The following post is by blogger, Julia Guarino
In January of 2009, I moved from the Washington, DC area to a small city of about 100,000 residents in the middle of Montana. I came to Billings to perform a year of service with AmeriCorps, and although I looked forward to being exposed to elements of American culture that I had never encountered before, I was a little concerned about being able to maintain a vegetarian diet. After all, Montana is “beef country” (as they proclaim on billboards along the highway), and I knew from some online research that there would be no Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods. Billings, although it is the largest city in Montana and several surrounding states, is just too small to attract that kind of chain. I also assumed that in beef country, where cowboy hats and pickup trucks abound, there would be little demand for tofu, seitan and other meat substitutes.
And it’s true that at times I get a strange look when I confess that I’m a vegetarian. Sometimes I get odd questions, like “Do you drink coffee, then?” or “Do you eat cookies?” For many, vegetarianism is not something they’ve witnessed first-hand; which makes sense in a place where, I’ve been told, you can get the most incredible steak even in the cheapest little places. However, I have been a life-long vegetarian, and it is something I cannot imagine ever giving up, so tofu or no, I planned to forge on.
One of my first stops after arriving in Billings, being an impoverished volunteer, was the Super Wal-Mart. I honestly don’t feel particularly good about supporting a big-box store, and try to avoid them when I can, but I was in need of inexpensive food and cleaning products, and I must admit, I was impressed. Wal-Mart had an extensive array of green cleaning products, carried recycled paper goods, and, to my great delight, had an entire case full of vegetarian meat substitutes.
As I began to explore Billings’ trendy and historic downtown, however, I came across a colorful building with big beautiful windows that quietly occupies a quarter block on the western edge of downtown. The Good Earth Market is, to this day, one of my favorite places in the city of Billings (and in fact competes for the best grocery store I’ve ever shopped in). Bright and spacious, with colorful displays and smiling staff, the Good Earth carries a wide variety of natural, organic, local and vegetarian friendly products (though you can get fresh local meat as well). With an incredible deli, salad and coffee bar, cafe seating downstairs or in the loft, and free WIFI, it is also a relaxing place to spend an afternoon. They even have a parking space out front, equipped with an electrical outlet, that is reserved for electric cars! Now I never grocery shop anywhere else.
In the time that I have spent in Billings, there is much that I have grown to love, and much that has surprised me about this small city. There are incredible pockets of world-class art, performance and music mixed in with the charming western cowboy culture, and I have learned much about another part of my own country, while never feeling deprived of the great cultural opportunities I was used to accessing in more urban areas. And it turns out that being a vegetarian in Montana wasn’t so difficult after all!
And I am not the only person who thinks that Billings has a lot to offer — the November 2009 issue of Fortune Small Business Magazine named Billings as the #1 place to start a small business!