Tom Russell is all about family and that sentiment extends to his Bonanza Freeze employees.
Tradition is another word he does not take lightly.
The drive-thru was established in 1947, but has been family-owned since 1968, run by his parents, Jack and Marie Russell.
At the ripe old age of 21, Tom approached his parents about buying the business.
The couple’s youngest son had some experience. He had worked at the family business since he was 9. His first job was cleaning the parking lot. He then moved on to stocking and cleaning, and finally, became a cook.
Given his age, to say his parents were a bit skeptical would be an understatement. “Is this for real?” they asked.
“They were shocked,” he laughingly recalled.
Jack and Marie pondered the idea for a bit and then made a counteroffer — run the business for a year before buying it and let’s see how you do.
Tom, one of eight Russell children, accepted the challenge and in that year, learned, through trial and error, how to be a business owner.
“At first I was so naïve about what it takes to run a business,” he laughed.
By 1986 and with a year of on-the-job training under his belt, Russell was now the sole proprietor of the family business and remains thankful his parents took a chance.
“It meant a lot that they trusted me at 21 to take over,” Russell said.
Good old-fashioned advice came along with the deed to the business.
First off, he was told to keep it to himself about the change of ownership.
“Dad worried people might think I would change the menu,” explained Russell.
Second piece of advice — don’t go off on a spending spree, to which he strictly adhered to as well.
It took Russell some time to pay his parents off — 15 years to be exact. “I paid them every week,” he said. “It was their retirement.”
Oddly enough, Russell didn’t set out to run his own business. College was not part of his plans, either. His passion was playing music. But he also wanted to have a family.
“To me, playing music and raising a family just didn’t go too well together,” he said.
Now, his “family” has grown significantly.
A father to a high school senior, Russell considers his employees family as well. So much so that he recently shut down the business on a Saturday — one of their busiest days — to celebrate with long-time employee Wendy LeProwse.
LeProwse had reached a 40-year milestone as an employee at Bonanza Freeze.
“It was time to celebrate,” Russell said.
Russell told her ahead of time about the party, but she was still in shock.
“I was not expecting it,” she said.
LeProwse started out at Bonanza Freeze because she was raising a family and needed the income.
“Now it has become like family,” she said.
Again, family seems to be the common thread so it should not be surprising that unlike most fast-food restaurants, the Bonanza Freeze is always closed on holidays.
That decision was intentional. As far as Russell is concerned, holidays should be spent with families.
“We all need a break,” he said. “It’s not the job but the people in our lives.”
Another “family” member is Don Helstrom, who has been a delivery driver at Bonanza Freeze for nearly 20 years.
“It’s my work home,” he said.
Helstrom has known Russell a lot longer than 20 years. The two men grew up together on State Street.
Already employed at another local restaurant, Helstrom didn’t start off looking for a permanent position. Instead he was helping out his childhood friend until he hired someone permanently to do deliveries.
“I’ll do it until you hire someone,” Helstrom recalled telling his friend.
Well … Russell never got around to hiring someone. With nearly two decades in, Helstrom is still making deliveries and there is nothing negative he can say about his job.
“Tom is the best employer I have ever had,” said Helstrom. “It’s good money and I’m treated well.”
There was one change Tom made a few years after he bought the family business.
Almost from its inception, Bonanza Freeze was opened from just before springtime through fall. It was closed for the winter.
Russell concluded it just wasn’t enough and so by 1989, it was opened all-year long.
So now — yeah, he may be the boss and can make those executive decisions, but Russell stills knows his way around the grill and is not afraid to grab a mop and start cleaning. He works most weekends and it’s a tradition he’s not willing to relinquish.
Thirty-five years have passed and there are no regrets, none at all.
“It’s been an absolute pleasure,” said Russell, who considers Butte the most loyal place, particularly if you are running a business.
Pre-COVID-19, Russell employed between 15 to 20 people. Currently, business is so good he now has 30 employees.
“I have nothing but gratitude for that,” he shared.
His employees range from teens to adults, short-term and long-term. Regardless, he has been blessed with loyalty among his staff.
“They have been absolutely solid,” said Tom, “and I’m so appreciative.”
The feeling is definitely mutual.
“Tom is not only a great boss,” said LeProwse, “but a great friend.”