Next month, one of Branson’s most popular restaurants, known for its super-sized pancakes, will celebrate 18 years in Ozark Mountain Country.
The 18-year anniversary falls on May 18, said owner and operator Gail Blong.
“If the good Lord is willing, I’ll be here another 20 years,” she said, “Heck, maybe even 30.”
In 1995, Gail Blong and her husband, Billy, were visiting the area on their yearly vacation. Neither of them knew that vacation would lead to the rest of their lives.
“We are originally from Minneapolis, Minn., and it was so cold up there,” Blong said. “We found Branson on a vacation and just fell in love with the area.”
The Blongs returned to Minnesota and quit their jobs. They relocated to Branson and found a restaurant to lease for one year.
“That was nearly 20 years ago, and here we still are,” she said.
Blong has been in the restaurant business for more than 60 years.
“When I was 15, my best friend’s parents bought a resort in Wisconsin and featured a fine dining experience,” Blong said. “I started as a bus girl and dish washer, then I became a waitress.”
Blong then embarked on a career in the restaurant business, with an emphasis on fine dining. She managed several fine dining establishments and catered many large-scale events.
“I never went to school for restaurant or fine dining training,” she said. “I just learned by what I was doing, and from the people around me.”
It was that knowledge and experience that led her and her husband to open Billy Gail’s. “I wanted this to be a mom and pop place where I could come to work and not have to wear high heels and a business suit to work,” Blong said.
She and her husband started small, with him on the grill and her waiting tables. Today, Billy Gail’s boasts 13 employees and countless customers.
After Blong lost her husband late last year, she looked to employees and customers as her support system.
“The people who work here and the people who eat here, they are my family,” she said, “I love being surrounded by all these people I love.”
In a world where so many businesses find it difficult to achieve longevity, Blong said, the fact her customers get to know her and the staff is one of the main reason Billy Gail’s has flourished throughout the years.
Because the Tri-Lakes Area is so reliant on the business of not only local residents, but the tourists, as well, Blong is very thankful she can cater to both.
“I have been very blessed that not only the tourists come to see us, but our locals do, as well,” she said. “They are my bread and butter, the people who live here.”
Several local residents share in Blong’s appraisal of the small place just outside town.
“Whenever someone comes to visit, the first thing we do is take them to eat at Billy Gail’s,” said longtime Branson resident Skip Young. “I’ve been to many places throughout the world, and I can honestly say, there isn’t another place like it anywhere.”
Blong, now 76, knows she can’t keep her current pace for much longer. That doesn’t mean she won’t giver it her all to keep trying.
“I love this place and I’m a hyperactive person, so I have to stay busy all the time and, honestly, I don’t know what else I’d do,” she said. “My son recently moved here from Austin, Texas, to help me run the business, and he said it was so I could slow down a little bit, but I doubt I ever will.”