Helena Magazine

Food is peace: Getting to know the owners of Dondi and Shell’s Food Oasis

Published 10:10 am Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

By Michelle Love

Photos by Jeremy Raines

Walking up to Dondi and Shell’s Food Oasis in Old Town Helena, the smell of good food hits you almost before you reach the building. The owners, couple Dion Williams and Shelley McDaniel, are hard at work preparing that day’s menu. As you approach the door, either Williams or McDaniel greets you with a smile and a friendly, “How are you?” before taking your order.

It’s an experience that combines quality customer service with equally high-quality food, and the restaurant owners have been making a name for themselves in both aspects of the Helena community since they opened in July.

It’s a journey, however, that Williams said has been going on their whole lives. Williams began cooking with his mother and grandmother when he was young, staying up late to be a part of their culinary endeavors, and McDaniel had a similar background.

Their background in the restaurant industry is an impressive resume. They both worked for Jim ‘N’ Nicks BBQ collectively over 20 years, Williams being there for 12 and McDaniel for 17. They met at the Jim ‘N’ Nicks location on U.S. 280 while they were both servers before going into management positions shortly after and handling all of the chaos that comes from managing a restaurant. They’ve worked almost every role that goes into a restaurant from front-of-the-house to back-of-the-house positions.

“When COVID hit, we had no staff, really,” McDaniel said. “So we were doing the work of like five people. So, when we left we were like, ‘We’re going to take a sabbatical for a while.”

They took three months off to decompress and recover, but the feeling of wanting to do something for themselves as a business hung in the air.

“We figured if we were going to work long and crazy hours we may as well do it for ourselves,” McDaniel said.

When the location became available at the spur of the moment, they jumped at the opportunity. They spent two months getting the building painted and ready for operation.

The setup of the restaurant is simple: Their menu is updated daily online with fresh, made-from-scratch items. Guests order at the door, and everything is made to order right then and there. The kitchen space is small, but the food that comes out of it is reflective of a Michelin-star restaurant. Menu items range from chicken alfredo pasta, ribs, roasted turkey and bread pudding. They both said they love southern food.

“We would drive over an hour to get food like this,” McDaniel said. “You can’t find stuff like this in this area anywhere. A lot of people like southern, homecooked food, so that’s what inspired us to do this type of setup. People can call us, we’ll bring it to the car.”

McDaniel said in the short time they’ve been open, they’ve already garnered a following of faithful patrons.

“We have our regulars who wait every day for us to post our specials so they can see what we have that day,” she said. “And on weekends we do like the ribs, turkey, smoked chicken so you can get a bit of our original barbecue background.”

All of the dishes that come from their kitchen are their own. While some restaurants take time before they open to formulate a menu plan, Williams and McDaniel already had their recipes established. All recipes are a culmination of their own that they’ve carefully crafted and perfected over the years and family recipes passed down. Their Mama’s cornbread dressing is literally Williams’s cornbread dressing that she makes herself.

“This is how we cook at home every day,” Williams said.

“We just came up with the stuff that we love to eat,” McDaniel said. “Things our family and friends love that we cook, so we just combined all of that together and broke it up into days. We’re revamping the menu right now because trial and error as you go along you see what people like and respond to along the way.”

Regular guests not only become fans of the food, but of Williams and McDaniel themselves. They’ve been together for 12 years, and it shows. They have the rapport of a couple who work together like a finely tuned machine, through good times and bad.

“We can always count on each other,” Williams said.

Within a few minutes of first meeting with the couple, you feel as if you’ve known them for much longer. That’s one of the ultimate goals for Dondi and Shell’s, according to Williams. Guests who come up to their door quickly become friends.

“That’s why we always tell people at the end of our Facebook posts, smiles are free,” Williams said. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, we’re in a great mood, so the smile is going to be there anyway because that’s both of our personalities. That’s one of the reasons we’ve been together so long. We can always find the humor in things, and we want to make you smile too even if it’s for a minute. We want to change someone’s day.”

Williams credits his partner for being particularly skilled at sensing when people need some extra care.

“[Shelley] is really good at this, she’ll be able to tell if someone’s spirits are down or if they need a hug,” he said. “She can read a person like that then have a conversation with them, and by the time they walk away from the door, they’ve got a smile on their face. That means a lot to a lot of people. I know we’re not big yet, but we think personal interaction is huge. It’s more than just, ‘Hey, here’s your food.’”

Sometimes if it’s slow, the two of them will stand out on the sidewalk and talk to passersby as they pass out free samples. They both said they want to interact with people and share what they love doing.

Making sure their menu’s price point was reasonable was another top priority. Williams said they wanted to provide good food for the community without charging them an arm and a leg as many people are on a fixed income. They run $9.99 specials every weekday so people can grab dinner for their family and not feel like anything was overpriced. Even the drinks are complimentary.

“If you can stay within someone’s budget, while you may not be making as big a profit as you want, at the end of the day you sleep better and your heart is happier because you helped somebody,” Williams said.

While the prices are affordable, Williams said he wants people to understand that does not reflect the quality of the food. He and McDaniel strive to always provide the best meal possible for everyone who comes to Dondi and Shell’s.

“We choose great, high-quality ingredients, and that comes through in our food,” Williams said. “Same with our desserts. It’s the love into the food.”

“I’m determined with my desserts to have things that you can’t find anywhere else,” McDaniel said.

Williams reiterated McDaniel’s thoughts, saying the food you get at Dondi and Shell’s can’t be matched anywhere else – not that they haven’t tried.

“At the end of the day, I’ve looked at so many places for things like what we have on our menu, and I’m usually disappointed,” Williams said. “If we go on vacation and we pass a sign that says, ‘Something smoked,’ we get off at the next exit. Doesn’t matter how big or small the place is, from coast to coast, I want to try it. I don’t always leave with a good feeling, but whenever I prepare ribs and give them to other people, I see the excitement in their eyes, and I know I’ve succeeded.”

He said they’ve even had people drive in from Jasper to get some of Dondi and Shell’s classics. McDaniel recalled a recent occurrence when a 7-year-old told her mother she wanted to end her day with a cup of Mama’s Punch.

“The mother called up here to see if we were still open,” she said. “They came down here on their golf cart from the Hillsboro neighborhood just for a cup of Mama’s Punch.”

As chefs, both Williams and McDaniel wanted to marry good mains and good sides so that the entire meal is delicious from start to finish. Williams said they don’t believe in placing all their focus on the main entrée and letting the side dishes suffer, and they enjoy turning people onto food they may not have been a fan of before.

“People who call themselves food snobs, like they say they don’t like bread pudding or they don’t like ribs, we watch them take their first bite and see that excitement at tasting something that changes their whole perspective on a dish means everything. We convert people,” Williams said.

McDaniel said to be able to provide good food and comfort to the community makes her heart happy, though she hopes people will also stop to get to know her and Williams not just as people who feed them, but as fellow members of the community.

“For me, what’s huge is we want people to get to know us, not just our food,” she said. “Everybody knows today’s society – we don’t judge. Come meet us and get to know us. We want to break all the barriers around here. We just want people to understand us and what we’re about which is kindness and good food.”

They both emphasized how supportive the Helena community has been toward their business. McDaniel said several of the local businesses have helped spread word of Dondi and Shell’s through positive word-of-mouth marketing, and she said they’re incredibly grateful for that support.

“Helena has been so supportive,” McDaniel said. “I would say 95 percent of our customer base already has been phenomenal. So accepting of us and our place. We’ve had a lot of support already. We were nervous at first with being on the back street here and not being visible, but in these eight weeks we’ve been opened, it’s amazing to see the transformation and the growth that we’ve gotten.”

“Even the local businesses, more than half of them in the immediate area are patrons,” Williams said. “They come by and say hello or they want to help us market our restaurant on their side. They’ve been really nice. They all send us business because they love our food.”

Eventually, they want to grow the business to a larger location where they can offer inside dining on a smaller scale, though Williams is adamant they will never “go corporate.”

“Never,” McDaniel agreed. “We just want to have that fast casual atmosphere and reach as many people as we can. Give good food to people who need it and appreciate it.”

“I want people to know that even though we don’t have a lot of places for them to sit, it doesn’t take anything away from the food that we’re making,” Williams said. “We’re proud to serve them excellent food, and it’s honestly better than a lot of places you can put your feet up in.”

Whether you’re stopping by Dondi and Shell’s Food Oasis for a meal, a smile or a hug, both Williams and McDaniel said they’ll be there ready and waiting.

“A good meal, that’s healing,” Williams said. “That’s comfort, and it’s comfort we’re happy to provide. Food is peace.”

Dondi and Shell’s Food Oasis is located at 778 2nd Street in Old Town Helena and is open from 11 a.m. until 8 p.m. Wednesday through Monday. For more information and to view their menu, visit Facebook.com/DSfoodoasiss.