Larry Johnson was always ahead of his time.
In the 1970s, he opened Northwest Montana’s first natural and organic food cooperative. Then, after moving away and coming back, he and his wife Mary started Mountain Valley Foods in 1989 in Kalispell. It was the only natural food grocery in the area.
“It was pretty visionary, to say the least,” daughter Patricia Johnson said.
One of his other flourishes of forward-thinking was documenting Mountain Valley Foods’ earliest days with his camera, taking photos of patrons and developing them into 11-by-14 black-and-white prints.
Three decades later, the store that is now run by his daughters, Patricia and Lorien, is celebrating its 30-year anniversary with an open house featuring an exhibit of those 172 photos. The collection was showcased in a Hockaday Museum of Art exhibit for the store’s 20-year anniversary, but has been in storage since.
Patricia and Lorien said their father, who will be at the anniversary gathering, is thrilled to once again proudly display that time capsule and reconnect with community members who helped the store get on its feet decades ago.
“He is overjoyed,” Patricia said.
While Larry still helps with the business, the two daughters run the show, and they have proven to be every bit as progressively visionary and imaginatively enterprising.
Patricia and Lorien took over day-to-day operations in 2000 and spearheaded the effort to move the store from its First Avenue East location, which today houses Straight Blast Gym, to its current spot at 25 Commons Way in north Kalispell. That was before Costco and pretty much everything else had been established on the north side.
“We were the end of the road for a few years,” Patricia said.
Long gone are the original days of Mountain Valley Foods boasting almost exclusively row after row of five-gallon bins of bulk foods. The organic food industry has exploded, with endless arrays of pre-packaged and fresh options, and more natural groceries have joined the fray in the Flathead Valley.
“People went from not knowing anything about organic foods to everyone demanding it,” Patricia said.
Patricia and Lorien have come up with new ways to “differentiate ourselves in a growing market,” led by their grab-and-go deli, which serves house-made lunch and dinner options. Along with a salad bar and soup bar showcasing multiple daily-prepared options, there are delicious and organic treats such as chili lime quinoa salad with poblano peppers, Thai peanut noodles, lemon spinach couscous, and tuna farfalle pasta salad, to name a few.
“Our prepared organic foods are one of the biggest draws,” Patricia said. “They’re really popular.”
The 2013 establishment of the deli came on the heels of the store’s 2010 expansion, and was followed by the 2017 launch of the juice bar, which serves fresh juices, smoothies and coffee.
Another example of the sisters’ forward-thinking instincts was launching a keychain loyalty program before anybody locally was doing so, including the big supermarkets.
“You have to adjust to stay ahead of the curve,” Patricia said.
Yet, with all the new offerings, the Johnsons have been just as industrious in strengthening their foundational grocery inventory, establishing close relationships with local growers, continually increasing their knowledge of the market, and employing well-trained and often long-term employees who lend expertise in everything from supplements to wine and foods.
One employee, Debbie Moon, has been with Mountain Valley Foods for 26 years, and others have been there at least a decade. Their institutional knowledge helps operations run smoothly and customers find what best suits them. The store employs 20-23 people year-round.
“You get knowledge when you come here,” Patricia said. “(Employees) eat the food, use the supplements. And we’re on a first-name basis with a lot of customers.”
Mountain Valley Foods gets the bulk of its seasonal produce from Lower Valley Farm, while sourcing meat from local ranches Montana Better Beef and Spring Brook Ranch, as well as other Montana sources. The store offers frozen fish plus weekly fresh varietals from Flathead Fish and Seafood Co. Last week, the fresh options included Alaskan king salmon, scallops and black cod.
The store also has local kombucha on tap and serves organic Montana Coffee Traders coffee at its smoothie bar. Its wellness section includes vitamins and supplements, body products and apparel such as hats and socks.
Mountain Valley uses plant-based bags for produce, and its emphasis on sustainability extends into the smoothie bar and deli, which use 100 percent post-consumer recycled material in packaging and corn-based utensils.
“There’s enough plastic out there,” Patricia said. “We feel strongly about these things, so we make sure they translate to our business.”
The photo exhibit is called “Rooted in Our Community,” which reflects the founders’ and current owners’ foundational ethos.
“We want to remind the community that we go way back and we couldn’t do it without their support,” Patricia said. “It’s a big thank you.”
Mountain Valley Foods is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday. The May 11 anniversary celebration is from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and will feature live music, giveaway bags, raffle baskets and food samples from the deli. There is a 15 percent storewide discount.
For more information, visit www.mountainvalleyfoods.com.