As is often the case among seasonal transplants to the area, Felicia Lartey had never been to Montana before she took a job at the Belton in West Glacier in 2015.
“I just wanted to get out of the city for a summer,” Lartey said. “I didn’t know anything about Montana, but I went and lived out of a tent for the summer and just loved it up here.”
Lartey started cooking when she was 18, living in Boston and working at the catering department for Tufts University, and was working as a chef in Utah before moving up north.
During her second summer working near Glacier, Lartey was promoted at the Belton but at the last minute heard that a café space at nearby Glacier Campground had opened up.
“The first year was very low key, since I was working as the sous chef at the Belton as well,” Lartey said. “We would do breakfast at the café from 7:30 to noon, then run over to the Belton to start work at 12:30, so it was pretty limited here.”
That’s not the case anymore. Along with her entrepreneurial partner Hunter Cone, Lartey now runs the Sunflower Café full-time during the height of Glacier’s tourist season.
“As soon as we saw the space, we realized what we could do with it and how fun it would be for people to find this gem in the woods,” Cone said. “And if you’re a camper onsite, then you’re extra lucky!”
Sunflower Café is literally a hidden gem along one of the main routes into Glacier. The café is a quarter-mile off of U.S. Highway 2, located inside Glacier Campground.
“This space actually has a long history of putting out some pretty great food,” Cone said. “It transferred hands a few times but has always had great food, just not exactly where someone expects to find great food.”
Cone and Lartey, both 33 years old, are the latest in a long line of chefs who have whipped up meals in the nigh-backcountry pavilion. To the best of their knowledge, a barbecue joint originally occupied the space for close to a decade and was a popular spot for line dancing and, of course, good barbecue.
In the early 2000s, Louisiana-born proprietor Mary Poole helmed the Glacier Campground kitchen as Cajun Mary’s Café. Poole was known for her colorful character and Southern comfort food, but the café wasn’t around in that form for long.
For years after Poole, the kitchen only offered pit-style barbecue in the evenings, until Heather Mah reopened the seasonal café in 2011 to address the dearth of breakfast fare in West Glacier. Mah paid homage to Poole’s Cajun flair with a unique brunch-and-dinner menu styled on Southern gourmet, operating the kitchen as the Backwoods Bistro.
When the café changed hands yet again in 2016, it was rebranded as Sunflower Café, its current iteration.
“Over the past few years we work our hardest over the summer, then travel every winter,” Cone said. “We’ve backpacked around Southeast Asia and Central America, trying different foods, meeting different people and cooks, and that’s inspired some of the menu.”
Those travels led to a number of menu additions at Sunflower Café, including a Thai breakfast bowl featuring ground pork sautéed with ginger, garlic, basil and chilies served over rice with fried eggs; a Vietnamese Bánh mì sandwich; and the traditional Mexican breakfast dish chilaquiles. All three dishes have become favorites.
Barbecue has also been introduced to the mix, inspired by recent trips to the southern U.S. and the space’s lengthy history of barbecue.
“Barbecue might be best thing to come from a shack in the woods; it just matches the vibes, I think,” Cone said. “It’s really high quality but casual and affordable.”
While Lartey is the executive chef, Cone has taken over as pit master, specializing in a brisket that takes 50 hours to prepare, including a 14-hour smoke.
The addition of the barbecue pit, along with a liquor license, allowed the duo really hit their stride last summer, despite the pandemic. Even with COVID-19 restrictions, Sunflower Café was serving between 300 and 600 customers a day, benefiting from the open-air dining area that can accommodate up to 100 people at a time.
A secret house Bloody Mary recipe spiced up Sunflower’s brunch game, while a packed-lunch program has proven to be highly popular among both campground visitors and those in the know passing by on their way to the park.
“I just have a passion for food that comes from hospitality itself,” Lartey said, noting that she constantly works to expand the menu to make sure everyone who visits can find something to eat, including vegan and vegetarian options.
The flexibility of a seasonal operation allows Lartey to find inspiration in her world travels and continually experiment in the kitchen, and she prefers to keep the menu as fresh and healthy as possible.
“I love sauces, I love making jams, beer mustards and all the condiments in house from scratch, and adding hints of dimension and flavor,” Lartey said. “And the café has been great for coming up with a baking program, and coming up with new cookies.”
After a winter of traveling, Lartey and Cone are ready to be back in the kitchen.
“It’s always a little mixture of nerves and excitement going into the season,” Lartey said. “But we’re staffed up, we’ve got the menus figured out and we’re ready for the best summer yet.”
The Sunflower Café is located at the Glacier Campground at 12070 U.S. Highway 2 W. and can be found on Facebook. It’s open for breakfast, lunch and dinner Wednesday through Sunday.