ended it on a positive note.
“This is all I know how to do and I love it,” she said.
I turned the recorder off and she put her glass in the dishwasher. We both got up and Scout––lying at our feet the whole time, was quick to follow.
I thanked her for her time as we headed down the stairs and she began to talk about the hopeful future of our country with Mr. Trump becoming president.