article and photo by Matthew O. Stephens
Bringing community and conversation to the dining table is one of the main reasons McKenzie DonTigny decided to work in the food industry to begin with, and more recently helped motivate her to start up Billie’s Diner in Airway Heights which held a grand opening on September 16.
Area residents have already taken notice, as the diner has seen a steady stream of customers since the restaurant launched. Hungry patrons can find a good selection of breakfast and lunch choices, in which the ingredients are primarily locally sourced. Customers can expect to see seasonal shifts in menu items when different meats and produce are made available.
DonTigny explained she believes in operating her diner in a “farmer first” fashion, and that there is a big difference in the quality of farm fresh foods as compared to processed foods.
“Many people may not think about the difference in quality at times,” DonTigny said. “Take hydroponic farming for example, which is really popular right now. Compare a head of lettuce that is grown hydroponically as compared to soil grown and you may find a big difference in the nutrient density of the two. The soil system is going to produce a higher nutrient rich product.”
That is why she works with nearby producers to keep the freshest products in her kitchen, and quality food on the customer plates. She feels that working with other local and regional businesses will help cultivate more community relationships moving forward. As a local business owner, DonTigny explained the importance in keeping the local economy stimulated with local funds, that is why she gets her beef from Browning Beef out of Spangle, Washington.
“We are always looking to build relationships with other local and regional producers,” DonTigny said. “Even if we are happy with our current products, we will find other ways to connect with and support them. I’ve been lucky to have found so many great partnerships early on, because these relationships keep the businesses, communities, and entire regions going strong.”
She also works closely with Vets on the Farm, who according to their website help Veterans find new ways to transition back into civilian life through careers in agriculture, farming, ranching or other conservation-based industries. Palouse Brand and Western Farms of Idaho are also on her list of local suppliers.
DonTigny explained she got interested in working with fresh foods at an early age by helping her mother work in the garden at home, and as DonTigny went into high school her interest continued to grow. She eventually started working in the marketing side of the food industry and stayed with that until she was laid-off due to the economic fallout of COVID in late 2020.
“I originally started off in the food industry in the marketing side,” said DonTigny. “I went to school for marketing and finance and worked for nearly a decade in the corporate world, but unfortunately I was laid off in 2020.”
“When I was figuring out my next steps,” she continued. “I knew I didn’t want to work for anybody else and I thought the middle of a pandemic was the perfect time to try and start up a restaurant. Some of the troubles I ran into are the fact it was my first business and first restaurant, so it took me a while to find adequate financing.”
She spent some time during the pandemic developing a plan to start up a diner and start working for herself. The entrepreneur explained that there were a lot of obstacles to overcome, and the economic issues intensified some of those troubles.
Finally, after finding a suitable location in January of 2022, DonTigny had to get to work on overhauling the building to fit the theme she had in mind. Now hungry folks can walk into a brightly lit cozy diner with rustic accents, farmland photos, and paintings adorning the walls.
The most troublesome issue the owner currently faces is getting the diner adequately staffed to expand the hours they can be open, and eventually she has goals to offer dinners and outdoor barbecue experiences for area residents. DonTigny also wants her diner to be 100 percent locally sourced at some point but mentioned it is extremely hard to get produce such as lemons locally.
The diner is named after her father who “could connect with anyone,” she said and she has artwork from other relatives creating a calm and very heartfelt atmosphere. DonTigny explained that because of those family ties, this will be the one and only Billie’s Diner she will operate, but she does have plans to try out another type of restaurant after the current business gets stabilized.
“I could never start another Billie’s, as this place is very near and dear to my heart,” DonTigny said. “There is so much heart in this location I could never even think of franchising.”
She continued by recalling some of her early motivation to grow fresh foods.
“My mother grew up on a farm, and I was lucky enough to grow up with a very large garden,” she added. “In the Summer we would go out and help pick the green beans and harvest the other foods. My father was a man that could connect with anyone, and that’s the spirit I hope to bring to life in the diner.”
“I want it to be a place where everyone feels welcome, and everyone can sit together and connect with one another,” DonTigny said.
Starting Billie’s has been a lifelong dream according to DonTigny, and early on she never expected it to come into fruition. She explained she is extremely proud of her team and is optimistic for future growth.
DonTigny said anyone can visit their website at www.billiesdiner.com to find out more about the diner and the producers they work with.
The most rewarding part for DonTigny is seeing people come in and have conversations over a cup of coffee and a hot meal where “community is built at the table,” she said.