Feeding the Falls

A wave of new restaurants in Columbia Falls highlights development in a city in economic transition

By Molly Priddy
Tracy Click, owner of Wild Jo's Frozen Treats and Hot Dogs, pictured on Sept. 8, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

COLUMBIA FALLS – Running a hot dog and frozen treats restaurant isn’t her first career, but West Glacier resident Tracy Click wishes it had been.

Sitting inside Wild Jo’s, her new venture on U.S. Highway 2 in the heart of Columbia Falls’ downtown, Click’s restaurant has only been open for a week and she can already tell this career decision is a good one.

“I thought this would be fun,” she said, surveying the warm, inviting space and the seemingly endless options of frozen yogurt toppings.

A Flathead resident since her move from Shelby in 1997, Click worked at West Glacier Elementary for years before making the transition to entrepreneur. But it had to be at this lot, carved into a hillside with the help of her husband Shannon’s excavation company, next to the Thursday Farmers Market and across the highway from the new Cedar Creek Lodge, or she didn’t want to do it.

What’s so special about this location?

“It’s on the highway, and it seems to be in the middle of all the growth,” Click said.

Columbia Falls is in a time of transition, with the past’s stalwart industries of timber and aluminum falling away and new businesses, especially restaurants, popping up in the small, traditionally blue-collar town.

Just this summer, Columbia Falls has seen the addition of Wild Jo’s and the upcoming opening of Mudman Burgers, which is taking residence in the building formerly occupied by A&W. Uptown Hearth, a new bakery with rentable studio and kitchen space, is pumping out artisan breads on Nucleus Avenue.

Local developer Mick Ruis, whose recent interest in Columbia Falls has led to the creation of the Cedar Creek Lodge and future downtown renovations, also has gastronomic plans, including a downtown pie factory and a sports bar and restaurant. And another developer is working on opening a bakery after they open a new bike shop.

Other recent additions to the food scene in town include North Fork Pizza on Nucleus Avenue, with its wide variety of salad options and locally themed pizzas, and Backslope Brewing on Highway 2, offering locally crafted microbrews and a menu thoughtfully created to highlight the beer and locally sourced products. Three Forks Grille expanded to include a deli.

Columbia Falls City Manager Susan Nicosia said building permits and development activity has been “fairly busy” this year, with a slight drop off in August. From March through July, there was almost $1 million in commercial development, and more than $3.2 million in residential development.

Jordan Cole, a manager at Mudman Burgers, said the decision to open up shop in Columbia Falls was an easy one, considering the restaurant space they found and the burgeoning culture here. Cole said Columbia Falls is likely the new hot spot in the valley, akin to Whitefish in the 1990s.

“It’s going to be a great space,” he said.

Mudman, along with Wild Jo’s, sources its meat from local butcher shop Perfect Cuts. Its proceeds all go toward Potter’s Field Ministries and the missionary work the ministry does worldwide.

The burger itself is a loving work of art for the community, Cole said, because it is local beef on buns homemade daily, topped with bacon and a secret sauce only the overseeing pastor knows. Mudman was already slinging burgers at a hut just south of Whitefish, but the Columbia Falls storefront provided a new venue.

“We have this opportunity to really stretch beyond what we already have been accomplishing to really meet needs around the world and meet needs in the community,” Cole said. “We’re very excited to give this product to the community, especially to Columbia Falls. We’ve been in the farmers market doing tamales for the last two years, and I have a personal love for Columbia Falls.”

At Wild Jo’s, Click also has a special love for this town. Despite being a West Glacier resident, she wanted to open her restaurant here because this is where she sent her kids to school and where her business could be anchored in the tourist population but also the local, year-round community.

The city made the whole process easy and friendly, she said, and Three Rivers Bank provided essential support. It was her business idea, but it took a team of community members to make it happen, Click said.

“We couldn’t have done it without them,” she said.

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