Kimpton Armory Hotel’s Sky Shed, Fielding’s and Tune Up

Angie Ripple

In 1940, Bozeman was dealing with overcrowding at Montana State College, paving streets in south Bozeman, and the creation of the area airport and the Hyalite Reservoir Dam. The town was growing rapidly and the building of the Bozeman Armory to house the Chamber of Commerce, a rifle range, drill hall, club rooms, and a stage was made possible by national defense appropriations and additional bonds. The Armory land was donated by Nelson Story III and his sister, Mrs. Mayo S. Dean, and Bozeman’s most famous architect Fred Willson laid the plans for the fortified building. Fast forward eighty-one years to 2021, and the Bozeman Armory has now been transformed into an 8 story, 122-room hotel with a rooftop bar and pool, amazing views of our town, and three individual dining establishments. We sat with Chef Mark Musial and General Manager Aaron Whitten to get the full story of opening an iconic property amidst a global pandemic.

Angie Ripple: How were the restaurants at The Armory conceptualized?

Chef Mark Musial: Let’s start at the top and we’ll work our way down, so Sky Shed for me the concept was to not mess with the view. We really wanted people to share a couple of cocktails and some dishes of food, and enjoy the scenery. In the summertime, when we are able to open all of the windows, the whole thing will be completely open, fresh air blowing in; that is the concept. It wasn’t about going up there and doing five courses or six courses; it was about go up there, share some food, enjoy some cocktails and enjoy that space. One of the big words we like to use here is synergy. We like to use the Sky Shed as a tractor beam so to speak and then bring them down to Fielding’s for dinner.

Fielding’s is where, when Covid times are done and we are fully open, this is where we’ll do all day dining, breakfast, lunch and dinner; right now we are just doing breakfast and dinner, and we really wanted to have a concise menu with some things that will change periodically with the seasons, but the mainstay dishes are gonna be there. And, we are starting today our Chef’s Tasting Menu. What’s different about tasting menus and the idea of when you go to Café Boulud, or any of the great restaurants, Eleven Madison Park, you sit down for sixteen courses and you’re going to pay $150 and that’s just the entry fee, that’s just to come into the dining room. We really wanted to do something that’s super affordable, five courses is $65, and you’re going to get five whole courses that are hyper-seasonal with everything we are bringing in, with some really cool techniques that maybe we haven’t seen in Bozeman, that isn’t too fussy and too crazy still rooted in humble cooking techniques that really show the ingredients, but still keeping with the concept that no matter anything you have in here, there are never more than three ingredients.

I learned a hard lesson when I was a young chef. I presented this plate to one of our new chefs that was taking me under his wing. He tasted the dish and said, “Do you know what this dish needs? One more ingredient.” He said there is so much going on here that there is no direction, it’s not concise, you’re all over the place here, let’s get back the basics and let’s dial in. So that’s what we’re doing here, we are taking the ingredients and making sure that we nerd out about Milk Bread. We have a bread skillet, and Chef Zach comes to me and says, “I think we can charge $5 for bread,” and I go, “Zach, there is not a world that exists where people will pay $5 for bread unless it’s the perfect example of bread, and until we get to the perfect example of bread no one is going to pay $5 for it.” And we nerd out, we get after it, Chef Eva comes out with the Parker House roll and low and behold everyone is happy to pay $5 for a bread skillet. So that’s what we’re doing here, keeping it simple, but hyper focusing on technique.

And then, you’ve had some food and now it’s time for some whiskey to digest and keep everything moving; you’re going to go down to Tune Up and close the night out. Tune Up’s concept from the start everything was painted black down there and as it progressed we want to be the Industry bar, we want to be cool cocktails, cocktail focused, whiskey focused. We want to have the best beers on tap and the best cans of beer that we can source. Matt Betz did a tremendous job down there getting everything together, and then it was “we need food to complement this, what can we nerd out about? Can we really just nerd out about cheese sticks? Mozzarella sticks?” 100 percent. We bought mozzarella, and we pulled our own mozzarella. We had three different mozzarellas that we worked through that we breaded and fried just to find the best meltable mozzarella stick that you can do a big stick that melts all the way through the center. And that’s what we did, and then we moved on from the mozzarella sticks to pickles and curds and we’ve got a great burger down there, the Royale with Cheese. My comfort food still to this day, if I have a bad day, I’m too old to go home and drink a case of beer these days, so I go and pick up a Quarter Pounder with Cheese at McDonald’s, so the Royale with Cheese is my love letter to the Quarter Pounder with Cheese. We have a lot of fun down there. That’s kind of our playground for cocktails and food.

And then hopefully you are just so wrecked after going through all of the venues that you have to book a room and stay the night. That’s what we want. We want full-stop service, staycation for drive in locals, everyone comes in and we can keep you for a bit. In this time where it’s hard to get lift tickets, get out there and do things, we’re hoping that we can be an attraction for people to get some sort of source of normalcy in this crazy, crazy time that we are living in.

AR: What do you want people to experience when they walk through your doors?

MM: I want them to experience hospitality first and foremost. We want you to feel as though you are walking into a living room space, whichever venue you are entering, that we are welcoming you and producing a great product for you, whether it’s cocktails or food.

AR: What makes The Armory unique in the Bozeman Food Scene?

MM: So, I think there are a lot of things that make us unique. There are a few rooftop bars. I think the Crystal has one. I haven’t been up there yet; I’m excited to see it. I love a good dive bar, and I want to be on top of a roof. The rooftop is obviously a big attraction for us. There is a pool up there, which is insane.

We really hope that that super price-conscious Chef’s Table becomes something awesome. It’s very popular in New York right now, the Eleven Madison Park and the fine dining. This pandemic may very well end fine dining as we know it. People may not want to sit down and do sixteen or seventeen courses anymore, so they are finding value instead of doing the Ossetra caviar and all these high price ingredients it’s taking humble ingredients and making five courses that are outstanding at a value.

The cocktail and beverage program, across the board, really is outstanding. The beverage team is getting ready to start their new cocktail program downstairs, and they are swinging for the fences with it, and it’s all fantastic.

GM Aaron Whitten: There are actually two things I would like to add. There is a component to our service as a brand, as a product, as a total asset to the hotel, the way that the spaces are even designed. Chef’s got an open kitchen here in Fielding’s for a reason. This is meant to feel like you’re coming into somebody’s home, like he said. We want to approach service that way as well though. You’ll find that while our intention is to attract everybody coming to the area, obviously, we will likely end up being, we have already been rated as the four-diamond in the area, but without the pretension. So when people will ask what’s different about your service, what’s different about your approach, we have, I think, all of the bells and whistles from a structural perspective, from a talent perspective, from a professional perspective, and what kind of passions every department puts into their work, but it won’t show in a negative way in the way that we approach our guests and our service. So every guest that comes in this door is going to have a specialized experience based on their needs, their interests, their passions, their timing, what they’re going through. We want this to be a bit of a haven for what is kind of a fucked up world out their right now. So, come inside here, have dinner with Chef in Fielding’s, have cocktails up in Sky Shed, stay the night with us, see a show in the music hall, and hopefully you can put some of that pressure aside for a couple of hours. That’s my mission, and I think we do that well together.

AR: What do you enjoy most about being part of the Bozeman community?

MM: Awesome, so I came from Colorado and when I was being vetted for the position, I had applied for a Kimpton job and done a tasting at another property, but it wasn’t a good fit, and I said, “Hey guys, if anything pops up I’d love to do an opening, so don’t lose my number.” About six months later, I get a call; it’s the same guy who says, “Hey we have two properties opening up that we would like you to be a part of.” There’s one in New Orleans, and I was like listen I’m from Arkansas and I have no interest in going down to that heat level and that humidity, and the mosquitoes. The mosquitoes are probably the number one thing I can’t go back to, so no. And then he says there is one in Bozeman, Montana, and I was like sign me up. I will do whatever I’ve got to do to get that job. I’m all in on Bozeman. I love being outdoors. I think it’s a good contrast of working really hard in the kitchen and being able to be in nature, away. I think it gives a tremendous amount of grounding. I’ve spent time in New York City, I’ve spent time in the big cities, and it is completely toxic, you never get away from the kitchen, you never get away from the intensity because there is just intensity as soon as you leave the space, and I just love being in nature and Bozeman, and Montana in general is the perfect representation of that. I love snow; I like that that’s happening out there right now. Bozeman was a perfect fit, and knew we were going to love it before we even moved out here. My wife and I are really excited to be a part of this community.

AW: For me, Bozeman is the size of community that I’d like to be a part of. It’s full of people that have a lot of pride in what is here from a cultural perspective, from an art perspective, from a downtown corridor perspective. It’s thoughtful and there is an intention to thoughtfully protect or develop the area in a way that at least somewhat speaks to it’s history and the kind of people who live here. That's not true everywhere. I’ve lived in exclusively big cities all of my life, and a lot of times it’s easy as an individual with big ideas to get lost in the crowd. I think that it’s possible in Bozeman to make a positive influence. Here with the Armory, we’ve partnered with some great nonprofits, which are aplenty in the area, which speaks well to the size of people’s hearts and the intentions of the community. We’ve been able to get involved with city developments. I lived in Seattle most recently for about five years, and it was hard to even get in front of somebody at the City to pay your bills; forget about actually talking about improvement. I think, for the most part, this community has great intentions for it’s future, and I want to be a part of something that matters quite frankly, and I feel that’s true for this particular project, and we have a lot of ability to support and influence the future development of the area, and also make sure that people have a good place to go.

For me personally, I have a seven-minute commute now, I love my neighbors, I get to go out mountain biking in January somehow, and then snowshoeing the next weekend. It’s an incredible place. Please stop telling your friends all about it because it’s gonna get crowded. [Laughs] I think some humility coming in, that’s an important factor, and be aware of what you are coming into, and what exists.

MM: That’s such a better answer than mine. [Laughs]

AR: What do your regulars keep coming back for?

MM: I think the biggest thing they keep coming back for is the Willson’s Old Fashioned. The bread skillet has been extremely popular, Sky Shed’s views have been really great, and the one-off parties we’ve been doing at Tune Up have been a really great draw. We celebrated Repeal Day, repealing prohibition, and that was a huge success. The Holiday bar, which we just wrapped up, it looked like Santa just threw up in the space; that was really popular. Really at the base of it, it’s creative programming is what keeps it fresh, keeps each space fresh. We are constantly trying out new ideas so nothing ever gets stale. Something is always different when you come here. That’s what I really appreciate about rotating menus, constantly changing those menus; there’s a lot of value in that, not only in the value for the guest, but for the staff as well. The cooks come in with great ideas all the time and they’re like, “Chef, what do you think of this?” And our ability to implement that and keep them engaged, and keep them pushing themselves, that’s the true value in a rotating menu and a Chef’s tasting in itself. Everybody gets to be creative. We still have a path we have to walk; we can’t get too crazy. There definitely has to be a roadmap, but as soon as you give them the roadmap they’re like cool, this is what I’m gonna do. We’ve had the same cooks that opened this place with us are still with us. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the rotation rate of cooks in this industry, but that’s outstanding and hopefully we can keep them engaged in what we’re doing and our mission, and that is the great bonus for our guests that keep coming back, that it never seems stale and there is always something different.

AW: It’s weird, the average turnover rate for culinary members in a business like ours is actually 110%; it’s actually more than the 100% somehow, impossibly so. Chef has done a great job in retention and that is the good point aside from the culinary items that chef mentions. Well actually, you’ve got to mention the hummus. I feel like that’s a good example of something I’ve had so many places, so many ways, so many times in my life, and mindlessly so half the time, and when I come in and I get to try the hummus and I want to order another one right after it, it’s just outstanding. That speaks to Chef’s experience level and attention to detail and professionalism. But aside from our actual items, I think it’s our people. I 100% think that our success is based off of the people we have attracted to every department. We get countless comments, more so than at any hotel I’ve ever operated, about the personal nature of our service and people remember our people’s names which sounds odd, but it’s kind of an unusual circumstance where we get the same type of feedback about a broad range of the folks that are on property, so I hear about Caleb [the bartender] in the Tune Up all of the time. I hear about some of our front desk folks that are running the show up there, all of the time. It’s the personable nature, that these are real human beings that really care about what they’re doing; there is some passion in it. We take the opportunity to make sure those folks have what they need to be successful and are supported in their work, and supported in their schedules, and sometimes we kick our managers out the door to take some days off once in a while, and I think it shows in the service. That’s a big part of what sets us apart too, and the hummus.

AR: Do you have anything coming up that you would like the readers to know about?

MM: There is stuff coming up for sure! I think the biggest programming that we have on the horizon is that we’re going to tackle brunch for sure, so Sky Shed brunch, brunch in the sky if you will. A great mimosa bar, a great Bloody Mary bar, we’re even thinking a possible DJ. We want the best brunch in town. I come from the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, and their brunch is just this elaborate thing, and it’s one of those things that happens every Sunday. Champagne Brunch does 650 covers and it is the thing that makes the Broadmoor the Broadmoor; it is absolutely historic. Will we shoot for that? No, because we still need space up there and that thing is elaborate, but brunch is a big thing on the horizon.

The Chef’s Tasting started tonight, and cocktail menus are getting ready to change as well. Always stay tuned to what is happening here at the Armory because we are constantly adding bits and bits of value as we can. Covid [has not allowed us to set the spaces the way they were intended], when we set these tables and the stemware is set it is astonishing, and right now it’s not given justice, and I can’t wait for people to walk in to our spaces with the intended way that it’s supposed to be. We haven’t gotten to do that yet, which is a shame, but once we can really let these spaces come alive with the intended vision, that’s going to be absolutely huge.

AW: Chef and I both come from food and beverage backgrounds in which it’s not uncommon to take a piece of string and make sure that your wine glasses are lined up, and so, this is heartbreaking quite honestly, it’s very difficult to see. Although, I think it warrants mentioning that we feel lucky to be in a place where we are able to remain as functional as we have and people have remained respectful of the expected regulations, and even before the regulations people were ahead of that game in this area. I think that because of that, we’ve kept our ability to function “socially,” so we are blessed for that. We talk to colleagues in others areas of the country that are not faring as well and it is important for us to be grateful for the ability to serve what we do now. There is another major component though to our story that we have yet to really truly bring to life: the Armory Music Hall is in the works. We are working on a strategy of how to respectfully and safely and appropriately, and also in a way that is appropriate for socially distanced times, but to the space itself we’ll activate that up and get some shows going, because I think 1. we want to see our artists supported 2. we want to bring some entertainment and live engagement because there is nothing else like it. We’ve got really good, creative people involved, so we’re hoping sooner rather than later.

Bozeman’s history is still being written, and the Kimpton Armory Hotel is an iconic beacon for our future. The multiple venues of the Armory are capable of entertaining all Bozemanites; take your pick, and make plans for your next visit.

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