Stephanie Miller is a renowned chef and restaurateur in the Bismarck area. Currently, she is the Chef and Owner of Butterhorn, a popular restaurant located in the heart of downtown Bismarck. Recently, Miller was the first person from North Dakota to compete on the popular competitive television show ‘Top Chef’.
Her journey to owning a successful restaurant and competing on a household-known reality competition wasn’t an easy one. However, it did have some standout moments that made it a memorable one. She took the time to discuss her ‘Top Chef’ experience, the risks of starting a restaurant post-lockdown and what advice she has for other restaurateur hopefuls.
Before Miller opened Butterhorn, she was living in Minneapolis with her husband, Shane. When she was starting to become increasingly homesick away from Bismarck, she knew that she needed to find a reason to come back home.
“Honestly, I just wanted to come back home to my family,” Miller said. “My nieces and nephews, sisters and brothers, parents and everyone else that I know and love so much lives here in Bismarck, so I knew that I needed to see them more often.”
It wasn’t long after scouting locations for a potential restaurant that Miller fell in love with the building she proudly owns today. “[Shane] and I walked past the building that Butterhorn is in today and I asked a realtor if we could go inside and see it for ourselves. I absolutely fell in love with it immediately,” Miller said. “It was a blank canvas. We had to do a lot with it, but I’m so happy that it turned into what it is today.”
Having a building acquired, Miller also had to plan a concept and vision to carry out in her new location. She had decided to take a risk and aim for a “fine diningesque” establishment. “While I wouldn’t consider Butterhorn a fully ‘fine dining’ establishment, I felt that there was a lack of those establishments in the Bismarck area. I wanted to start Butterhorn as a slightly higher-end experience with a seasonal rotation to represent Bismarck, North Dakota food and be able to have my own twist on it.”
When Miller launched Butterhorn, there was no way to be fully prepared and ready for what was to come.
“I don’t think you could ever be ready. I think it’s best to just dive in and do it. I tend to be the “dreamer” and Shane is the one who makes it all happen,” Miller said. “Thank goodness for that, since I don’t think you could have two dreamers or two doers in a relationship. I think that there just needs to be pops of creativity or imagination and an idea that kind of sparks something. When you get one of those, you need to run with it. Life is too short to not pursue what you want.”
It’s that ideal blend of personality and ambition that allows Miller and her husband to operate and work as successfully together as they do. When asked about how she makes it work, Miller was grateful to have Shane by her side for support.
“That’s one good thing about going into business with your significant other. There’s two of you,” Miller said. “It makes it easier to have someone that I know I trust, loves me and cares for the restaurant as much as I do.”
Miller and her husband have found an efficient way to push the business to greater heights. However, that’s not to say that they didn’t face their own challenges when launching Butterhorn. “Restaurants are the hardest business to find success in. The food costs are going increasingly higher. Some of the items I’ve been getting for Butterhorn are 100% more expensive than they were when we opened,” Miller said.
“We try and be as fair as we possibly can with our guests. However, it’s hard to run a restaurant, and it’s even harder to have it be successful. Between food costs, staffing shortages and so much more, there are just so many risk factors at play. In the end, however, if it’s what you want to do, it’s what you want to do.” While risks come and go depending on the situation, restaurants are generally one of the most challenging businesses to find success in, as Miller stated. If there isn’t a memorable aspect to a restaurant, it’s all but doomed to fail. From the beginning, Miller and her husband were determined to stick out from other restaurants to make a name for themselves.
“Shane and I focused on what there is in Bismarck, what was lacking and then tried to fill gaps. As I mentioned, I think Bismarck was missing some form of a high-end dining establishment like Butterhorn. I think of places that [Shane and I] would want to eat at and then move forward from there,” Miller said.
What are your personal favorite meals at Butterhorn?
“We change our menu seasonally at Butterhorn, so my favorite thing last year, or even the last menu, isn’t my favorite thing right now. My favorite meal from Butterhorn currently is the Braised Beef Cheek and cornbread appetizer, which are both just absolutely incredible.”
Are there any charities or nonprofits in the Bis-Man area that you support?
“We love supporting Furry Friends Rockin Rescue, a nonprofit animal rescue here in Bismarck. If I had a chance to have 100 animals in my house, I would. I just don’t know if my husband would let me! We donate to their time and resource needs as often as we can. We also donate to the girl scouts. However, I think it’s hard to donate to every charity or nonprofit that you want to. I wish I could donate to everyone that supports a good cause.”
The Top Chef Experience
After shaping Butterhorn into the well-oiled machine that it is today, Miller received an unexpected message from the popular Food Network television show ‘Top Chef’ that held exciting news for her. “Top Chef contacted me through social media and asked if I would want to apply. Being the Top Chef geek that I was, I leaped at the opportunity! It took me two seasons of applications to officially get accepted. [The application process] was strenuous, as there were a lot of steps and things that had to be done,” Miller said.
“They put you through the wringer with applying and getting accepted. When I found out that I was in, I was incredibly grateful and excited. I’ve been on a televised cooking competition before, so I kind of knew how the TV world worked a little bit. However, Top Chef took it up to another level and it was much more intense and extreme since the competition was so much better. I can’t spill too much though, since it’s still airing!” When you go into an experience like that, it’s good to expect the unexpected. When it’s such a monumental experience, you need to walk in thinking that you have no idea what’s going to happen. To me, that’s one of the most exciting things about it. Life is too short not to accept a spot on Top Chef!
My favorite part of the experience was meeting the chefs and hearing about their journeys and why they’re so passionate about the same creative field that I’m a part of. It lights a fire within you again, to go back home and continually push yourself to be better than you were yesterday.
While Miller’s skills and name were bound to be successful nearly anywhere she chose to open up shop, she found Bismarck especially beneficial to be the area that she works in thanks to the community. “I think that bringing a small business into a small-ish community, compared to somewhere like Minneapolis, is such a positive thing. There is such a strong sense of family and community here,” Miller said.
“So many great restaurants and businesses were, unfortunately, forced to close during COVID. Butterhorn made it out alive and well, and we were able to open Shelter Belt in the middle of a pandemic. That is all thanks to the people around us and the people who got takeout and decided to support us. Even being from Bismarck, that really surprised me from a business standpoint.” While many people faced closures throughout the pandemic, Miller also noticed several new restaurants open from first-time restaurateurs with little to no experience. While it’s great to embark on the entrepreneurial journey, Miller’s lasting piece of advice was to earn some of the necessary experience and research before starting at the top.
“I find that a lot of people open up restaurants who don’t have significant restaurant experience. They will open one up just because they can. A lot of the time those places can be successful, and I think that’s great! However, I think if you really want to pursue your own restaurant, you need to work in restaurants beforehand,” Miller said
“I put in the work as a server and a barista, in the kitchen and dish pit before I was a manager. I did all of those things before I opened any of my own restaurants. A lot of the time, it wasn’t very glamorous. But, I believe that people need to think hard and long about if they want to do it and put in the work.”
Putting in the required work beforehand allowed Miller to gain some name recognition within the industry. Miller believes that she not only gained notoriety for moving from Minneapolis to Bismarck to pursue her restaurant vision, but also from her time on Top Chef. While many people may know her work, she wishes that they often kept others in mind when thinking of her entrepreneurial efforts.
“I wish people knew how hard my team works to make both of the restaurants great. It isn’t just me and it isn’t just Shane. It’s very minimally us and everyone else is doing such an incredible job. We owe so much of our success, if not all of it, to our team. We’re incredibly proud and incredibly blessed to have them,” Miller said
“We don’t aim to hire people who have significant experience working in a restaurant before. We just want people who are passionate about learning about food, have an open mind and want to continue to grow in any area they decide to grow in. They don’t need to be in a restaurant their whole life, but we want to surround ourselves around those types of people. We are beyond grateful that we have them.”
Was there a favorite part of the experience?
“My favorite part of the experience was meeting the chefs and hearing about their journeys and why they’re so passionate about the same creative field that I’m a part of. It lights a fire within you again, to go back home and continually push yourself to be better than you were yesterday.”
What parts of the ‘Top Chef’ experience were similar to what you had in mind?
“When you go into an experience like that, it’s good to expect the unexpected. When it’s such a monumental experience, you need to walk in thinking that you have no idea what’s going to happen. To me, that’s one of the most exciting things about it. Life is too short to not accept a spot on Top Chef!”– Stephanie Miller