After less than a decade of owning fast-food restaurants in Montana, Jan and Denny Rehberg of Billings has closed all of them.
The family owned six restaurants around the state, and all have either been closed or sold in the past two years.
The Rehbergs said the businesses began struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic and that they never could recover.
“Timing is everything and for us, our timing was bad,” Jan Rehberg said.
Jan said that they first got into the fast-food industry to try and generate more jobs in Montana, and that the business decision first came after her husband Denny had finished his last term as a Montana congressman in 2013.
“We wanted to kind of finish out and be home and doing something together while providing something for the community,” Jan said.
In 2014, they opened the Burger King on Grand Avenue, eventually adding two Popeyes to Billings — one on Southgate Drive near Amend Park and the second on Shiloh Road.
The Burger King has since been sold to Black Smith Coffee Co, and the owner told MTN that they are hoping the building will be ready to serve coffee in June.
The family owned three other restaurants around the state and had plans to continue opening more in Montana, but Denny said that COVID and high shipping costs for food made that goal impossible.
“We are not alone in this problem,” Denny said. “It really started with COVID, and the labor market just changed.”
Denny said that the employment shortage is a nationwide issue and not just here in Montana.
“The work ethic in the country is really something right now,” Denny said. “People will call and say, ‘I’ll be in tomorrow,’ and then they won’t show up. Or they’ll interview and then not show up.”
He added that his restaurants struggled to compete wage-wise with others in town, particularly those where employees could receive tips.
According to the Montana Small Business Association Director Brent Donnelly, it isn’t just a problem for fast-food businesses in Montana.
“It is a challenge for some of our Montana small businesses to find the good folks that they need to meet their demand,” Donnelly said.
While there are many different businesses in Montana struggling to find workers, Donnelly said it is most noticeable in restaurants.
“If you go out to eat, whether it’s fast food or if you go to purchase something at a retail store, you can kind of tell where the challenges are,” Donnelly said.
According to the National Restaurant Association, 60 percent of fast-food restaurants have closed their dining rooms since the start of the pandemic because of staffing shortages.
As for the Rehbergs, both now 67 years old, the businesses just proved to be too difficult. While they do believe the labor market will turn around, they don’t have the time to wait.
“We aren’t the first to hit this wall and we won’t be the last,” Jan said. “Eventually, your economy can catch up with that stuff, but again, at our age, we can’t wait for that.”