Dean Folkvord didn’t want to go to Hawaii.
“The first part is, we were young and he didn’t want to go,” said Dean’s wife, Hope. “I had to beg him to go on this trip to begin with. Finally he said, ‘Quit nagging, we’ll go.’”
But it was on this trip during a visit to a pineapple farm in the mid 1980’s that the idea for Wheat Montana was born and the Folkvord family’s entrepreneurship journey began.
A Farming Legacy
During their trip to Hawaii, Dean and Hope visited a pineapple farm. Their tour took them around the farm’s fields and included a stop at the gift shop.
“They were growing pineapples there in this place in Lahaina on Maui,” Dean said. “The fields were back there, and they would give you a tour of their processing plant where they were processing pineapples. They had a gift shop up front where people could buy pineapples and pineapple drinks and they were shipping boxes all over the country. They called the place Pineapple Hawaii. I looked at Hope and said, ‘Geez, I think we can do this with wheat and call it Wheat Montana.’ That was the genesis of the idea for what we thought we could do.”
Today, Wheat Montana’s operations encompasses 15,000 acres in Three Forks. The company employs more than 190 workers and in 1994, the company was awarded the Montana Family Business of the Year honor. Dean was named Montana’s Small Business Person of the Year in 1997.
The Building Blocks
Dean grew up in Helena and some of his earliest memories of farming include riding around the fields with his father. When Dean or his siblings grew tired, their father plopped them on the side of the field for a nap. Their farm was located near the Glass Slipper east of Canyon Ferry.
After visiting the pineapple farm, Dean and Hope jumped head-first into growing the idea of Wheat Montana. They began with selling specialty wheat flour to a health food store. Dean said they then started cleaning the flour and sold half a truckload of the specialty flour. Quickly, they began selling a truckload every two months.
But every great story has a few bumps in the road, and one of the first the Folkvord family encountered came after they began cleaning their flour. The family partnered with a baker in Bozeman who wanted to make whole wheat hamburger buns for McDonald’s, and Dean said it wasn’t a good relationship. While the partnership in 1988 didn’t work out, it sparked another idea: the farm to table concept.
“This was 30 years ago, so we were farm to table like country music. We were country before country was cool,” Dean said. “Now everybody is trying to do farm to table, but that’s been our deal all along. I don’t think we made a big enough deal about it.”
“Now everybody is trying to do farm to table, but that’s been our deal all along.”
In 1993, the full operations for Wheat Montana moved down to its current location in Three Forks, which was a critical moment in the company’s history.
For the longest time, Dean said, the parcel of land that now houses Wheat Montana sat vacant. But when he inquired about the 6 acres at the intersection of Interstate 90 and Highway 287, the owners of the property were willing to negotiate. Dean called it a stroke of luck purchasing the property.
After buying the land that has become a landmark to travelers, another decision had to be made: to put in a deli or not to put in a deli. Growing up, Dean said he loved visiting ice cream shops and cheese factories when he traveled around Montana. They eventually decided to put the first deli in and it was a “smash hit.”
Although it was small, they tried to keep up with what their customers wanted.
The food business exemplifies what the company stands for with the farm to table concept.
“People wanted espresso and we didn’t know what espresso was,” Dean said. “This was really before people knew what Starbucks was. But people were coming from Minneapolis and Seattle and they were enjoying espresso drinks. So, we rushed to town and we bought an espresso maker at a department store called The Bon. It was a home espresso maker and that thing lasted about two weeks.”
Dean said the family never thought they would get into the food business, but he said it exemplifies what the company stands for with the farm to table concept. The deli has expanded three times, and Dean said they are thinking about another expansion.
An Entrepreneurial Spirit
But the Folkvord brand isn’t limited to wheat and farming.
In September 2009, Dean and Hope purchased the Sacajawea Hotel in Three Forks. Eight months later, the location reopened as a boutique hotel with 29 guest rooms, space for events like weddings and a steakhouse.
The hotel is managed by Hillary Folkvord, the eldest Folkvord sister.
“Working at the Sacajawea Hotel has taught me more about business and life than I could ever learn in school,” Hillary said. “It has been hard work, but very rewarding. I love to travel and through my travels I like to bring back good ideas to our property. It’s the little touches that make a big difference. I once had an experience in Paris where they greeted us with a glass of Champagne. Now when guests check in at the hotel we provide complimentary Champagne and hot hand towels upon arrival. It’s all in the details.”
The Sacajawea is a Three Forks landmark that had fallen into disrepair. It was built in 1910 by Three Forks founder and Milwaukee Railroad land agent John Q. Adams. After trading hands between different owners, the Folkvord’s bought the property from Four Mountain Ranch, LLC.
“Now when guests check in at the hotel we provide complimentary Champagne and hot hand towels upon arrival. It’s all in the details.”
“Purchasing the Sacajawea Hotel in Three Forks was a huge risk, as that particular business had yet to make it,” Hillary said. “The hotel project became a passion of love as we truly are invested in the community of Three Forks. The town thrives when the Sacajawea Hotel is up and running. The first few years were tough, but we stuck with it and found people are looking for a unique hotel experience. Now eight years in, the hotel is fully booked May through October, making new memories with people traveling through Montana.”
But that was only the first step into the hospitality world. In June of 2016, the Folkvord family purchased the Best Value Inn in Dillon and turned it into a Super 8 motel. Their third project currently underway is renovating the Rainbow Motel in Bozeman, which has now opened as the RSVP Motel in Bozeman.
It can be daunting sometimes to work with your family, but the Folkvord’s have made it work. Dean said the Folkvord’s have weekly family meetings every Wednesday when they hash out what they’re working on and problems they are working through.
“We’re all about Montana, we’re 100 percent all in.”
“It’s great and it’s challenging at some points,” Hope said. “Dean and I have been working together for 35 years… In the early years I used to quit once a month. But as you get older things don’t bug us like they used to. Now bringing our kids in, it’s awesome.”
Throughout the years, the Folkvord’s have survived the ups and downs of the wheat industry. They’ve made it through paleo diets, low carb diets and the rise of gluten intolerance. Dean said one day he’ll hand over the reins to his business partners, and he and Hope will continue to help their daughters pursue their love of running boutique hotels.
One trip to Hawaii changed the wheat industry in Montana, and it also added to the entrepreneurial story of the Treasure State.
“We’re all about Montana, we’re 100 percent all in,” Dean said. “Our kids could have gone other places and made better money, but we’re all about Montana and making Montana a better place.”
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