Nearly a year ago, Ray Thompson was finalizing a deal to sell his high-tech firm Semitool to a California-based company for $364 million.
Today, he’s trying to figure out hash browns. And he’s finding he knows a lot more about microchips and robots than fried potatoes.
Thompson once ran one of the Flathead Valley’s biggest employers, but after Semitool was sold to Applied Materials Inc. last December, he found enough time to pursue an endeavor he had considered years earlier: the purchase of Sykes in downtown Kalispell.
After he first approached Doug and Judy Wise a number of years ago about buying Sykes, Thompson realized his Semitool obligations would not allow for simultaneously running a restaurant and grocery store. But he never let the idea die and when he saw that Sykes was still available this year, he jumped on it.
“It’s a great part of the community,” Thompson said. “It’s just the part you would want to invest in.”
Thompson likes to keep trusted people close to his side, so family members and fellow Semitool officials have accompanied him on the unlikely transition into community dining. His son Mike Thompson and former Semitool employee Jayson Peters are Sykes’ day-to-day managers, while grandson Steven also contributes. Larry Viano, who was Semitool’s chief financial officer, keeps an eye on the money.
And Dave Jolly, Semitool’s former facilities manager, headed up construction on a thorough makeover of the dining area that only took 19 days. Crews replaced the floor, pressure washed and cleaned the kitchen, renovated the ceiling, installed a new wall and performed touch-up tasks like painting.
The grocery area, which can’t be seen behind the new wall, will be refurbished and reopened as “quick as possible,” Thompson said. A crew is currently working on an expansion of the dining area, which will provide more seating and natural light with windows. The pharmacy is open.
The new floor is shiny white, except for one red square. That square, Steven Thompson said, was left because it’s where the Wises have traditionally sat. Doug Wise, in particular, sat at a table in that spot so often and for so long that he wore holes in the floor, which stand out among the new tile.
And the holes are growing, because the Wises still come in every morning and sit in the same spot.
“We wanted to keep a part of it,” Steven Thompson said.
Ray Thompson has a background in technology and engineering, so breakfast and lunch are an entirely new ballgame for him. At Semitool, Thompson said he had prolonged time to develop business plans and execute customers’ orders. He had only a handful of customers, and “if they were unhappy, I had a chance to fix it.”
“You serve a bad meal and it’s done,” Thompson said.
Thompson describes himself as a “bearings-and-seals kind of guy,” who thinks in terms of “stainless steel, Teflon and aluminum.” But while he is comfortable with engineering, he’s beginning to better understand hash browns.
“Both are critical,” he said.
Asked if he misses the manufacturing industry, Thompson grins.
“I don’t miss it; I’m still in it,” he said.
Since selling Semitool, Thompson has also purchased three manufacturing businesses. Thompson’s three new businesses are IC Assembly Services, which he bought out of Phoenix and moved to Kalispell; Applied Instrument Technologies, in Pomona, Calif.; and Solar Semi Engineering in New Haven, England.
Thompson said he’s also looking at possibly purchasing other real estate in Kalispell, but nothing is in the pipeline.
Located on Second Avenue West, Sykes – traditionally known as Sykes’ Grocery and Market – is a Kalispell institution. Ernest Kuster opened the market in 1905. After switching hands several times, Doug Wise took it over in 1945. Then in 1976, Wise and his wife Judy added the restaurant, followed by the pharmacy in 1981.
Under the Wises, Sykes was known for its $.10 coffee. Steven Thompson said $.10 coffee is still served with a meal. Most recently, Mike McFarland ran the market and restaurant.
Since Thompson reopened Sykes on Oct. 4, long-time regulars have flooded back in, alongside new customers. One lady, Steven Thompson said, has been coming to eat since 1932. The menu reflects Sykes’ low-price, down-home-cooking tradition.
The turnout, Steven Thompson said, has “been tremendous, almost overwhelming.”
“We had no idea what this place meant to a lot of people,” he said. “It’s more than a restaurant, it’s a gathering place. It’s a special place.”
Ladeine Thompson, Ray’s wife, said she had never eaten at Sykes before. Now she’s becoming a regular.
“It’s just amazing,” she said. “It’s been so much fun. If you’re looking for smiles, Sykes is the place.”
Kicking back and enjoying a cup of coffee on a recent morning, Ray Thompson looked content. In fact, he looked a lot like everybody else in Sykes.
“I’ve never worked a day in my life; it’s all been fun,” Thompson said. “How do you retire from that?”
Sykes serves food seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. and is open until 6 p.m. for coffee and pie.
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