The Untold Truth Of Ted's Montana Grill

In 2002, a new restaurant opened its doors in Columbus, Ohio: Ted's Montana Grill, the first of what would eventually grow to a collection of more than 40 restaurants spread throughout the U.S. As the name suggests, Ted's Montana Grill was the brainchild of billionaire media mogul Ted Turner, who envisioned creating a different kind of dining experience for people who love steak.

The biggest difference between Ted's and a traditional steakhouse chain was that the chain didn't serve beef. Instead, Ted's only served bison, offering bison steaks and burgers as the centerpiece of its menu. By 2003, reported The New York Times, that single restaurant had grown to five, and Turner had ambitious plans for the future. ”I can see a day when this company has 500 restaurants and a billion-dollar market cap,” he told the Times

While there aren't yet that many, Ted's locations can be found throughout the U.S., including in Colorado, Massachusetts, Georgia, Florida and, of course Montana. Despite being a familiar brand for nearly two decades, there's much that customers may not realize about this innovative and ambitious restaurant chain. Read on to find out more about the untold truth of Ted's Montana Grill. 

Ted's Montana Grill was driven by saving a species from extinction

Like any business, the primary goal behind Ted's Montana Grill is to turn a profit. However, there's also another key factor underlying the restaurant chain's concept: to save a species that was once in danger of becoming extinct. By serving bison instead of beef, Ted's Montana Grill is actually creating demand for an animal that, noted Smithsonian Magazine, had been over-hunted to the brink of extinction.

According to Charlotte Magazine, restaurant namesake and co-owner Ted Turner — one of North America's largest private landowners — had been raising bison on his vast tracts of land for some time. Over time, he increased the size of his herds — initially between 30,000 — to 60,000. By creating a bison-based menu, Ted's created a demand, thus making bison a sought-after and financially feasible commodity that resulted in massive bison repopulation. 

While it may seem counterintuitive to save an animal by encouraging people to eat it, Turner saw it differently. "When founding Ted's, my vision was to share my love for bison, an American icon," he said in a 2016 press release. "I wanted my legacy to be successfully preserving this great mammal."

Ted Turner partnered with the founder of Longhorn Steakhouse to launch Ted's Montana Grill

When he came up with the concept of a restaurant chain specializing in bison as a way of bolstering the species, media mogul Ted Turner turned to George McKerrow. While Turner had built a business empire, he was smart enough to realize he was no expert when it came to the hospitality industry. He would need, he realized, somebody who knew that world inside and out.

Turner found that person in McKerrow, who had turned a single Atlanta eatery into the Longhorn Steakhouse chain. As McKerrow told The Atlantan, he was intrigued by Turner's concept of a restaurant based on sustainably increasing the size of North American bison herds. "It's a little ironic, isn't it? By bringing bison to tables across America, we've actually increased the population several-fold, and we've done so sustainably," McKerrow said. 

This aspect of the company's business model, he explained, was particularly appealing. "Being at the helm of a successful enterprise is satisfying by itself, but if you can go to sleep at night knowing that your efforts are actually doing some good in this world, that's the cherry on top," he added.

Ted's Montana Grill is just one of Ted Turner's successful business ventures

Ted Turner is a legend in the broadcasting industry, transforming the Atlanta UHF station into a media empire. While the concept behind Ted's Montana Grill — a restaurant that serves bison in order to save the species — was bold and innovative, Turner consistently proved to be a visionary throughout his career.

That was certainly the case with what is arguably his most famous idea: CNN, television's first 24-hour cable news network. The success of CNN led Turner to embark on a massive expansion that included the TBS superstation, TNTTurner Classic Movies, and Cartoon Network, along with the acquisition of Castle Rock Entertainment and new Line Cinema. Turner wound up ceding control of his media properties after a $7.5 billion merger with what was then known as Time Warner Inc. in 1995. Turner also diversified into sports, at one time owning the Atlanta Braves MLB team and World Championship Wrestling.

In recent years, Turner's main focus has been his privately owned Turner Enterprises, Inc., which manages his various business interests — including Ted's Montana Grill and his own commercial bison herd.

How Ted's Montana Grill aimed to create a viable bison industry

Becoming Ted Turner's partner in Ted's Montana Grill proved to be something of an education for Longhorn Steakhouse founder George McKerrow. The lessons he learned, however, weren't necessarily in business or hospitality, but in environmental sustainability. "I've certainly come to have profound respect for bison as keystone animals that created ecosystems," said McKerrow in an interview with Mountain Journal

As McKerrow explained, Turner had been "promoting bison as native animals that ought to be brought back to the landscape and he wanted to use market forces to make it happen." In order to achieve that goal, Turner set out to "create a bison industry." Given that Turner is the second-largest landowner in North America, with millions of acres, he had the ability to allow his herds of bison to roam on his ranches, envisioning bison farming as becoming "the mainstay and financial wherewithal for his family for generations."

Added McKerrow, "Underlying all of this was his love for the animal, not as a commodity but bison as a species nearly wiped out and deserving of a second chance to reclaim a place on the landscape."

Ted's Montana Grill's menu underwent a major shakeup in 2018

In 2018, Ted's Montana Grill undertook a significant revamp of its menu, following a six-month study to determine what customers thought about the food being offered. The study, Ted's president Kristi Martin told FSR, was eye-opening. "We looked at our menu and we thought, my goodness, especially being a truly from-scratch brand, where we do not bring any premade items into the restaurant that are not ingredients into the backdoor ... we really felt like we had a pretty expansive menu with a great deal of variety," she said. "What surprised me was the fact that what people were looking for, we already offered."

The end result was a radically redesigned menu that added some new items into the mix. Those additions included a salmon burger, "enhanced side dishes" such as sautéed Brussels sprouts and creamed spinach, and a strawberry shortcake described as being "artfully and architecturally prepared."

To promote the new menu, an advertising campaign was mounted to increase overall awareness of Ted's. That campaign, Martin explained, intended to tell the restaurant's story, focusing on its "authenticity, the bison, the local, truly from scratch, no microwaves, no freezers."

Ted's Montana Grill gave out free sliders to celebrate National Bison Day

It may not be common knowledge for those who aren't enmeshed in the world of bison, but the first Saturday in November is officially National Bison Day, the result of a Congressional resolution celebrating the animal. 

To mark this big day for bison, in 2015, Ted's Montana Grill cooked up a special offer for customers: free bison sliders. The sliders were given away to those who made a purchase at Ted's and entered its Facebook contest, where they could win gift cards ranging in value from $25 to $250. Entering the contest also led to a chance to win the grand prize, "Ted's for a Year," valued at $1,000. 

"One of our primary goals in founding Ted's Montana Grill 13 years ago was to bolster support for this great mammal," said co-founder Ted Turner, in a statement. "We invite you to enter our contest and dine with us at one of our many national locations on Bison Day to celebrate bison's special place in our country's heritage and its contributions to society."

Ted's Montana Grill is active in philanthropy

Environmental sustainability has been broiled right into the DNA of Ted's Montana Grill, and the same holds true for philanthropy. Speaking with Mountain Journal, Ted's co-founder George McKerrow lauded partner Ted Turner for his philosophy, that "you can think sustainably, think environmentally, think consciously, and still be in a productive, profitable business."

Turner, in fact, has been widely celebrated for his own personal philanthropy. As his Turner Enterprises bio indicates, he pledged up to $1 billion to the United Nations, while his Turner Foundation has donated more than $380 million to hundreds of charities.

Like its co-founder, Ted's Montana Grill has also given back by teaming up with a variety of different charities. For example, the chain partnered with No Kid Hungry in 2008, offering guests a $5 "thank you gift" to anyone who donates $5 to the charity. Since the partnership began, more than $1 million has been raised for the organization.

Ted's Montana Grill's business model is built on sustainability and environmentalism

Ted Turner has been one of the earliest business figures to lead the charge in protecting the environment. It was way back in 1990, in fact, that he famously spearheaded an environmentally themed children's cartoon called Captain Planet, which spun off into his Captain Planet Foundation.

When Turner and partner George McKerrow founded Ted's Montana Grill, the underlying concept was create a collection of restaurants that turned a profit while also contributing to the well-being of the environment. One of the many ways they have achieved that is through taking care of the land on which Turner's bison herds grazed. 

As McKerrow explained in an interview with Mountain Journal, the sustainability measures taken by Ted's Montana Grill have resulted in "millions of tons of waste never having to enter a landfill, billions of gallons of water each year never being wasted, tons of material given new life as recycled products, tons of grease never going down a drain and instead being repurposed, tons of food never being thrown away and feeding people who need it. Doing what's right benefits the bottom line and it cuts down on resource consumption."

Ted's Montana Grill hired a new corporate chef in 2019

After making big changes to the Ted's Montana Grill menu in 2018, a new key player was brought onboard the following year. As reported, Kirk Biondi joined the company as corporate chef.

"Chef Kirk brings an extremely high level of creativity and analysis to the position and we have already put his skills to work refreshing menu items and scrutinizing food waste," said Ted's co-founder and CEO George McKerrow, noting that Biondi would be working on such projects as "tweaking our made-from-scratch veggie burger to ensure it is 100 percent vegan and looking at ways to reduce our already low 1.62 percent annual food waste to under one percent."

In a statement, Biodi declared it was "an incredible honor" to be a part of Ted's. "The dedication to freshness and quality is unprecedented, as is the priority to do it all in the most sustainable way possible," he said. "It is an incredible privilege and exciting challenge to work with such extraordinary cuts of meat and superior ingredients, truly a chef's dream."

A landlord claimed Ted's Montana Grill owed thousands in back rent

WIth dozens of Ted's Montana Grill locations scattered throughout the U.S., not all of them have been success stories. That was apparently the case with Ted's in Boulder, Colorado, which shut down in 2019 after nearly ten years in business. "It's been a tough decision," Ted's president and chief operating officer Kristi Martin told Daily Camera of the closure. "We've struggled with lower [business] volumes in Boulder. I haven't been able to figure out why?"

When the restaurant shuttered, however, a bit of controversy was left behind. As Daily Camera reported in December 2020, the restaurant's former landlord had launched a lawsuit, alleging that Ted's owed nearly $81,000 in unpaid rent on the location that opened in 2010 and shut its doors nearly a decade later. According to the suit, Ted's lease came to an end in August 2020. Before that, the building's owner — Unico Properties LLC — claimed that Ted's had broken the terms of the lease "by, among other things, failing to pay rent, operating costs, late charges, repair and restoration costs, and other fees and expenses."

Ted Turner of Ted's Montana Grill shared his bison secrets with Martha Stewart

Back in 2009, Martha Stewart paid a two-day visit to Ted Turner's Montana ranch. Television's pre-eminent domestic diva made the trip, she explained in a blog post, in order "to learn from him all about his environmental concerns and his extraordinary efforts in restoring endangered species to the planet."

In a subsequent blog post, the Martha & Snoop's Potluck Dinner Party star wrote about dining with Turner — "al fresco," she revealed — at this ranch. Naturally, bison was on the menu, the same bison raised on Turner's ranch and served to customers of Ted's Montana Grill. The meal, Stewart revealed, was prepared by Turner's private chef, Karen Averitt. "I found the bison to be especially delicious — flavorful, tender, and juicy," she wrote. 

According to Stewart, Turner told her that his foray into becoming a bison farmer started back in 1976 when he bought three bison, "a bull and two cows. Since that time, his herd has grown to more than 50,000 head across the various Turner ranches."

Ted's Montana Grill marked a major environmental milestone

One of the ways in which Ted's Montana Grill contributed to a healthier environment was banning plastic straws. While getting rid of plastic straws has gained traction in recent years, restaurant co-founder Ted Turner was an early adopter. Not long after the opening of the first Ted's in 2002, Turner explained to The New York Times why the restaurant was using paper straws instead of plastic ones. "Do you know how hard it is to recycle a plastic straw?” Turner told the Times.

According to Good News Network, that practice has yielded significant results. After convincing a company to manufacture paper straws (a product that reportedly hadn't been produced in the U.S. since 1970), Ted's had reduced the number of plastic straws winding up in landfills by "a whopping 46 million units per year."

In August 2019, Ted's issued a press release to announce a big milestone: that number had grown to exceed 50 million straws. The release also listed some of the other environmentally friendly innovations that Ted's had undertaken, including "100 percent compostable to-go cups and bio-mass cutlery made from cornstarch and tapioca," efforts that resulted in "70 percent less plastic waste than average restaurants."

Ted's Montana Grill launched a nationwide meat delivery service

In 2020, America's restaurant industry was devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic. To adapt to a new reality in which many people reduced their visits to restaurants or stopped dining out altogether, Ted's Montana Grill unveiled an innovative new concept: a nationwide delivery service that would deliver fresh bison directly to customers.

A press release issued in December 2020 announced the launch of Ted's Butcher Shoppe, an online service where customers could order "American bison or premium beef as individual steaks" or "fresh grind," with some of "Ted's proprietary seasoning" accompanying each order.

"Whether you're seeking a special gift for a meat lover or a foodie, planning a delicious holiday meal or simply stocking your freezer, Ted's Butcher Shoppe is the perfect solution," said Ted's CEO George McKerrow in the release. "It's the only meat service that is delivered fresh the very next day, making it even more convenient for those last-minute gifts across the country." McKerrow also recommended a shipment of meat as an ideal holiday gift. "The gift of high-quality meat is a special way to show your loved ones you care this holiday season," he added. 

Ted's Montana Grill was hit with controversy for receiving millions in pandemic loans

As a way of bolstering the U.S. economy during the 2020 pandemic, the federal government offered Paycheck Protection Loans as a form of stimulus to keep struggling small businesses afloat. However, controversy ensued when reports emerged that millions intended for small and mid-sized eateries were being scooped up by large restaurant chains. 

As the East Bay Times reported, data about the loans issued by the Small Business Administration revealed that the money handed out hadn't been evenly distributed. As it turned out, the result was "the biggest sums going to a sliver of the companies in need," with the majority of the money going to large restaurant chains after the restaurant industry lobbied to make chains eligible for PPP loans.

As it turned out, Ted's Montana Grill was among the high-profile restaurant chains to receive a substantial PPP loan. According to a report in The New York Times, Ted's joined such chains as P.F. Changs, Ruby Tuesday and TGI Fridays to receive the maximum loan of $10 million.