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South Dakota 2011 Small Business Person Of The Year
Leigh Kamstra, Chef/Owner of Roma's Ristorante located in Spearfish, South Dakota.
For 37 years an old, stone, dilapidated building stood empty in Spearfish, South Dakota. But it caught the eye of a college student who was then attending Black Hills State University. Leigh Kamstra didn’t know exactly at the time how or why, but she knew somehow her future would be in that building. It would be several years before she would have her answer.
With a head for numbers and bookkeeping abilities, Leigh earned her degree in business and a minor in computer science. After graduation, she spent 10 years in the banking industry in California and Denver. Then one day in 1994 after a very stressful day at the office, Leigh saw a commercial for a culinary arts degree program offered through the Colorado Institute of Art. It was like a light bulb went off in her head and this businesswoman made a spontaneous decision – she was going to chuck her successful banking career and try a new occupation. After all, she always loved to cook and bake (even though she will admit she was never good at it) and found it to be a great stress reliever. Once Leigh made up her mind, there was no turning back.
Leigh started attending the 18-month culinary arts program which was very intense. Out of a class of 125 students, only 42 graduated. Leigh loved every minute of it and finished first in her class. She graduated with a 4.0 grade point average, three gold medals and two silvers. After graduation, Leigh started her cooking career in Colorado working in head chef positions in Boulder and Cherry Creek.
At Christmastime in 1999, Leigh was home back in Spearfish visiting her family and decided to check on her favorite building. It was still there and still empty, but now there was a “for sale or lease” sign in the window. Leigh could picture herself and her restaurant there. Things started moving quickly and after some negotiating with the owner for a lease Leigh could afford and a loan of $60,000 guaranteed by the Small Business Administration (SBA), the refurbishing of the building began in March 2000. There were multiple challenges the old building presented such as no electricity or water, but nothing that couldn’t be fixed. After three months of whirlwind activity, Leigh transformed the building into a unique and quaint Italian restaurant, Roma’s Ristorante.
During the next 10 year’s Roma’s became known as a premier restaurant in Spearfish and the regional area, but it wasn’t all an easy adventure. There were issues with the building lease, people stopped eating out after 9/11/2001 for some time and sales took a drastic decline, and Leigh went through some personal problems as well. Leigh persevered and business increased to the point where she started thinking about expanding her business. This was viewed as a risky proposition as she had an established and successful business at her chosen location, but Leigh knew she had outgrown her special building. She only had 23 tables and sales were maxed out as they couldn’t turn them over fast enough to make more money. So Leigh moved forward and with an SBA 504 loan of $598,000, she designed, constructed and opened the doors of her brand new building in June 2010.
The new building offers more seating, a more efficient kitchen space, and better visibility from the interstate which carries thousands of visitors through the Black Hills National Forest. There is also an elevated area for musicians to perform and a meeting room for special occasions. Since the restaurant opened in its new location, sales have nearly doubled and employees have increased from 11 to 35 also helping the local economy.
Leigh is active in the Spearfish community. She has donated the use of the restaurant on several occasions to host fundraisers for various non-profit organizations in the community, donated goods and services to feed the animals at the wildlife sanctuary and is a board member of the Northern Hills Alcohol and Drug Services.