As a young girl growing up in Centennial, Jill Gustafson said she remembers seeing a restaurant being built along the highway, and she would play and pretend that she worked there helping customers.
Fast forward, and she not only worked at the restaurant — she co-owned it with partner Al Buick. But after 19 years of meeting tourists, chatting with the local regulars and serving up some of the best homemade food in the county, Gustafson is hanging up her apron as the Bear Tree Tavern and Café is changing ownership and name to Bear Bottom Bar and Grill.
“We’ve built a great foundation,” Gustafson told the Boomerang. “We just felt it was time for new energy, new youth to come in and do something.”
A staple of Centennial for tourists and locals alike, Gustafson said she wanted to make Bear Tree “a nook and cranny for all people.” The business focused on personal touches, like a back bar handmade by Buick and the home-cooked food with ingredients like marinara sauce and green chili made from scratch. The tavern’s consistent hours — open every day for lunch and dinner — made it a go-to stop even between tourist seasons.
“It really gave life to Centennial,” Gustafson said. “Up until that time, not all the businesses were open seven days a week. … I liked being able to give them a consistency, knowing they could always come for food and that it was always open.”
She added she wanted the restaurant to consistently benefit as much of the community as possible. Most — if not all — of her employees were local to Centennial and the restaurant frequently hosted community outreach and fundraising events for the Centennial Elementary School and the Centennial Library, a branch of the Albany County Public Library.
The restaurant also frequently hosted dozens of live music acts every summer, helping to foster the down-home atmosphere.
“Every day, I used to tell all the employees it’s just another day in paradise,” she said. “It was always fun going to work; I enjoyed going to work, I enjoyed my employees and I enjoyed my customers.”
Gustafson added she has “zero regrets” about her time with Bear Tree or her decision to sell it.
Fortunately, the new owners — the Taylor family — want to maintain and encourage the small town, family atmosphere, family member and co-owner Jim Osborn said. Having been involved in the restaurant industry for “pretty much all our lives,” they know how impactful they can be to a community.
“Pretty much the whole family had their first jobs in small-town restaurants and have been doing it ever since,” Osborn said. “It’s a great facility, a great time. We’re all Wyoming natives, so we’re very familiar with all of the opportunities and sometimes challenges that come with life in small-town Wyoming.”
The newly named restaurant, Bear Bottom, opened last week and Osborn said they’re waiting for the state health inspector to permit the use of their kitchen. In the meantime, they’ve been focusing on the tradition of giving back to the community with fundraisers all weekend, featuring live music and food with donations benefiting groups like the Centennial Volunteer Fire Department and the library. There is also a fundraiser today for the NiCi Self Historical Museum.
Osborn said their goal is to continue building the community, wanting to be a “part of the family and having everybody be part of our family.”
“That’s the way we were raised, the way we do things in life and that’s the way we plan to do things in our businesses,” Osborn said. “We want to get to know people and help put on events and things that bring folks together and continue life in a beautiful and scenic town.”
While Gustafson allowed the Taylor Family to continue using her recipes and menu, she did say she wanted to keep the name Bear Tree.
“It was just kind of a personal attachment I had,” she said.
Even as the ownership transitions, Gustafson plans to stay in Centennial, continuing to live in the house her father built there in the late 1950s.
“I like it here,” she said. “I love winters, and I’m not going anywhere.”