business feature

SHOP SISTERS

Patricia and Lorien Johnson, the sisters and business duo behind Mountain Valley Foods, on their family tradition of feeding the Flathead Valley.

 Shea Swenson

T he smiling faces of regular customers can be found throughout the aisles, sitting for a quick lunch, and even in frames lining the sunshine yellow walls of Mountain Valley Foods. The family-owned grocery store recently celebrated 30 years of providing Flathead Valley families with quality natural foods and products. As a part of that celebration, black and white prints of photographs Larry Johnson took of his smiling patrons over the years were hung proudly on the walls of the store. Larry and his wife Mary opened Mountain Valley Foods in 1989, and their daughters Patricia and Lorien are now carrying on the tradition.

“To be in a community for 30 years, and have customers come in who have been shopping with us for 30 years, is amazing,” Patricia said. “The longevity we have had speaks to the trust we’ve earned from community members.” The basis of the family’s passion for natural foods stemmed from the most basic of desires: Larry’s wish to put nutritious meals on the table.

“First and foremost, our dad wanted to be able to feed his family,” Patricia said. “That’s what drove him from the beginning.” He passed that aspiration down to his daughters, and it has grown to encompass all families in the Flathead Valley. “With the store, we can feed our family, plus feed the community, and it’s amazing,” Patricia said.

When it opened in 1989, Mountain Valley Foods was the first natural grocery in Kalispell. It was a mere 1,000 square feet and located on First Avenue East. In 2000, after Patricia and Lorien had taken over the majority of operations, the duo decided to move the store into a bigger location. “We thought, ‘What can we do with the store so we can support ourselves and the community?’’’ Patricia said. “We wanted to create a sustainable store.” The sisters relocated Mountain Valley to a new home at 25 Commons Way in north Kalispell, and have been revitalizing it ever since.

The two have adapted as the natural food industry has changed over the years. In the early days of running the show, the scarcity of natural foods and products was the biggest hurdle in stocking the store. Now, with an abundance of options available, the business finesse lies in choosing the top products available that meet customer needs, according to Patricia and Lorien.

“The best measure of what we carry in our store is always ‘would we eat it ourselves,’” Patricia said. “And I think that is what you get when you have an owner-operated store. We are at the ground level every day, making those decisions for the good of our customers.”

When it comes to sourcing, local is a number one priority for Patricia and Lorien. They pair with local growers like Lower Valley Farms, as well as local meat suppliers like Better Beef in Kila. In addition, Mountain Valley Foods only selects and stocks non GMO products.

As the health industry has grown, so has the influx of products that met the sisters’ high standards, and the duo again needed a bigger space. In 2010, they expanded the store by an additional 1,000 square feet.

The next change to Mountain Valley Foods came in 2013 when Patricia and Lorien decided to address what they saw as a lack of organic grab-and-go meals in the Valley. They added a kitchen to the store, allowing them to offer prepared foods that prioritize healthy, natural ingredients. Now customers frequent the grocery store as a go-to lunch spot. The hand-massaged kale and quinoa salad that comes out of the kitchen is one of the store’s best sellers. And two daily made-from-scratch organic soups make it a great place to warm up during the colder months.

“The happiness you are greeted with when you come in the store, that’s an important component of food,” Lorien said. “When you can purchase food in a place where people are happy, that makes a difference.”

Lorien and Patricia’s role in feeding the community goes beyond merely choosing the products on the shelves. On any given day, you can find them in the store chatting with regulars about new recipes to try, and tips and tricks to make the food as delicious as possible. The pair goes out of their way to tailor everything they carry to their customers and provide the best food in the valley. But beyond that, they strive to make the store a welcoming, friendly experience for everyone. “The happiness you are greeted with when you come in the store, that’s an important component of food,” Lorien said. “When you can purchase food in a place where people are happy, that makes a difference.”

The two have even started their own “Sister Tips” videos, which you can find on the Mountain Valley Foods website. These 15-second videos include tips on using products they have in stock. “The ‘Sister Tips’ videos are a lot of fun,” Lorien said. “We get to be silly and share good information in a small amount of time.”

Working day in and day out as siblings and business partners could be a challenge for some families, but Patricia and Lorien said the experience has been amazing.

“We have gotten to know each other’s strengths, and we play off of those daily,” Patricia said.

Heading into the fall season, the two are currently gearing up for Thanksgiving, a busy time at Mountain Valley Foods. They’re stocking fresh Hutterite turkeys and more delicious Thanksgiving staples. “Thanksgiving is an amazing time here because everyone wants to cook big, luscious meals for their family,” Lorien said. “We love helping with that.”

When it comes to giving thanks, the sisters feel very grateful to have a customer base that understands the importance of supporting local businesses that are genuinely invested in the community.

“We are grateful for what we have, and we’re grateful for the people we get to know through the store,” Lorien said. “We care. We care about this community, and it comes out in the products and knowledge we offer,” Patricia added.

 

Visit Mountain Valley Foods at 25 Commons Way in Kalispell, open Monday through Friday from 7 AM to 7 PM, and Sunday 10 AM to 4 PM. Keep up with the sisters’ blog and videos at mountainvalleyfoods.com

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Photos: Mandy Mohler Field Guide Designs

 

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