Thursday, November 30, 2023

Passing the torch at the Pocketstone Cafe

Bigfork Eagle | November 23, 2022 12:00 AM

Dave Vale took a chance on opening a restaurant in downtown Bigfork in 2010, in partnership with his wife Carolyn and their friend Karie Stidham. More than a decade later, Vale said it’s time to pass the torch to another couple who carry the same excitement and enthusiasm for the cafe that they had when they first opened it.

Back then, they didn’t know much about how to run a restaurant.

“Our experience in restaurants at that point had been mostly eating and so we basically put together a restaurant that was a place we wanted to eat at, and it took us a few years to figure out how to make money,” Vale said.

They wanted to make it a place that was reminiscent of “what grandma used to make” but that was a lot easier said than done. Vale said they couldn’t use a home cooking approach to make restaurant food that tastes like it’s homemade.

“You have to do a little bit of industrial engineering to figure out how to better make this stuff fast enough for people to get it to them today, not tomorrow. So we kind of got to learn along the way,” Vale said. “We learned how to do prep and do what we do a lot of currently. We do a lot of kits, we make mixes … like our pancakes are made from a mix that we make— the shaking them together takes up 10 seconds, whereas the making from scratch would probably take 10 minutes, which we just don't have in the restaurant environment,”

Vale said they’ve put a lot into the Pocketstone over the years, but feels like it’s time to take a step away. He said as he gets older, he has less time to do all of the things he wants to do, and that he feels like he did everything he wanted to do in terms of being in the restaurant business. Vale said he will turn his attention to his continued work with the Bigfork Community Players and the Valley Voices, sitting on their boards of directors and performing when he can.

He recently sold the business and building to Marcus and Shelley Shahen, who officially took over at the beginning of November.

“I feel pretty good about the people who bought it because they come in, they've got the enthusiasm and the energy that I once had and they seem excited about running a restaurant in downtown Bigfork,” Vale said.

Marcus and Shelley have a long history of owning and operating restaurants. The couple moved to the valley from northern California in 2018 and really took to Bigfork as their hometown.

“One of our other restaurants, the one that we've had for about 15 years, is in a town a lot bigger than a Bigfork, but it's very much like it. It's a small town and it really just felt like we just gravitated to it … I mean we went to eat in Bigfork, we hung out at the lake— it just became our town,” Shelley said.

The couple have worked both in the kitchen and on the business side of their restaurants, operating everything from ‘mom and pop’ places, to corporate ventures, to concept restaurants. They said they love the camaraderie and experience that food brings when serving people.

“A restaurant has never been an investment to us, it's always been just what we know. We enjoy people— and we consider ourselves more in the people business than we do in the restaurant business. The great relationships with our guests, our staff and our vendors have always just kind of been the three legged stool that we've always relied upon,” Marcus said.

They don’t intend to make many changes at the Pocketstone. Shelley said with the restaurant’s prolonged success, there’s not much they feel they need to change about it. The cafe paralleled their own ambitions and what they already do for many of their other businesses.

“Our restaurants also make a lot from scratch, you know, they make their own homemade meatloaf, they're making their own soups, they're making dressings … So to have the Pocketstone be on the breakfast side, and be making their own cinnamon rolls and awesome scones and specialty coffees and stuff that was right up our alley to be genuinely unique, and really quality … I think we could have picked a lot of other investments, but we didn't because it didn't feel as right, Pocketstone fit kind of like our other stores did for sure,” Shelley said.

Even though the food is in line with what they look for in a restaurant, they didn’t bargain on getting the great team that the Pocketstone offers.

“After working at the restaurant over the past couple of weeks, I really told all the guests and regulars and new guys and everybody else that the staff was really the special piece of it, and they were the deal maker,” Marcus said. “Shelley and I didn't want to come in and buy a job, we really wanted to come in and be able to be a part of the community, and the staff at the Pocketstone really made all of that possible. I think they're just amazing people,”

They said in particular, Dawn, Cody, Paulette and Camilla have been a huge part of making the transition easy for them.

The Pocketstone Cafe has been a go-to place for tourists and locals alike, staying open through the winter time and open only for breakfast and lunch. One of their busiest days of the year is their annual Thanksgiving dinner, which they’ve had to skip the past two years due to the pandemic. Vale said they started offering it right from the beginning, to provide a place for the community to come together. It’s free, so anyone can join despite their means, but donations are appreciated and will go towards the food bank.

Vale said previous Thanksgivings are some of his favorite memories at the Pocketstone, including last year when there was a delay and he had to improvise some entertainment.

“Because of some changes in equipment, we weren't able to get the potatoes done fast enough, so by the time we got to the third seating there was a little bit of a delay. And I said ‘well, in light of the potato famine, I'm gonna sing me a few Irish tunes to occupy your time. People didn't seem to mind the five minute delay at all,” Vale said.

Their Thanksgiving Dinner feeds 200 people, with three different seatings. There are 30 volunteers to coordinate, and for Marcus and Shelley, it’s a little like a baptism by fire. They do many large events at their other restaurants, particularly at their destination location in California. But, they wanted to make this event a priority.

“We felt that it was good, that it was the best thing for us to do. We had our family thanksgiving last Sunday, we kind of canceled our own family plans to come out and serve the community in Bigfork. What better way to just say, ‘we would like your blessing to be welcomed and to serve people on Thanksgiving,’” Marcus said.

They’ve ordered 200 pounds of turkey breast and are prepared to take on the challenge. Vale said it’s hectic to organize their many volunteers, but once everyone is at their station, everything begins to run a lot smoother.

The menu includes soup, turkey, dressing, potatoes, yams, vegetables and dessert. All are welcome, but the Café requests that those who would like to attend call for reservations as seating is limited. There will be no charge for the meal, and anyone interested in volunteering can contact the cafe for more information. The three seatings on Thanksgiving Day will be at 11:00, 12:15, and 1:30.