Food Issue

In Bigfork, The Sando Co. is Rising to the Occasion

At Bigfork's newest sandwich shop, it all starts with freshly baked bread

By Mike Kordenbrock
Classic Italian sub from the The Sando Co. in Bigfork on Feb. 22, 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The first loaf of homemade sourdough that Jacob O’Brien pulled out of the oven was almost perfect. But the ones that came after? Not so much.

But O’Brien, who started with sourdough, didn’t give up, and eventually honed his self-taught baking skills to the point where he and his wife Candace scaled up their bread production and started selling loaves at farmer’s markets in the Flathead Valley. That included the Whitefish Farmer’s Market, where, starting in 2023, they could be found selling freshly baked goods under the name “Breaking Bread.”

Baking was something Jacob said he picked up, like so many others, during the pandemic in 2021, and the farmer’s market experience was helpful in his development as a baker, in particular because he could get feedback from repeat customers, and he gained confidence as they started selling out of all their baked goods.

He and Candace are restaurant industry veterans with experience bartending, serving and working other front-of-house roles. They also love to cook. As ski bums, they’d spent time living out of their van and moving around, until their travels landed them jobs at the KM Bar in Kalispell and brought them to the Flathead in 2022, where they decided to settle down and, eventually, start their own business.

Jacob and Candace O’Brien, owners of The Sando Co. in Bigfork on Feb. 22, 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Looking back on it now, Jacob said they had begun to feel like after 15 years of working in the same types of service industry roles they were ready for a change. As Candace said, they wanted to start working for themselves.

The result is their new sandwich shop and bakery, The Sando Co., which is located off Montana Highway 35 in Bigfork, about a block south of El Topo Cantina. The Sando Co.’s calling card is its combination of freshly baked bread, made-to-order sandwiches, and a menu that features classic Italian sandwiches, as well as a couple of Portuguese-American specialties that are a tribute to the food the O’Briens grew up eating in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Portuguese kale soup from The Sando Co. in Bigfork on Feb. 22, 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

A sizeable Portuguese-American population in New England means that things that may seem unfamiliar to Flathead customers — like chourico sausage, Portuguese rolls, Portuguese-style kale and bean soup, and cacoila, which is a type of Portuguese slow-cooked pulled pork — are foods that the O’Briens wouldn’t think twice about eating back east.

At The Sando Co., the chourico is shipped out from New England, and the cacoila is made in-house, where it’s stewed in a broth of red wine, beer and Portuguese spices, and then covered in roasted peppers. The Portuguese rolls — like the sandwich bread and Portuguese egg custard tarts (pastel de neta) Jacob also bakes — get pulled out of the oven every morning shortly before opening.

“I grew up eating those almost every day,” Jacob said of the Portuguese rolls, also known as papo secos, which are known for their crunchy exterior, light interior, and a distinct crease on top.  

The chourico and peppers sub comes with chourico — a spicy, smoked Portuguese sausage — which is slow-cooked with tomatoes, bell peppers and yellow onions. It’s spicy enough that people who are wary of any spice should avoid it, but Candace said otherwise people should be okay, although the heat can build up as you make your way through the sandwich.

For the Italian sub, The Sando Co. layers mortadella, prosciutto, capicola ham, genoa salami, provolone, house-made hot relish, lettuce, tomato, and red onion on fresh bread, and drizzles the sandwich’s toppings with extra virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar. A prosciutto caprese sandwich, with prosciutto, sliced fresh mozzarella, tomato, a balsamic glaze, and fresh basil, is also on the menu.

Prosciutto caprese sub from The Sando Co. in Bigfork on Feb. 22, 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Additionally, The Sando Co. sells an antipasto salad, which comes with capicola, genoa salami, provolone, red peppers, Kalamata and black olives, cherry tomatoes, banana peppers, artichoke hearts, romaine lettuce and a house made Italian dressing.

The O’Briens also rotate in specials on a weekly basis, which has so far included a meatball sub, a muffuletta sandwich with pepperoni, salami, mortadella, muffuletta spread and provolone, and New England clam chowder.

After their Jan. 29 opening, the O’Briens said their sandwich shop has been well-received by locals, some of whom had been adrift and in search of local sandwich options after the town’s Subway recently closed down.

Stephanie Siddens, a Bigfork resident who stopped in on a recent weekday with her husband Dan, said that The Sando Co. had been a recent topic of interest with her knitting group that meets across the street at the Fiber Yarns yarn shop. She first heard about The Sando Co. on Facebook, and was so happy with the food that she’s become a repeat customer.

“Everything’s really fresh,” she said.

That type of positive appraisal is a welcome dose of reality after some of the pre-opening day nerves that Candace said she experienced. Popping into her head were nightmare scenarios in which she and Jacob would suddenly have no idea what to do in the face of customers, messing up their chance at a first impression. But things went well, and she said that first day left her with a feeling of pride, as if this is what they were meant to do. They’ve continued to get faster, and better, at their daily duties, and they’ve seen the demand for their food grow.

The Sando Co. is open from 10:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and the first week saw it regularly selling out by 2 p.m., so the O’Briens decided to adjust, and double up the amount of food prep and baking that went into each day. They’re also expanding their days starting March 8, when they’ll start opening on Fridays.

“I think everyone’s just so happy to have something new and different, and easy to pick up and go,” Candace said.

Part of how they keep the operation manageable given that it’s just the two of them, is that they don’t take orders over the phone. If there’s a line, there’s no way around it but to wait. And so far that line has been growing.

The Sando Co. in Bigfork on Feb. 22, 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

It hasn’t stretched out the front door yet, but they’ve been close, and the O’Briens expect it to happen eventually, especially given that business will likely pick up with the onset of the busy summer season. Another way they’ve simplified their business is to offer food on a takeout basis only. There are other concessions they’ve had to make, like accepting that Jacob’s beloved sourdough isn’t compatible with the type of oven they have.

As their first venture into opening a brick-and-mortar food business, the O’Briens said there was a lot to learn before they could even open The Sando Co.’s doors, including like what kinds of inspections they were required to pass. They first signed a lease for the space back in August. It’s a stark contrast to their farmer’s market days, where the permitting process tended to be less rigorous. Still, Candace said it was worth it.

“You’ve got to take risks in life, that’s how it goes,” Jacob said.

For more information on The Sando Co. check out their Facebook page .