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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Salad dressing maker Litehouse unveils Sandpoint expansion amid continued sales growth

In 1977, Doug and Edward Hawkins Jr. bought an old auto body shop in Sandpoint to expand production of their family’s signature bleu cheese dressing.

On Wednesday, the brothers were back at the site to celebrate Litehouse Inc.’s latest expansion. From humble beginnings, the company has grown into a business with annual sales of more than $280 million and more than 1,000 employees.

Litehouse recently finished a $6.2 million construction project at its Ella Street facility in Sandpoint, adding new cooler space, loading docks, a bigger shipping and receiving area and a waste water treatment plant that removes fats, sugar and oils from effluent.

Watching the company’s continued growth is deeply satisfying, the brothers said.

“One of our core values is to give back to the community,” said Doug Hawkins, who has retired from Litehouse’s day-to-day operations but remains on the board of directors.

“We’re proud of helping create solid, year-round jobs for families,” said Edward HawkinsJr., who is retired and running a cattle ranch.

The story of Litehouse Inc.’s origin is the stuff of local business lore.

Back in the 1960s, the Hawkins family owned the Litehouse restaurant in Hope, Idaho, on Lake Pend Oreille, which became locally known for its bleu cheese dressing. To generate revenue during the restaurant’s slow winter months, Edward Hawkins Sr. started making and bottling the dressing for grocery stores.

Litehouse got its first big break when it landed accounts with Albertsons and Safeway in the late 1970s. Through the years, the company has expanded its line of refrigerated dressings and dips sold in grocery stores. The elder Hawkins’ sons – Doug and Ed Jr. – eventually built the company into an international business with sales in all 50 states, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean.

Consumers are probably most familiar with Litehouse products in the produce department of their local grocery store. But the company also sells dips and dressings to restaurants, schools and hospitals. Litehouse’s fastest-growing segment is business-to-business sales.

“If you buy a vegetable tray at Costco, we made that dip,” said Jim Frank, company president and chief executive officer.

Litehouse employs 427 people in Sandpoint and also has manufacturing operations in Michigan and Utah. Both of those plants also are in small towns and have gone through recent expansions, Frank said.

“We’re growing and growing,” he said, noting the company has seen five years of double-digit sales growth.

Nationally, Litehouse recently moved into the No. 2 spot for market share of refrigerated dressings in grocery stores. The company’s products compete with the Marzetti and Marie’s brands, which are No. 1 and No. 3, respectively, Frank said.

“We’re No. 1 for market share on the West Coast,” which includes Southern California, he said. “The East Coast represents our biggest opportunity for growing market share.”

Litehouse’s Sandpoint operation makes dressing and dips primarily for distribution to western grocery stores and the food service industry. In the past two years, the manufacturing side in Sandpoint has added 49 workers.

Litehouse also makes bleu cheese in Sandpoint, which is aged for 100 days at a facility in Kootenai, Idaho, and its corporate headquarters are in town.

Doug and Edward Hawkins Jr. said they took a strategic path to keeping the jobs local. The privately held family company started selling shares of its stock to an Employee Stock Ownership Plan in 2006 and is now completely employee owned. Workers receive stock in the company, becoming vested after seven years. The stock ownership becomes their pension plan, Edward Hawkins Jr. said.

“It was our exit strategy,” he said. “We could go broke or we could sell the company (to an outside operator). We knew the impact to local jobs would still be the same.”

With local employee ownership, “there’s no incentive to move the jobs to another area,” Doug Hawkins said.