KALISPELL – Dan Erickson spent several hours dicing 65 pounds of tomatoes before he launched into making a big batch of salsa in Sykes' commercial kitchen in Kalispell.
It's the holidays and his Blaine Mountain Salsa is flying off the shelves as he tries to keep pace with demand.
In the same kitchen, Beth Dix, owner of Delectable Desserts & Catering, was whipping up a cake.
Sykes' baker, Corrine Chollman, had an eye on bread in the oven. And it smelled like bacon was frying somewhere, too.
All of the activity in Sykes' kitchen is par for the course these days since the historic restaurant and market complex began offering its commercial kitchen to small businesses and start-up ventures that need a place to make their food products.
Sykes' closed down its meat department about two years ago after finding it difficult to compete with bigger grocery stores, but the space didn't sit idle for long, Sykes' General Manager Jayson Peters said.
"We saw a need. People began asking us if they could use the space," he told the Daily Inter Lake.
Small-business owners pay a reasonable flat rate per month to rent the commercial kitchen, a nice feature for emerging businesses that don't want the financial burden of being locked into a long-term lease for a facility, Peters said.
"When it slows down for (a business) in the winter months, they don't need to be paying rent," Peters said. "I had a gal who started and within two months realized it wasn't a go.
"There's all that stuff before you open the door" of a small business, so flexible space rental can be very beneficial, he added.
Erickson, known as "Dan the Salsa Man," started his food business three years ago after a bumper crop of tomatoes in his garden gave him the idea. He had been working in the construction industry and was looking for a way to transition into a line of work that might be a bit easier on his 57-year-old body.
"I'm doing this full time now. I've hung up my tools," Erickson said as he diced tomatoes.
He had worked in the food-service industry off and on, doing everything from working in a four-star restaurant in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to managing a children's shelter in Los Angeles.
"I think I have a touch of ADD (attention deficit disorder). I get bored easy," he said with a laugh.
His fresh, off-the-vine approach to salsa is turning heads in the Flathead Valley. Tomatoes picked fresh at Mountain View Gardens were going into that day's batch of salsa. The six heat levels of salsa, ranging from mild to off-the-charts hot Carolina Reaper, have been such crowd-pleasers that he's saving pepper seeds and hopes to sell seedlings at farmers markets next summer.
Sykes' kitchen is ideal for his needs. It has ample counter space for chopping vegetables and a commercial stove where he can process the jars of salsa.
"I don't want to get too big," he stressed.
Blaine Mountain Salsa Works is the quintessential "ma and pa" small business. Erickson's wife, Jami, handles the labeling, packaging and computer work.
Erickson particularly likes the camaraderie of working in a commercial kitchen with other like-minded cooks and food processors.
"You surround yourself with people who want to succeed," he said.
The salsa was a fixture this summer at local farmers markets and now is available at six locations – Withey's Health Foods, Sykes', Video Plus, Woody's Country Store, O'Brien's Liquor Store and Markus Foods.
Dix was one of the first business owners to tap into Sykes' kitchen facility and it's a perfect match for her Delectable Desserts & Catering business that specializes in custom-made wedding cakes and special-occasion cakes and desserts.
"Finding space that works for you is very difficult," she said. "There's cooler space downstairs and the oven is great. It's top-notch equipment.
"Everyone works with each other's schedules," she added. "It's great camaraderie."
Being centrally located in Kalispell is another plus, Dix said, because she can use Sykes' bistro tables in the front of the market for cake-tasting sessions.
Sykes' is using the commercial kitchen to develop its own products, too. Customers rave over the restaurant's cherry pies, so Sykes' is now producing jars of cherry pie mix for sale in the market.
"We do a lot of food ourselves to be packaged and shipped," Peters said. "Everyone loved the biscuits we have. Now we've come up with a dry mix that is easy to ship."
Sykes' Bald Headed Biscuits mix is named after the restaurant's chef, Rick Haase, who is a partner in Sykes'.
Sous chef John Knight has his signature products, MoJo Mustard and MoJo Spice Rub, for sale in the market.
Peters envisions posting a video on Sykes' website that will explain how to make products such as the biscuit and cherry pie mixes.
A scone mix is in the works, and Peters expects to have the website instructional videos up by next summer.
Over the summer Sykes' kitchen was used by five different small businesses for a variety of needs. DeSoto Grill, for example, only needed cooler space for a while, he said.
Since Sykes' was renovated and expanded in 2010, the market has become a treasure trove of specialty items and Made in Montana products. It's a niche Peters expects to further develop as more food processors tap into the kitchen facility.
Whether it's salsa or biscuit mix, if it's made at Sykes' it will find a place on the market's shelves.