SANDPOINT — In some ways, keeping Litehouse products going out the door during its $6.2 million expansion of its Ella production facility was a little like doing dishes in the bathtub during a home remodel.
But, Litehouse President and CEO Jim Frank said during Wednesday’s ribbon-cutting celebration, the Sandpoint production crew rose to the challenge and kept production flowing out the door without interruption.
“Great job, Ella team, and we really appreciate you getting through this remodel so enjoy your new home, your new kitchen sink,” Frank told the Litehouse employees who were among the 50 or so people gathered to celebrate the occasion. “You deserve it.”
The expansion underscores Litehouse’s commitment to and investment in the Sandpoint community and Bonner County, Frank said prior to the ribbon-cutting — done appropriately enough with a forklift driving through a blue ribbon held by the company’s management team.
The 26,000-square-foot expansion includes a new cooler, shipping and receiving center, loading docks, updated employee break rooms and facilities and a 4,000-square-foot wastewater treatment facility. The new cooler adds roughly 1,350 new refrigerated pallet locations as well as approximately 150 freezer pallet locations.
“Litehouse has grown to be the No. 1 refrigerated salad dressing brand across the U.S. and Canada and to support our growth, Litehouse chose in 2016 to improve the capacities of our local facilities and invest in improving our production capabilities locally,” Frank said.
A second phase of the expansion will take place this summer with a relignment of the inside of the Ella facility, and the addition of another high-speed production line.
Standing in the new Ella Avenue cooler, between skyscrapered racks to house the company’s diverse product range, Frank paid tribute to Litehouse founders Ed and Doug Hawkins, telling the story of how the brothers started the company at their kitchen table and then, buying an old autobody shop on Ella Street.
“They came in and gutted the autobody shop,” Frank relayed. “They probably did it themselves on the weekends and they turned the autobody shop into the dressing plant.”
In 1992, working in cooperation with the city, Walnut Street was vacated, allowing Litehouse to expand once again.
“Until just a couple of months ago, when we started this expansion, the asphalt of Walnut Street was still the floor of our warehouse next door,” Frank added. “Somebody in the office has a chunk of that old asphalt at their desk.”
Back then, Litehouse had 40 employees. Today, there are more than 1,000 at its three production facilities in Sandpoint, Utah and Michigan — 427 of whom work in Sandpoint. In the last two years, the company has added 49 full-time employees at the Ella plant alone and is committed to keeping its headquarters in the community as well.
“We’re growing and growing and business has just be doing well,” Frank said.
Not only is the Ella production facility an integral part of its drive to serve its customers, Frank said the plant is also an integral part of its company history.
“We are proud of the improvements to the facility and plan to use the innovations to better meet the needs of an ever-changing consumer demand,” he said.
Frank thanked local officials and business leaders for working with Litehouse on the project, from financing to keeping it on track and on budget. He also thanked the facility’s neighbors “for their kindness and putting up with a remodel of this size.”
In a press release announcing the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Frank said the company’s top goal is to put its customers first and produce a delicious, top quality and best value product, he said, noting that millennials now hold the largest purchasing power in the U.S. making up 25 percent of the population and holding $600-plus billion in spending power.
Frank said today’s consumer expects higher standards in products and ingredients and greater transparency from the brands that they purchase more than any other generation prior. Litehouse is the brand perfectly aligned to meet that need and plans to use the new production capabilities to grow the brand.
Ella production employees, many of whom have worked for Litehouse for 10 years or more, gathered for the celebration to showcase the new facility and point out its many features. They said they are thrilled with the new facility and the room it gives them to work.
“It’s a great facility,” said Scooter Reichart, picked to drive the forklift through the ceremonial ribbon. “Just love it.”
The production plant also won praise from founders Ed and Doug Hawins, who could remember using a Tupperware container to mix the first batch of salad dressing at the kitchen table.
“That Tupperware lasted a long time,” Doug Hawkins said. “We were doing almost a million dollars worth of business before we replaced it.”
While the Litehouse Restaurant did great in the summer, the winters could be lean times and prompted the family to move into selling their dressing. It didn’t take long before the company was selling $100,000 worth of its signature salad dressing, then $250,000, then $600,000 and then $1 million.
The office, by the way, was a room carved out of empty bottles and boxes of bottles surrounding a desk — with one chair.
“Whoever got there first, got the chair,” Doug Hawkins said. “Ed was always there first so he got the chair.”
Hawkins said the family is proud of what Litehouse has become — and how they got there.
“We’ve done with service, and friendliness, and relationships,” he said.
Since Litehouse, Inc. started in the Hope restaurant of the Hawkins family over 50 years ago, it has become the leader in refrigerated salad dressings, dips, sauces, herbs, and cheese. The 100-percent employee-owned company offers its diverse portfolio of products through general retail, e-commerce, foodservice, deli, member stores, and value-added goods where Litehouse products are featured in meal and salad kits.
That dedication has earned the company fans throughout the country, as Doug Hawkins can attest.
“I’ve had people ask for my autograph,” Hawkins said with a chuckle. “That was weird. It happened one time at a place in Montana, when I mentioned I was from Litehouse, she wanted my autograph and another time a stewardess heard I was from Litehouse and wanted my autograph, too.”
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Caroline Lobsinger can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @CarolDailyBee.