Dashing on: Historic Dash Inn seeking new owners

Charlie Denison
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Customers line up on foot and in cars for a Tuesday lunch from the Dash Inn.

Photo by Jenny Gessaman

Lewistown’s iconic local fast-food restaurant, the Dash Inn, is up for sale.

The “home of the wagon wheel,” founded by Hash and Dee Nelson in 1952, awaits new hands, as Tom and Kim Rapkoch announced last week they are ready to pass the torch.

Tom, who now lives outside San Francisco, said the decision wasn’t easy, but, nevertheless, they feel it’s in their best interest to move on.

But although this is the end of their eight-year run, Tom said this should not be the end of the Dash Inn’s unique local character, a character appealing to many generations of Central Montanans.

Reflecting on the popular food joint, one can’t help but ask the question: what is it about the Dash Inn that’s so special?

“I have no earthly idea,” Tom said, laughing. “I don’t know how to explain it, really.”

Maybe it’s the friendly service, the location, the turtle logo Bud Ortgies found in Wyoming that became a trademark; maybe it’s the arctic swirls, the flavored sodas or the chili fries; maybe it’s the free ice cream cones that dogs get when they go through the drive-thru.

Tom Hartford, who owned the famous burger-and-ice-cream joint on East Main Street with his wife, Cathie, for more than 22 years, has an idea: it’s the wagon wheel.

“The wagon wheel is the king of all sandwiches,” he said.

Most reading this article already know what a wagon wheel is, but for those unfamiliar, it’s two pieces of white bread cut into a circular shape, wrapped tightly around a hamburger patty. That’s the basis of it. Those ordering have the option of a cheeseburger, a double, etc.

Wagon wheels, Hartford said, have been around as long as the Dash Inn.

“They used to call them flying saucers back in the 50s, but Hash Nelson changed the name to ‘wagon wheel.’ I think that was a good call. It’s more fitting.”

Wagon wheels took off, as did the Dash Inn, and having owned it and been a large part of it for decades, Hartford said it still amazes him how beloved the restaurant is by the community – whether it be people who live in town now or those who lived in town previously.

“The Dash Inn is famous all over Montana,” he said. “To this day I run into people regularly around the state who ask me how the Dash Inn is doing. People love it: the drive-thru, the fast service, the tasty meals and desserts.”

When Tom and Cathie sold it to the Rapkoch’s on Dec, 31, 2007, it was bittersweet, but the Hartfords felt confident the establishment was in good hands.

Tom Rapkoch said, however, he knew he had difficult shoes to fill once he and Kim started running the place.

“I was scared I’d screw it up,” he said. “We still lived in Las Vegas at the time and we were pretty nervous about it. We knew how much the place meant to the community and we wanted to continue to provide the kind of service and the same quality of food people knew they could expect.”

Thanks to Kim’s hard work and dedication, thanks to her sister, Kris and their committed staff, Tom said they were able to accomplish their goal.

 “Kim has done an excellent job managing the Dash-Inn,” Tom said. “She comes by it, naturally, too. For years, her family ran Taco Time.”

Sad to move on, Kim said it’s hard to put into words what it’s been like running a place she grew up loving, a place she knew the rest of the community also held dear. Everyone was in it together, she said.

“It’s really been great serving the community,” she said. “I’ll miss it.”

Hartford said he will also miss having the Rapkoch’s there, as he said they’ve done an excellent job preserving the tradition passed from the Nelsons to the Lindstrands and beyond.

“They’ve done good. The place is as busy as it’s ever been,” he said. “I hate to see them go, but everybody’s got to stretch their legs.”

Looking back now on their eight years, Tom said he and Kim can be satisfied with the job they’ve done.

“I’m proud of the fact we’ve kept the status the Dash Inn had in town and hopefully we were able to improve on some things,” Tom said. “The Dash Inn is an icon, it’s a landmark. We couldn’t be happier that we had the opportunity to buy the place. It’s been special.”

The Rapkochs and Hartford all share the same sentiment moving forward: they hope whoever is next to take the reins of the restaurant keeps the tradition – and the wagon wheel – alive.

“We hope whoever owns it next understands the history and the importance of the Dash Inn in Lewistown,” Tom said.

The Dash Inn is for sale under Billings-based NAI Business Properties. For more information, contact broker Tyler Samson at (406) 294-6309.



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