Deb Bowsher is purchasing the ever-popular Millstone Restaurant in Milbank from longtime owner Dave Forettte. Deb takes over the range on April 1.
Most people know Deb from the Central United Methodist Church in Milbank, where her husband,Thom, is the pastor, or from Zem’s Bakery, where she worked for six years. But wherever Deb goes – and she’s lived in a lot of places – you can be sure food will follow. Even at the church, she says, “One of the things I do is organize our Wednesday night meals. We usually serve about 150 people.”
Deb grew up in California and her dad was military. She was accustomed to frequent moves and she was exposed to different cuisines and flavors from an early age. “I love food,” she says, “I’m a foodie. I love to bake. I love to cook. And, you know, it kind of runs in my family. My grandma was a cook and baker her whole life. We are all food people. My mom and dad owned a restaurant after I was married and had kids. My mom had always wanted to have her own restaurant.”
“As Thom and I moved from church to church over the years, I would gather my favorite recipes from each area where we lived. I remember North Dakota was heavy into German and Norwegian food. I collected people’s recipes and I would try them. Then, if I liked it, I’d keep it in my little arsenal of dishes.”
Although Deb is a trained stylist and worked in hair for 13 years, she says, “In the Methodist Church, you often get relocated. I’d build up a clientele and then we’d move.I decided it was time to look for a different career.” It worked out, because for Deb all roads lead to food.
She said, “When Thom was the director at Lake Poinsett Camp, we also lived there. I was the food service director for the camp and the retreat center.”
In July, they’ll celebrate seven years of living in Milbank. Had she dreamed of owning a restaurant? “I had imagined buying The Millstone, but I didn’t really think a lot about it,” she says. “And then one day, Dave said to me, as he did to a lot of people, ‘I’ll give you $10,000 if you can find me a buyer!’ I started thinking harder about it and I thought, I think “I” could be that buyer,” she says. “Then, we started visiting about it, and here we are.”
“I decided I’m at the age where my youngest child is a teenager and I don’t have to worry about childcare or things like that. If I’m ever going to do this, it’s now. I’m not getting any younger. It’s always been a passion of mine. I’m not scared. I’m excited and I feel it’s going to work.”
But dreams don’t come wrapped in paper with a bow. They usually require perseverance and a lot of faith. It’s the same story for Deb. She says, “I was diagnosed with breast cancer in November and had surgery in January. I start(ed) radiation on February 21. I feel like the restaurant plan has taken quite a while to come together, but I’ll be done with radiation in the middle of March, and then I take over on the first of April. One of my bigger concerns, when I found out I had cancer, was the timing – taking over the restaurant, being healed, and having energy. And it looks like it’s just going to work out perfectly.”
“A lot of people, once they had found out they had breast cancer would have said, ‘Oh, I’m not doing this now.’ But I kept thinking, this is a hurdle I have to face. A year from now, I’m going to be so glad I did it and didn’t back out.”
She explained, “There are many things that happen in our life that I believe God expects us to use, including things we have gone through to help other people through the same ordeal. I look at my breast cancer that way. All the ladies that have gone before me have stepped up to tell me what to expect and what their journey was like. That’s very comforting. It’s one of the reasons I knew I could proceed with purchasing The Millstone and be just fine.”
She flashes one of her sunshiney smiles and says, “I’m actually starting to work at the restaurant (last week). I couldn’t just go in cold turkey. I need to learn the ins and outs and who does what. And the ordering! she exclaims. Although I have a ton of experience cooking, I’ve never been a line cook. That will be an area I need to learn. When they’re crazy busy, it’ll take me a little while to adjust, but the crew at The Millstone is very good about getting the food out quickly.”
“I really have to give Dave credit. He has great employees. It’s obvious he treats them well. His kitchen help…I think the least someone’s been there is five years and all the way up to 15 years. One server has been there 22 years! Now, when it seems like everyone is shorthanded, that says a lot about how he’s treated people and how good he is to work for. I’m really hoping everyone will want to stay onboard.”
Will her family help out? “My son Carter is a senior in high school. He’s excited to work at the restaurant after school and this summer before going to college. My son Wes is a police officer and he loves to cook. But he already has a full-time police job. We also have a son Braylen. He’ll be 14 in a couple of weeks. So, I have a good connection to his age group – the age of servers and workers in the restaurant. I just told his friends the other day, and they were all so excited.”
How does she envision herself as the new owner of The Millstone? I think as the owner, I’ll have to know how to do everything. In case somebody’s sick or can’t come in. But, I really want to take the first three months to get acquainted with it all. I know Dave sometimes washes dishes. He cooks a lot. Wherever I’m needed, I will fit in” Dave is willing to help if I need advice or if I have questions after he’s gone. He told me he really wants to see me succeed.”
Any big changes in the works? No, to start with, I’m not going to make any big changes. I plan to keep the same hours and the Sunday buffet. I’m just going to get my feet wet and figure it all out. They do a great job at The Millstone. I’ve been thinking about trying some different flavor profiles – maybe just as specials”.
“I keep telling myself to just take it slow because it could be overwhelming if I try to run the business and start changing things, too. Also, for the sake of the employees, I don’t want to come in and be like, ‘I’m changing all this.’ I plan to just get to know everyone.. They are a well-oiled machine. Dave has spent about twenty-five years here and he has put his heart and soul into it.”
“One area I eventually hope to expand on is catering. I see a big need for that in the community. Dave says he sees opportunity there, too. People that want a lunch for 20, bridal showers, baby showers. I think it would be great. So that’s probably the only area I would tweak.”
Any changes to the menu expected? “The Millstone has a great menu,” she says. “Milbank already has a lot of pizza places. We have a wonderful Chinese restaurant, great Mexican restaurants. Those areas are covered and I don’t need to compete with them. They do well.”
Does she have a favorite menu item at The Millstone? “Hmm, I eat there enough!” she says with a laugh. “I don’t cook a lot of breakfast at home because we’re all so busy. I love to have hash browns and omelets or eggs. So that’s a treat when I go there because they do breakfast so well. We all have lots of favorites my husband likes the Southwest wrap. My kids love the patty melts and fries.”
How does she want people to feel when they come through the door?
“I’ve always been like the Walmart greeter at every job I’ve had. That’s just my personality,” she says.”I love hospitality and genuinely love people. I really want everyone to feel comfortable. To feel at home and welcome.”
What kind of food goes with that homey feeling?
“Comfort food. Comfort food is my love,” Deb says. “Because I grew up with my family making rouxs and gravies from scratch and fried chicken. All those comfort foods. My family and friends can’t get enough of my homemade chicken strips, mashed potatoes, and gravy. When they hear we’re having that, everyone shows up!”
“Even the food we will make in the restaurant will still have that touch of love and homemade flavor. Oh, and another of my loves is homemade soup, she says. “That is comfort food in itself.”
Is there something she thinks the community can do to help her be successful in this new endeavor? “Just come in and eat,” she says with her heartiest laugh.