An insider's view of the Connecticut dining scene
May 22, 2014
04:27 PMThe Connecticut Table
Ted Turner Talks Bison in Stop at New Ted’s Montana Grill in Hartford
'Life for me has been an adventure.'
—Ted Turner to Connecticut Magazine, 5/22/14
Ted Turner flew into Hartford Thursday morning to have lunch at his newest Ted’s Montana Grill—a sparkling, welcoming and delicious addition to the nascent Front Street District—and in a chat with Connecticut Magazine the media visionary who created the 24-hour news cycle with CNN was eloquently passionate about his growing restaurant empire, as he also sprinkled the conversation with anecdotes from his long and fabled reign as one of the nation’s wealthiest and most influential entrepreneurs.
Amid delving into the history, lore and commercial viability of bison, and the sweet, sublime taste of bison meat when transformed into luxe burgers at Ted’s Montana Grill, Turner offered amusing snippets from the past like this one: “When [Turner Broadcasting System] merged with Time Warner, we thought it would be good,” said Turner, sitting in a booth with award-winning restaurateur George McKerrow Jr., the co-founder of the Montana Grill and its CEO. “They said, ‘How much are you making?’ I said, ‘$250,000.’ They said, ‘That won’t work. We all make $6 million. [So they gave me $6 million]. I was so mad.”
It’s a snapshot from that past that points to Turner’s passion for using any and all resources smartly and well—from the land to livestock and other natural resources, the environment and something as essential as time itself.
The time Turner spent with Connecticut Magazine was largely devoted to the fundamental theme behind the creation and rise of the Ted’s Montana Grill chain—the bison. (Right, a Red Rock bison burger.)
Turner explained that when he was a boy he was fascinated by nature and read all the books he could get his hands on about birds, animals, plants, history and geography. In doing so he encountered the story of America’s native bison, which once roamed the Great Plains in legions estimated to have exceeded 30 million. By the time the “white men” were done hunting and slaughtering, there were fewer than 200 left, balanced on the rim of extinction.
“I literally wept,” Turner says of his reaction. “It just broke my heart.”
He recalls thinking, even as a boy, “If I ever get a chance … and make some money, I’m going to do what I can.”
The media entrepreneur, environmentalist and philanthropist who also dreamed at a young age of winning an America’s Cup sailing race—and did—and winning a world series—and did as owner of the Atlanta Braves—has also done what he could for the bison.
Given the rarefied level at which Turner lives, his efforts have translated into owning a herd of bison that currently numbers 51,000 and is apportioned among 14 of his 18 ranches—the ranches include three in Argentina—which, together with Turner’s personal land, comprise two million acres, making him second largest private landowner in the country. (Right, a bison filet.)
He slaughters 10,000 bison a year, which not only provides meat to the marketplace but helps ensure the quality and sustainability of the herd. In a food-and-sustainability equation that some folks don’t grasp, raising bison as meat animals doesn’t threaten them but helps ensure their sustainability. It’s like any commodity; the more in-demand it is, the more providers will work to enhance and expand the supply.
Turner and McKerrow are preserving the species as they educate consumers about the benefits of eating bison meat—it’s sweeter and richer than beef, and has nutritional benefits, such as having less fat and cholesterol than beef and being a great source of iron.
Are customers buying into Ted’s coronation of bison as the new and improved red meat? It seems so.
“In our restaurants, more people eat bison than beef,” Turner says, later adding, “What we’ve learned is that people are very careful about what they eat. … It took us a while to get people to try it.”
“We love beef, we love bison more,” adds McKerrow. “It’s a difficult product to work with. We’ve become experts.”
The bison whose meat goes to market are slaughtered at two-and-a-half years, for example, the point when the meat is best and at its most tender and flavorful.
Turner and McKerrow estimate that between 25 and 40 percent of the bison served at Ted’s locations come directly from Turner’s ranches, explaining that—in order not to dominate the market and deter competition and other bison ranches—Ted’s bison meat comes from the distributor Rocky Mountain Natural Meats, which also works with other ranchers.
“I have all kinds of animals,” Turner says at one point, mentioning how he welcomed packs of wolves to live on his land, along with prairie dogs and more. He devotes approximately 70 percent of his grasslands to bison, reserving the other 30 percent to ensure good habitats and a place to live for other wildlife.
Being a passionate and wise steward of the land and other natural resources is becoming increasingly critical, Turner says, because “climate change is wreaking havoc in certain areas.” In the next 20 years, Turner predicts a palpable impact on the nation’s food supply—a message he happened to highlight just hours after a National Public Radio story in which one source said, for example, that Vermont would eventually have the climate of Virginia and Georgia, meaning the demise of maple trees and the syrup industry there.
Turner points out that Ted’s is unique in that no other U.S. restaurant chain raises the food it features. The chain now number 45 restaurants, with the strongest markets being in the Denver area, Colorado and the Northeast. Plans are for the expansion to continue and the chain to essentially double by 2021.
Founded in 2002, Ted’s Montana Grill has had its ups and downs—McKerrow told a paper in Atlanta that it took the chain 10 years to become an “overnight success”—though the downs seem to be in the rear view mirror.
The soft opening of the Hartford location was the most vigorous for any Ted’s, McKerrow says, adding, “We like to be part of urban reclamation areas.” He noted that Hartford came to be on the radar because of the success of Connecticut’s first Ted’s, located at The Promenade Shops at Evergreen Walk in South Windsor.
The emerging Front Street District of Hartford—not far from Main Street and a stone’s throw from the Hartford Public Library—remains very much under construction, and hopes are high that it will be a renaissance zone for the city, especially with a second location of the popular Infinity Music Hall & Bistro (the first is in rural Norfolk, Conn.) opening right across the street from Ted's.
Hartford Mayor Mayor Pedro E. Segarra stopped in Ted’s Thursday, got a warm reception from Turner and lauded the new restaurant, the potential of Front Street and the opportunities for synergy among the businesses. He confessed his love for the Salt-N’-Pepper Onion Rings (below), saying his personal best is tackling four of these giant rings of homemade delight.
And that comes to the heart of the reason Ted’s will be a continuing success story in Hartford and beyond—the quality of the food and the all-fresh, all-natural approach.
“Inspired by the pioneer spirit of the American West, Ted’s Montana Grill is committed to serving honest food served with genuine hospitality,” says the press material on the Hartford opening. “The menu is known for its modern interpretation of hand-prepared, 100 percent fresh classic comfort food. The chef-inspired menu features the finest cuts and best selection of bison, including high quality, flavorful steaks and award-winning burgers amongst a variety of other unique menu items. All meals are made from scratch fresh daily—nothing frozen or microwaved.”
“Popular appetizers include Salt-N’-Pepper Onion Rings, fresh-cut potato chips with creamy ranch onion dip and St. Phillip’s Island Crab Cakes with fresh guacamole and coleslaw,” Ted’s explains. “Classic dishes include steaks, meatloaf, pot roast, pecan crusted trout, cedar plank salmon and beef and bison burgers. Meals are served with sides ranging from fresh-cut fries to Aunt Fannie’s squash casserole. But no meal is complete until you try some of Ted’s homemade cookies or fudge brownies.” (Ted’s uses Certified Angus Beef, National Bison Association-certified bison, all-natural chicken and premium seafood, and “also believes in fresh, sustainable, organic and locally grown ingredients.”)
The newest Ted’s Montana Grill is located at 35 Front Street in downtown Hartford and officially opened May 12. The floor plan of the 4,600-square-foot restaurant features an open kitchen and a dining room that seats 120 in booths and at round tables. The bar seats 25 and serves handcrafted cocktails, beer and wine.
“Ted’s Montana Grill serves time-honored favorites in a relaxed setting reminiscent of the 19th-century American frontier,” the press materials explain. “The design of the Hartford location is inspired by old western saloons, with all the romance and classic touches that make it feel luxurious, but in a casual, warm way.” The décor features mahogany paneling, pressed tin ceilings, brass fixtures and beautiful crown molding.
As part of its philosophy, Ted’s Montana Grill incorporates many eco-friendly technologies and practices—from low-voltage, compact fluorescent light bulbs to menus printed on recycled paper, along with paper straws, wooden drink stirrers, cornstarch to-go cups, recycled coasters and biodegradable to-go cutlery and cardboard containers.