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Monthly Archives: March 2012

A Sandpoint Secret

Published: 03/11/12 2:05 am | Updated: 03/11/12 8:18 am

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SANDPOINT, Idaho — On a bluebird day you can see snowcapped peaks in Montana, Washington and British Columbia from the top of Idaho’s largest ski resort.
Lake Pend Oreille below makes Schweitzer Mountain feel like the Northwest’s Lake Tahoe region. And the 2,900 acres of steeps, tree skiing and family-friendly groomers are a skier’s dream. It’s here, absorbing this heavenly panorama, that it seems impossible a place so stunning could be named after a cat-eating hermit.
But it is.
Schweitzer Mountain Resort has a quirky history, a bright future and reputation for being one of the best-kept secrets of the U.S. ski industry.
“Let’s face it,” said Jim Parsons, a longtime Sandpoint resident and local historian. “It’s not easy to get here.”
Getting to Sandpoint from the South Sound requires a nearly 400-mile drive, or a flight into Spokane followed by a 90-minute drive.
“But it’s worth the effort,” Sean Briggs, Schweitzer’s marketing coordinator, said as he prepared to drop into the ski area’s Outback Bowl. “We have an iconic view, great skiing, a base village with everything you need, and the best thing about being a little out of the way is the lack of crowds.
“You feel like you get the mountain to yourself. Even the busy days aren’t all that busy.”
Schweitzer Mountain is reportedly named for a Swiss hermit (In German, Schweizer means Swiss) who lived at the base of the mountain more than a century ago. In his 1991 book “Looking Back at Schweitzer,” resort founder Jack Fowler wrote that the eccentric hermit was thought of as strange but polite. Once, while wearing his Swiss Army uniform, he intercepted a young woman traveling on horseback in a snowstorm and led her to the local train station. After another incident, authorities paid him a visit and found the pelts of many missing cats.
According to Fowler’s book, the hermit was quite fond of cat stew. He was sent to an asylum where he spent the rest of his life.
The hermit has since been immortalized in local folklore and with several resort features now referencing his legend. A six-seat lift and a ski run are named Stella, after the towns-woman he reportedly loved, and the tubing park is called Hermit’s Hallow.
Inexplicably, none of the 92 ski runs bear the name Cat Stew.
Parsons, the local historian, had only one thing to say about the legend: “No comment.”
His interest lies more in the evolution of the ski area. Parsons, 81, moved to Sandpoint from San Diego in 1945.
There had been skiing on the outskirts of town in the ’30s and he and some other locals helped build a new rope tow in the late 1940s, but he never envisioned the area would one day have a ski area that lures visitors from around the Northwest.
The turning point came in the 1960s when Fowler, a Spokane dentist, and a friend, Grant Groesbeck, spotted Schweitzer Basin on their way home from a disappointing ski trip in Montana. The idea was born and the men even brought in longtime White Pass general manager Nelson Bennett to help find the perfect location for the ski area. In 1963 the ski area was born with townspeople buying into the project for $10 per share.
“Everybody in town bought stock,” Parsons said. “I think it is the biggest thing that ever happened to this town.”
Today Schweitzer seems to have something for everybody.
For those who are a little bit wild, there is a tree under the Great Escape lift where women sometimes throw their bras – a tradition Briggs can’t explain.
Other ski areas in Idaho have bra trees, but few resorts in North America have a liquor license like Schweitzer’s.
“The license covers the entire mountain,” Briggs said. “So people can enjoy a beer on the chairlift.”
For families, the resort grooms miles of ski trails every morning.
“We have tons of groomers that are long and wide open,” Briggs said. “And we have some great high-angle groomers.”
One of these steep groomers, Kaniksu, Briggs claims starts at a 55-degree pitch.
Because the ski area is on private land, it also has something that is a rarity in the Northwest, a base village with ski-in, ski-out lodging.
“It’s great for families because they just have to wake up, grab their skis and they are on the snow,” Briggs said. “It’s pretty easy.”
In 2000, when the ski area installed the new Stella Lift, it enlisted the help of Disney.
To reach the lift, skiers slide through a barn adorned with mining themed animatronics. Briggs said the animatronics, which included characters and steam-blowing machinery, proved to be more expensive to run than expected and are rarely turned on anymore.
They don’t get many complaints, perhaps because skiers don’t spend much time in the barn.
“There are no lift lines at Schweitzer,” said Jeff Nizzoli, owner of Eichardt’s Pub in Sandpoint. “That’s one of the great things about skiing here.”
And then, for those who love to push themselves, Schweitzer offers challenges both on and off the slopes.
At the base of the Outback Bowl, where dozens of steep double diamond, diamond and a handful of intermediate runs converge sits a small lodge with a big menu. The Outback Inn is a popular lunch spot best known for its homage to an Idaho icon – the potato.
Joe Sorentino was manning the tater station when a skier ordered the Outback Potato. The skier realized he was outmatched as soon as Sorentino pulled out a large red and white paper basket. As Sorentino loaded on chili, tomatoes, onions, bacon, sour cream, jalapeños, cheese and more, he announced that lunch would weigh more than three pounds.
“And,” the cashier chimed in, “you can’t leave until you finish.”
Luckily he was joking because there was no chance. And Outback Bowl was calling.
The more challenging of Schweitzer’s two bowls, Outback Bowl is where the resort keeps its toughest terrain: the steep Lakeside Chutes and expert runs with names like Whiplash and Misfortune. “And great, quality tree skiing,” Nizzoli said.
“On a powder day it will blow you away,” Briggs said.
That’s about the reaction Rob Karmin of Portland had last month when he took a four-day vacation at Schweitzer with his girlfriend.
“This place is pretty amazing,” Karmin said. “If Schweitzer was right next door to Mount Hood I would come here.”
Svein Nostdahl, co-owner of Sandpoint Sports, moved from Aspen, Colo., 13 years ago looking for a place where he could ski in the winter and play on the lake in the summer.
His first thought was Lake Tahoe, “but it has too many people,” he said. “This place is second only to Tahoe.”
In comparison with Aspen and Tahoe, Nostdahl says he wouldn’t exactly classify Schweitzer as a resort. “But it’s getting there,” he said.
Mack Deibel, spokesman for the Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce, says Sandpoint still gets most of its visitors in the summer. He doesn’t have visitation statistics, but inferred you’d have better luck finding a bowl of cat stew than a hotel room in town between July 4 and Labor Day.
“We are a lake town,” he said. “But we are becoming more of a ski town.”
One step Sandpoint took in that direction this year was adding free public transportation from each of its hotels to the base of Schweitzer, where the resort offers round-trip shuttle service to the lifts for $3.
Deibel said the new service is used by about 1,000 people per week.
Duffy Mahoney, co-owner of MickDuff’s Brewing Co., says he and his brother, Mickey, moved to Sandpoint in 2005 to convert an old breakfast diner into a brew pub because Sandpoint was a dream destination. In addition to the skiing and water sports, they appreciated the local arts and music scene.
“It’s like somebody took Portland or Seattle and shrunk it down to a town of about 8,000 people,” Mahoney said. “… And then put here where we have this great lake in our front yard and world class skiing in our backyard.”
Craig Hill: 253-597-8497
Copyright 2012 . All rights reserved.

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Litehouse Foods expands from humble beginnings Sandpoint Idaho

SANDPOINT – Thirty-eight years ago, the Hawkins family of Hope, Idaho, blended salad dressing in the back of their struggling restaurant and sold it to area grocers, generating $100,000 in annual volume.

Last year’s volume was $3 million … per week.

Ed Hawkins Sr. deserves credit for creating Litehouse Foods’ signature chunky bleu cheese dressing. But it was his sons, Ed Jr. and Doug Hawkins, who turned the brand into a household name.

Doug Hawkins was Litehouse president from 1984 to 2008, and now is chairman of the board. Ed Hawkins Jr. served as chief executive officer from 1989 until 2010, when he stepped aside to become “Keeper of Values.”

Jim Frank joined the company as director of sales in 2006 and was appointed CEO in 2010.

Ed Hawkins Jr. and Frank discussed the company’s rise, its values and its prospects during a recent interview at the company’s headquarters.

S-R: Ed, recount how your family got into the dressing business.

Hawkins: Back in 1963, we were struggling financially. We had a restaurant on Lake Pend Oreille that was busy in the summer but so slow in winter that we generally closed January and February. Plus we had one kid in college and one soon to be. Dad and my brother, Doug, decided to figure out a way to make some more money. Restaurant customers liked our bleu cheese dressing. So Doug and Dad got some jars, had some labels made, bought ingredients at a local grocery store and made a few cases to sell to grocers. They’d sell it by the case, the half case, whatever. In those days, there were lots of independent grocers who could make the decision right there in the store to buy something. The chains don’t allow that to happen anymore.

S-R: What inspired your dad’s recipe?

Hawkins: Prayer. The owner of a Spokane restaurant where Dad had worked wondered why someone couldn’t make a good bleu cheese dressing. Dad prayed about it and woke up in the middle of the night with this new recipe. Instead of oil and vinegar, he used buttermilk, mayonnaise, garlic salt, salt and bleu cheese – that’s it. It was a great recipe, because the cost of ingredients was low.

S-R: What happened next?

Hawkins: By 1968, we probably did $100,000 in volume, and in ’74 we did the same – we’d maxed out the Spokane market. I’d just graduated from college and Dad was in the VA hospital in Spokane. His priority had always been the restaurant, so Doug and I decided to make the dressing our priority.

S-R: What made you believe in it so strongly?

Hawkins: I’d had a goal, a vision, a dream – whatever you want to call it – that the business would take off, from the time it started when I was 10 years old. I loved making the stuff. I’m the only one in this company who has done every job there is, from cleaning toilets to making the dressing and selling it, doing the books and then leading it as CEO for 25 years.

S-R: What was the company’s first big break?

Hawkins: Early in 1975, Doug and Dad called the head of the produce division for Albertsons in Boise. He’d gotten mad at our competitor, kicked them out and brought us in. That was huge. In one year, we went from $100,000 in volume to about $250,000. Then the next year, he encouraged his counterpart in Salt Lake to bring us in. That put us up to $750,000.

Frank: Getting into a chain was the big thing, versus single stores placing orders.

Hawkins: The next big break was getting into Safeway in ’77 – that meant a minimum 1,000 cases a week.

S-R: Once you landed the Albertsons and Safeway accounts, were there any tough times after that?

Hawkins: Oh, yeah. There still are tough times. We peaked in 1984 at about $6 million, and then we didn’t grow for six years. It was a function of focusing on retail dressings – the stuff you see in the produce department. So we made a decision in 1989 to get into the food-service and member-store business. We went out on a limb and got a pillow machine (which makes single-serving packages), set a $20 million goal, and hit it in five years.

Frank: Some of the tough times were when sales would stagnate. Other times, the profit side wasn’t so good. We just came through a tough time in 2010-11 because sales grew so fast – runaway, almost – that it was difficult to get our arms around the profit side.

S-R: Did the recession affect business?

Hawkins: Historically, some of our best sales growth has occurred during recessionary periods. In the old days, when we were just retail, recessions were a great opportunity for us, because instead of going out to dinner, people stayed home and ate good stuff.

S-R: Has anyone tried to buy the company?

Hawkins: Every day of the week. Still.

S-R: Why did you resist that?

Hawkins: It goes back to our values and principles. Doug and I have always said we could sell this company or go broke, and, either way, the impact on jobs in this community would be the same – they’d go away. Whomever we sold to would most likely have production facilities elsewhere. Going all the way back to 1972, one of my family’s goals was to create good, steady, year-round jobs in Sandpoint.

Frank: For 100 years, North Idaho has been a difficult place to make a living, because it’s seasonal.

S-R: How much do your employees make?

Frank: Entry level is 50 cents to $1 higher than anything comparable.

S-R: Do people tend to stay here?

Hawkins: We had four people retire in January – one at 31 years, one at 30 years, one at 24 and one at 22.

S-R: Jim, when you joined Litehouse in 2006 as director of sales, this was a family-dominated company. What was that like?

Frank: Some people might not have been able to handle it, but for me it was like coming home. I went to work at the age of 10 in my dad’s grocery store, and when I was 20-something I went to Albertsons, which back in the day had a family atmosphere.

S-R: Ed, what brought about your brother’s and your decision in 2006 to sell the company to the employees?

Hawkins: It fit with our values. We now have three communities we’re responsible to – we went into Michigan in 1997, and have been in Utah for almost a year. We felt if we sold it to our employees, then those plants are going to stay in those communities and continue to provide good jobs.

S-R: What are the implications for employees?

Frank: It’s really a great pension plan. Each year, the company buys stock from the founding owners and gives it to all employees – the equivalent of about 10 percent of their salary – for free. And if we’re doing the right things for the company, the value of the shares they already own go up.

S-R: Ed, since stepping aside as CEO, you’ve taken on the unofficial title of Keeper of Values. What are those values?

Hawkins: They’re on our Guiding Principles cards: faith, stewardship, integrity, commitment to excellence and accountability. It goes back to how we got here. My family was broke most of my life, up to ’74 and ’75. Faith and perseverance gave us the drive to continue when we should have quit. One of the things at the core of our company and our family was to create jobs for our community. If this company is to succeed and go forward, we have to adhere to these guiding principles.

S-R: What’s the biggest challenge the company faces?

Frank: It’s the unpredictable costs of ingredients. You hear about the biofuel industry using corn to make fuel, sending prices up. Our oils follow that rise. The other challenge is preserving the company’s traditional values as it goes from being small and family-run to being big, and making the changes necessary to succeed on that scale.

S-R: You mentioned the past several years have been a bit of a roller coaster. What’s Litehouse’s outlook?

Frank: I think the roller coaster is gone. We’ve taken initiatives in the last six months that will level out our business. With our three plants, we’re now in a position to accept a lot of growth without having to do abnormal things. Our sales volume is stellar, so the future looks good.

S-R: Your Sandpoint headquarters are rather modest for a corporation your size.

Hawkins: You want to stay connected to your employees, and these are modest people.

Frank: And anytime we spend money, we half to ask ourselves: Did it sell another jar of dressing or make more profit? If it doesn’t do either of those things, then why make the spend? We’re responsible to 500 families, and we want to give them the biggest retirement we can.

Spokane freelance writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached via email at

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