From small-town restaurant to dressing giant By Abigail Thorpe
Photo courtesy of Litehouse
In 1949, Edward Hawkins was serving as a chef in Spokane when his boss complained about the quality of the blue cheese dressing they were serving. Hawkins took the challenge to heart, and so was born the first creamy blue cheese dressing. Ten years later he and his wife purchased Hurschell’s Lighthouse in Hope. Customers liked the dressing so much they’d arrive with jars to bring extra home.
Demand required supply, and brothers Edward and Doug decided to can their secret recipe in 1963, mixing the dressing by hand in soup kettles. Soon Litehouse Bleu Cheese and Litehouse Thousand Island began gracing the shelves of Rogers Thrift in Sandpoint. Fast forward 57 years later, and Litehouse is now the No. 1 refrigerated salad dressing in the world.
Litehouse started with a goal to bring steady, year-round work to Sandpoint, which was at the time dominated by seasonal logging jobs. “The founders truly believed in the importance of having an impact in the community where you live and operate,” says Kelly Prior, Litehouse president and CEO. While the company has grown and now houses facilities in Hurricane, Utah; Lowell, Michigan; and Danville, Virginia, in addition to its Sandpoint headquarters, it’s founding vision has remained constant: “To improve life ... one community, one table, one bite at a time,” says Prior.
The Hawkins brothers founded Litehouse on the principle of faith and the values of stewardship, integrity, accountability and commitment to excellence, and those values have not dissipated as the company has evolved. “These core values are the compass that drives every decision we make, and they continue to be invaluable in ensuring we are building a business our employee owners can be proud of and will continue to thrive for generations to come,” says Prior.
As the company grew from a small family owned restaurant into a large consumer packaged goods company and the Hawkins neared retirement, they faced the question of what would become of the company and its many employees. Rather than sell the company and risk a conglomerate moving operations and taking hundreds of jobs away from Sandpoint workers, the founders decided to pass ownership along to their employees, making Litehouse 100 percent employee owned by 2014.
The passing of the torch has in no way diminished the company’s success—or its character. Employees continue to honor and reflect the founders’ vision, placing service over self-interest.
“Since the transfer of ownership, we have seen record-setting sales and profits, showing that our employee owners really take the responsibility of ownership to heart to create long-term benefits for themselves and their fellow employee owners for years to come,” says Prior. “The Employee Stock Ownership Plan has also provided a fantastic retirement benefit to our employee owners that would not have otherwise been available.”
In addition to being entirely employee owned, one thing Litehouse finds most pride in is the impact they have on improving and helping the communities in which they live and operate. “At Litehouse, we value service over self-interest, and so we strive to be accountable to the communities we serve,” adds Prior. “To ensure we never lose focus of this responsibility, we have implemented a policy by which a percentage of our company’s annual net income is given back to the community through charitable contributions.”
The company focuses on assisting local families and children through financial, education, food and health assistance, and employees have volunteered over 1,200 hours in their communities. In 2019 alone, Litehouse, its employee owners and its business partners gave over $400,000 back to the Sandpoint community in sponsorships, donations and other contributions.
Litehouse’s success, in many ways, lies in its commitment to its founding vision. Despite change and growth, the company never lost sight of its object: to provide a product people want, with a commitment to integrity and excellence, and in a way that strengthens the community it serves. “While the dynamics of the business environment have changed and will continue to change, staying focused on our core values has allowed us to stay true to who we are,” says Prior.
Prior’s advice to new businesses? “Have a very clear vision of the purpose of your business and the impact you want to make in the world. Lack of focus has been the demise of so many companies, and so it’s imperative to always gut check the decisions you are making on a day-to-day basis against that vision of your company to ensure you stay focused on what you are trying to achieve.”