One sunny morning, Ben Sokoloski is carrying umbrellas onto the patio of the Market on Front.
Soon, the grocery and deli owner is behind the counter, acting as barista so an employee can finish up finals.
A couple of minutes later, the Missoula native is asking a couple of visitors to the cafe if they have ever eaten a staple on the morning menu.
“Have you guys had the breakfast burrito?”
“Do you eat meat?”
The answer is yes, so he races to the kitchen, slices a burrito in half and delivers it, keeping his eyes and attention on customers at the same time. Eight months ago, Sokoloski opened the Market on Front at 201 E. Front St., and it’s quickly grown into a hub of regulars eating, shopping, working and meeting inside the Park Place parking garage.
“More and more, we’re getting a regular crowd, which is so cool because we know what they like to eat. We know what kind of coffee they like. So it just helps our groove a lot,” Sokoloski said.
The market was an idea Sokoloski pursued as a student and entrepreneur in the University of Montana School of Business Administration, and it’s been in the making for 2 1/2 years. Since he opened his doors, the best compliment he hears from customers is that the market has filled a niche in the heart of Missoula.
“The fact that we’re seen or perceived as a necessary component to downtown makes my day,” Sokoloski said. “That’s what you want to hear as a business owner.”
Nathan Truzzolino met Sokoloski through his work with advertisers at KECI, and he’s become a faithful customer at the Market on Front. Sokoloski, he said, is mature beyond his 28 years, and he has an acute and rare ability to remember names and establish connections with customers.
“He caters to what the customer wants, and he has added jobs and a vigor to the East Front area,” Truzzolino said.
On the shelves, the focus is on local ingredients. Take the “beet stacks,” which look like miniature layer cakes: The beets come from the Western Montana Growers Cooperative and the goat cheese is from the Flathead Valley. And Sokoloski said he aims to bring more and more goods from the Growers Co-op.
“Once we reach were we want to be in the culinary scheme of things, then I’ll be really, really happy,” Sokoloski said.
Other revenue streams for the business are in the works for the immediate future. Opening other markets, possibly in Montana, possibly elsewhere, are part of his vision for the Market on Front in five or 10 years, and he has a long list of things he’d like to do differently if he could.
“God, where do I start? I would love to pay my staff more. I would love to create a product mix that is exactly what the public wants so they don’t have to go elsewhere for shopping. I want this to be an all-encompassing market,” Sokoloski said.
In the brightly lit store, a series of vegetable paintings in vibrant colors hangs above the cafe. On the shelves are fillets of frozen salmon, local Bugoni’s sausages, bags of organic arugula, milk from Kalispell, pastas, wines and fixings for all types of appetizers and meals.
As owner and business manager and sometimes barista, Sokoloski’s days blend together into “one long strip of work.” He shows up early when he needs to, leaves late when he must, and when one system is perfected, he turns his attention to another.
“There isn’t hours in the day. There aren’t really weekdays and weekends,” Sokoloski said.
A strong and loyal network is one key to his success, he said. His family and his girlfriend support him and offer criticism – along with some compliments – and he relies on other mentors and members of the business community he met through UM and a business competition.
“It kind of immersed me into the downtown community,” Sokoloski said, “but we got a chance to mentor with all the leaders in Missoula at that time, so that in itself was unbelievable.”