Denver outfit buys three bars in Billings, re-brands them as ‘entertainment complexes’

April 9, 2018

Three is a nice, round number, and if your goal is to jump-start a lively drinking and nightlife scene on the West End, it’s a good number to start with.

“Maybe we can come in here with new ideas,” said Fred Liske.

Liske is part of Thunder Mountain Holdings, a Denver-based entertainment and real estate company that specializes in recreation and diversion. The company recently purchased Peppers Bar & Grill at 75 27th St. W., and bought Cadillac Jax Sports Bar & Casino at 1744 Grand Ave., last year.

But it’s Craft Burgers and Beer that’s holding most of Liske’s attention right now. Craft is opening in a couple weeks in what used to be Hudson’s Bar & Grill at 2658 Grand Ave. The building has been completely remodeled inside and designed with an eye toward making customers feel comfortable with a wide selection of drinks.

“Our whole concept here is beverage,” Liske said.

Craft will feature a whiskey bar called Sky Whiskey with a selection of 68 different brands and types, ranging in price from pedestrian to high end. The bar and grill will also have a wide selection of wines and beers, along with a fireplace for cold weather and a large patio when it gets warm.

Prominently displayed on the wall across from Sky Whiskey is what Liske calls “the Cheat Sheet,” three blackboards that explain why scotch isn’t a bourbon but both are broadly a whiskey. It also breaks down types of wine and shows how they’re best paired. Finally, it’ll provide an education on beer, explaining the difference between a pilsner, lager, stout or IPA.

“We want to make it fun,” Liske said.

Along with the drinks will be food, much of it traditional pub fare. The burgers served at Craft are a proprietary recipe used by Thunder Mountain that blends brisket into the ground beef.

As Craft Burgers and Beer gets established, Liske’s hope is to do special events that will give customers a reason to come seek him out.

“We really want to start going to a concept of private flight nights,” he said.

The idea would be to partner with area breweries and distilleries and private vintners to offer customers tastings of unique, special and locally crafted drinks. Billings has a cottage industry of craft breweries and is home to Trailhead Distillery, which specializes in locally made gin and whiskey.

Liske has lived in Billings for the past year and a half and knows downtown has an active bar-and-grill scene. He’s excited to give the West End scene a little shot in the arm.

“We want people to understand we’re serious,” Liske said. “And we want to make it appealing.”

Diane Stichman, who was the manager at Hudson’s, was brought in by Liske to help run Craft. She said it was a little scary when Hudson’s sold; she didn’t know what to expect with the new owners or what would happen to her job.

Liske said they were quickly impressed with Stichman’s knowledge and experience and offered her a spot with the new business.

“It was sad to say goodbye to what I knew,” Stichman said of Hudson’s going away. “But Fred has great vision.”

She’s excited by what he’s been able to do with the new space.

Peppers Bar & Grill will keep its name, but it’ll receive a similar update. The bar inside will be rebranded Sky Tequila and, like Sky Whiskey, it’ll feature a large selection of common and high-end tequila.

Like Peppers, Cadillac Jax kept its name and for the last year, Liske and his partners used it to get a sense of the Billings market and its customer base.

“We cleaned it up and did a lot of learning,” Liske said.

Miranda Blatnick ran the bar at Cadillac Jax when it was sold to Thunder Mountain; months before she had come over from Red Door Lounge. Liske immediately saw potential in Blatnick and began training her in business management.

“I love this industry,” she said. “And now I can actually make a career out of this.”

Liske has 30 years of experience in the beverage industry and he grew up in Las Vegas. It’s no coincidence that the three properties his company purchased have casinos.

With the mix of drinks, food and gaming offered at the three businesses, Liske calls them an “entertainment complex” rather a casino. And for him, that’s what it’s all about: Creating a space where, regardless of customers’ interests, they can find something to do that they enjoy.

“It’s all about the people,” he said.

Within Thunder Mountain Holdings, Liske is president of Storm Mountain Enterprises, a company that “focuses on developing and acquiring businesses that fit within the wheelhouse of Thunder Mountain,” according to the company’s website.

As such, Liske said he isn’t done investigating and possibly buying more bar-and-grills in the Billings area. But first, he wants to see how Craft Burgers and Beer does.

“This will be kind of a bellwether for us,” he said.