Southern Hospitality… Montana Style

By Beacon Staff

Like many folks here in the Flathead, the wife and I took advantage of the shoulder season “slowdown” last month to escape the late-winter weather and soak up a bit of sunshine down south … specifically, on the Florida Gulf Coast.

Prior to moving back to Montana in 2009, Debbie and I spent 14 years in the Tampa Bay area, so in addition to getting our recommended annual allowance of sun, sand, seafood and spring training last month, we also had a chance to visit with family, friends and Chamber colleagues from the time we spent down south.

Now, I use the term “south” very carefully when speaking of Florida – and never with a capital “S.” The reason for that is simple: the state is populated (some might say overrun) with East Coast refugees and retirees – folks who’ve left the brutal New England weather and rat race behind. In fact, there are so many East Coast expatriates in Florida the running joke is that it’s the only state where you actually have to drive north to get to the Deep South.

Unfortunately, all those big city refugees brought their big city attitudes with them when they moved to Florida, which brings me to the subject of hospitality. As a 10-day “tourist” in a world where I spent 10-plus years as a Chamber guy promoting tourism, I was shocked at the total lack of hospitality and customer service that I experienced while visiting the Tampa area.

Remarkably, things were completely different when we took a three-day excursion north to Cedar Key – a small coastal town in rural Florida, where the term “Southern hospitality” still means something. And after thinking on it a bit, I’ve come to the conclusion that Southern hospitality has nothing to do with the South, and everything to do with being “country.”

The real reason that the folks in Florida seemed so cold, uncaring and generally disinterested is because I’ve come to take the “Western hospitality” we enjoy here in Whitefish (and throughout Montana) for granted. Here in Whitefish, we roll out the red carpet for our visitors, we genuinely care for our friends and neighbors in need, and we take pride in our community and how it’s perceived by others.

A case in point – Whitefish Pottery

One local businessman who truly “gets it” is Tom Gilfillan, the owner of Whitefish Pottery. A former junior high school teacher from Wisconsin, Tom first visited Whitefish to do a little fishing; he came back the next winter to do a bit of skiing; and a short time later he moved west for good. That was nearly 20 years ago.

Initially a one-man operation run out of a shop behind his home west of town, Whitefish Pottery now employs eight local folks at two locations – the studio and warehouse (still at the original location on Twin Bridges Road), and a Central Avenue storefront in the heart of downtown Whitefish.

Tom understands the value of delivering great customer service, and he also believes strongly in showing appreciation to his clients – and the community. One way he does that is by hosting a customer appreciation party at the original Whitefish Pottery location every May, an event that doesn’t just open his doors to the public … it kicks them wide open!

This year’s 18th Annual Anniversary Party is set for this Friday – May 10 – from 5:30 to 9 p.m. at the Pottery Compound, located on Twin Bridges Road between KM Ranch Road and the Stillwater River Bridge. In addition to great food, drink, music and people, the pottery studio and warehouse are open for tours, and everything in stock is on sale for 20 percent off.

The music this year will be provided by the seven-piece Montana Marimba Ensemble … a far cry from “Year One” when the entertainment consisted of a solo guitarist and Tom’s ill-fated attempts at humor.

“These days we get 150-200 people for the party,” he said, “and we do our best to show ‘em a good time. It’s a family-friendly event, so in addition to the music, food and refreshments, we give tours of the studio and kids can actually get ‘on the wheel’ and see how we create pottery.”

The original idea behind the party was to say “Thanks!” to his customers, and to help spread the word about Whitefish Pottery. It’s done all that and more, and the crowd grows every year as friends new and old return to experience a bit of “Southern hospitality” – Montana style.

So if you’re out-and-about on Friday evening, swing on by and spend a few minutes with Tom and the Whitefish Pottery family – and 200 of their closest friends! Parking is limited at the studio itself, so car pooling is advised. Overflow parking is available on KM Ranch Road (a two-minute walk from the party). For more information, call Whitefish Pottery at 862-8211.

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