NEAR BIGFORK — Sitting down with the owners of the Echo Lake Café feels more like bellying up to the bar of a big family meal and getting to take part.
This is for a couple of reasons. First, the café itself is small and homey, a favorite among locals and visitors alike. It’s a place plenty of people feel like it part of their community, and eating there can be akin to eating a family meal.
Secondly, sitting down with the café owners is technically sitting down with a family at a cozy café, because now Bob and Christi Young have sold half of the café ownership to their daughter and her husband, Amy and Mark Herman.
The younger couple moved back to the Flathead last fall, after spending five years taking care of and enhancing the Young’s other restaurant, Fire Sign Café, in Lake Tahoe, which they have owned for 40 years.
“They totally revamped that restaurant,” Bob Young said of the Hermans.
When Amy and Mark decided they wanted to move to the Flathead, they approached her parents about possibly beginning a transition of ownership. It wouldn’t mean retirement for the Youngs, not immediately, but would allow them to start taking more time away from the café they’ve owned and operated for more than 20 years.
Bob and Christi were thrilled. There have been prospective buyers in the past, Bob said, one in particular that popped up with a recent offer. But after spending decades building a restaurant and the community that forms within it, the Youngs didn’t want to sell their legacy to just anyone.
“It was always Bob’s and my prayer to have one of our children take over,” Christi Young said. “We raised our children in these restaurants, and they have it in their blood.”
The Youngs bought the Echo Lake Café in 1996 and refurbished it, making it their own. They purchased the café from Dickie Conley and his sister Betty Conley, who started the café in 1960.
When the Youngs were ready to reopen the café in 1999, it shared a menu and logo with the Fire Sign Café in Lake Tahoe. Since then, it has earned best breakfast and lunch awards nearly every year it has been open, and continues to garner largely positive and glowing online reviews.
Not long after opening, the Youngs knew it was a good fit.
“Little cafes are a really important part of a small community,” Bob said. “After a while, it becomes part of you.”
Building community at the café has been one of the most important parts of the last 20 years, the Youngs said. They see generations of customers now, with parents who first ate their as children now bringing in their own little ones. It’s an important part of ownership of this place; Bob and Christi talk about customers with the kind of affection usually reserved for friends and family.
“Watching these families come in, that’s been the most rewarding part for us so far,” Amy said.
But they’re ready for Amy and Mark to breathe new life into the café, which they’ve already started to do. They started renovations in December, adding a bench to the waiting area and upgrading the interior.
They’ve also got plans to procure a liquor license so they’ll be allowed to have Bloody Mary and mimosa options for their customers. Even with the liquor license, Amy Herman said the Echo Lake Café would remain a breakfast and lunch joint.
Bob and Christi plan to take a few steps back from the restaurant now that they know it is in good capable hands, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be busy. They live on a ranch nearby, where there’s always work to be found, and Christi intends on getting back into barrel racing.
But the Youngs stressed that the café would maintain its consistency, in food and in friendliness to the customers. It’s a family business, and they intend to keep it that way.
“It just feels so good to give it new life,” Bob said.