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Why are so many restaurants leaving Billings Heights?

Closed sign on Okinawa Sushi in the Heights
Posted at 7:55 AM, Nov 16, 2023
and last updated 2023-11-16 11:46:11-05

BILLINGS — For 27 years, Off Main Deli and Bakery took up residence in the Heights but was recently forced to relocate. This is just one of the newest Heights restaurant closures, leaving residents with fewer options for dining.

The Billings Heights has more than 33,000 residents, according to the US Census Bureau, and community leaders worry there's not enough restaurants to serve the growing neighborhood.

"Obviously people would like to see more restaurant options," said Pam Ellis, the secretary of the Heights Task Force, on Wednesday. "Some of the sit-down restaurants are really packed. We’ve lost several restaurants, obviously Main Street Deli, (and) we lost a Japanese restaurant on Main Street."

The Stadium Club, Okinawa Sushi, and Hardee’s all closed this year.

Old Hardee's being remodeled to Chipotle
Old Hardee's being remodeled to Chipotle

For lease or for sale signs are everywhere you look.

“Small businesses are challenging," Ellis said. "The thing about Main Street is it doesn’t look like Anywhere, USA. I mean, most of the businesses are locally owned and operated. So, for a variety of reasons, people come and go."

One of the more recent closures is Off Main Deli.

Off Main Deli in the Heights
Off Main Deli in the Heights

"It’s been in business for 27 years now," said Desiree Contreras-Sutton, the owner of Off Main Deli, on Wednesday. "(We were) always in the Heights until now."

The Heights staple is no longer on Main Street, but it didn’t permanently close. It simply moved locations, and can now be found way off of Main Street on North 27th Street in the city's medical corridor.

“I love the location, I love the actual building. It’s super cute in here. We’ve got a great kitchen, so I love that. We’ve always delivered to the hospitals already, and so just to be even closer to the hospitals is great along with the colleges and airport. There’s just not much down here for food. Quick, good food. So it’s nice to be able to provide that for the people in the area,” Contreras-Sutton said. "We’ve got some regular customers that have been so wonderful through this."

Desiree, owner
Desiree, owner

The decision to relocate wasn’t up to the owner.

"We would still be in the Heights if we could be. I’m happy to be where we’re at, but it wasn’t our choice to move,” Contreras-Sutton said. "We were leasing the building, and then the gal that owned the building put it up for sale. So we were actually given 60 days to relocate after such a long time in that location."

Contreras-Sutton said with the help of a local real-estate agent, finding a new space suitable for the deli didn't take long.

“Luckily, I didn’t really have to scramble. I was working with Shaylee Green, she’s a real estate business Realtor. She came across this, she listed it for the gal who owned it before. She thought of us and she got a hold of me and said, ‘I think I have a great location for you.’ And so the kitchen was already set up, we just, we literally moved in a weekend. We closed on Friday at the Heights location and we opened here that Monday morning. We moved it in one weekend. I had a lot of help,” Contreras-Sutton said. "A huge thank you to my employees. They were great, they showed up, and they brought their families and their kids. My family showed up to help, my boyfriend showed up to help. I mean, it was a huge group effort and I’m very thankful for all of them. Because there was no way we could have done it without them."

Inside the new location of Off Main Deli
Inside the new location of Off Main Deli

Although Contreras-Sutton said she's sad to leave the Heights, she's looking forward to a new beginning in the new space at 1139 N. 27th St., Suite B, in Billings.

"This lease, I’ve got some years ahead of us. So we don’t plan on going anywhere. Just want to grow,” Contreras-Sutton said. "I love my customers, I love my employees. It’s been great."

Back in the Heights, as the Billings Bypass Project moves along, even more growth is expected to follow. That project would connect Lockwood to the Heights.

"As they finish the Johnson Road Bridge and the extension, that will open up a huge area for development. The prediction is that it will take traffic off of Main. It won’t last because of all the development, but it will help a lot and will open it up. So it’s really critical that people participate in the development of the neighborhood plan," Ellis said. "It has to be done well and it has to represent the knowledge and the interest of the residents of the Heights."

Billings Bypass Project
Billings Bypass Project

As for the lack of options, Ellis urges Heights residents to provide input at the task force's monthly meetings. It meets the fourth Tuesday of every month at the Oasis Water Park and anyone with interest in the Heights is welcome to join.

Pam Ellis
Pam Ellis

“Certainly everyone in the Heights is welcome, and our membership requirement is just that you have an interest in the Heights. So we have people who attend who own businesses here but don’t live here, people who get the minutes, and read them all the time but don’t always come to the meetings. They can just show up," Ellis said. "One of the things I’d like to see, is we have one-third of the population that lives here and is growing, but we don’t really have one-third of the representation on City Council. So one of the things we’ll be maybe looking at is the boundaries. Maybe going to one person, one ward. Giving them more equitable distribution of the knowledge."

To learn more about the Heights Task Force, click here.

To learn more about Off Main Deli, click here.


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Closed sign on Okinawa Sushi in the Heights
Closed sign on Okinawa Sushi in the Heights