When people from around the country think of Sandpoint, it’s most likely for Schweitzer Mountain, Lake Pend Oreille and the city’s numerous awards for being one of the most livable small towns in the country. They think of small “mom and pop” shops. And while it’s true there are dozens of great small businesses here, most visitors from outside North Idaho would never know they’ve more than likely used an everyday product that was created here nearly 60 years ago and continues to call Sandpoint its headquarters.
Litehouse Foods is a household name in the salad dressing industry, right up there in name recognition with Kraft, Hidden Valley and Newman’s Own. From humble beginnings selling single bottles out of a Hope, Idaho restaurant to being stocked in all 50 states, Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean, the company has grown leaps and bounds. And it all started with a mini craze.
In 1958, Edward and Lorena Hawkins purchased Hurschell’s Lighthouse Restaurant in Hope and changed the name and spelling to how it appears today. Years earlier while working at a Spokane restaurant, Edward had developed a less runny and creamier bleu cheese dressing – a dressing which was back then typically more of a vinaigrette. He brought the recipe with him to Hope, and it became so popular that customers began to bring their own jars from home in hopes of taking a bottle to go.
“By 1963 Ed’s sons started selling cases (of salad dressing) out of the restaurant, and the first sale to a grocery store was in downtown Sandpoint,” recalled Litehouse Foods President and CEO Jim Frank.
The original bleu cheese recipe still used today took the area by storm, and when Albertsons in Boise picked up the products, the company really began to grow. By 1983 Litehouse was making 12 different dressings.
“Today we have over 200 labels of various products that we produce,” said Public Relations Director Roxie Lowther.
Litehouse expanded into packaged dips in the early 90s and had their dressings in pre-made salad kits by the late 90s. In 2001 the company purchased the cheese plant facility in downtown Sandpoint and recently has expanded into the cider business as well as packaged herbs and fruit and caramel dips.
A recent agreement with Publix grocery stores has greatly expanded Litehouse’s reach along the East coast. Additional product facilities have opened up in Lowell, Michigan and Hurricane, Utah with a total employee count of nearly 850. With so much growth, one would think company headquarters would have moved out of the small town of Sandpoint, but Litehouse has planted roots here and employs 410 North Idaho residents.
“Our founders wanted locals to have good paying, year-round jobs in the area which is what we’ve tried our best to create,” said Frank.
As CEO of a company that produces products for grocers and the food service industry all over the country, Frank admits that he feels the pressure to keep the company strong.
“It makes me feel good and nervous at the same time. We have great jobs, a great work environment and great community impact, and I feel the responsibility to keep the company going to ensure we keep the company healthy and thriving.” It’s the closeness with the greater Sandpoint community that Frank says brings a smile to his face. “We are a part of so many community events that when I hear the positives and see the impact, it makes me very proud,” said Frank.
If there’s a fundraiser or local charitable function, there’s a good bet that Litehouse Foods is a part of it. Frank sits on the Bonner General Health board of directors, and many other employees serve as board members for community non-profits and youth sports.
Kinderhaven, the Festival of Trees, Bulldog Bench, CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) and the Panhandle Animal Shelter are just a few of the organizations Litehouse supports. Gift baskets and financial donations are given to benefit dinners and auctions, and the company makes a point to support events in the shoulder seasons of fall and spring when there aren’t as many tourist dollars flooding into the area. An annual golf event at the Coeur d’Alene Resort brings in large donations from out of town vendors that want to support these local programs.
Another unique aspect of Litehouse is that the company is 100 percent employee owned. In 2006 the company made the decision to transfer 30 percent ownership to its employees. By 2014 Litehouse Foods became completely employee owned. This means that all of the decisions, profit and debt are all the responsibility of company employees.
“Employees are more invested in the company because their efforts have a direct impact on them,” explained Frank. “When you come to work here, you always feel like you’re working for everyone.”
To encourage its employees to progress and grow their skills, Litehouse University was created. “It’s structured programs to develop leaders within the company and promote from within,” said Lowther. “Employees can take their career from the assembly line to the main office.”
With good paying business jobs a constant struggle in North Idaho, Litehouse reaches out to local colleges and students for internships and hiring opportunities in the hope of keeping more young people employed here so they don’t have to seek professional employment elsewhere.
Though the company was founded on it’s one-of-a-kind bleu cheese dressing, it’s evident that no one is resting on their laurels. Product development continues to be a major component for Litehouse. Many of their dips and dressings are utilizing Greek yogurt as the primary ingredient, and Litehouse is far and away the number one seller of organic dressing in the nation. New flavors like Sriracha Lime are hitting the shelves as well as crumbled shake cheeses, similar to the big green can of parmesan you’ve been using all these years.
“Companies can be status quo, or you can be on a growth model which is what we are on. We’re growing our distribution and will continue to grow and expand and not sit still,” said Frank.
From single jars out of a restaurant to a nationally recognized brand, Litehouse Foods has made quite a name for itself while keeping with the beliefs and traditions of its founders. Money from literally thousands of national customers comes back into Sandpoint which allows Litehouse to continue to create good paying full time jobs and support the organizations and groups that do so much to better our community. While Litehouse continues to expand and innovate, its roots get planted deeper in North Idaho. And with employees in charge of the decision making, the chances of seeing the company relocate are minute at best. Sandpoint may be best known for its beauty, skiing, recreation and small town charm, but don’t forget it produces some pretty amazing products as well.