Small Shop, Big Vision

Swanky Fork spices up the kitchen for chefs of all kinds

The Swanky Fork in Red Lodge is an anomaly among the gift stores that line the small resort town’s main drag. The store offers high-end kitchen tools, gadgets and cookware for gourmet home cooks, bakers and professional chefs. It’s become a destination for cooking enthusiasts who have been known to travel hundreds of miles to find the little, well-stocked shop, owned by Jeannine Haugan-Olson.

Inside, folks can peruse hundreds of kitchen gadgets, find French cookware, barware, handmade cutting boards, and check out all the latest trends in the food industry. The store carries more than 100 brands that range from the elite, German-made Wusthof knives to the ultra-local Earlywood Designs, handcrafted wooden utensils that are made in Red Lodge. Her customers have come from every state in the U.S. as well as more than 20 other countries.

It doesn’t take much of a conversation with Jeannine to realize she’s as passionate about small business as she is about cooking. She opened Swanky Fork in 2009, amid the worst of the economic recession, and it was five weeks from the time she hatched the idea until she opened her doors. In that time, she was doing her homework, figuring out the niche market for kitchen shops and what it would take to build a successful brand.

“I’ve just always liked business and the guts of how business works and how successful businesses become successful,” she says.

Her background in marketing for high-tech firms gave her some experience to lean on, and Jeannine hired Concept Design Studios, a creative firm in Bozeman to help with her logo and branding. The name of the shop sprang from a brainstorming session Jeannine had with her husband, Eddie. They laid out all their kitchen tools and started playing with words, looking for something upscale and trendy but timeless. The name Swanky Fork rose to the top.

“We were coming up with a personality for the business,” Jeannine says. “That’s important. Every business has a personality.”

In the end, she took a simple straightforward approach to get Swanky Fork off and running.

“I marketed hard and fast,” Jeannine says. “I mean I went out and I shook hands and I called everyone. There wasn’t a person I knew that I didn’t call to tell them about the business.”

She also set aside a little money for advertising, focusing on the Billings area first, targeting her advertising around events and holidays in Red Lodge that usually attract a good crowd. She also invested in a billboard on the highway between Laurel and Red Lodge. She held a grand opening, offered discounts and made friends with everyone who came through the door.

“I started small, and I believe you should start small. You can always go larger later,” she says today.

Jeannine is in the store most days, and loves getting to know her customers. She gushes when she considers the classically trained chefs who grace her doorway, and gushes just as much over the home cooks who visit her store. Everyone feels welcome. She’s always swapping recipes and cooking tips, helping customers find just the right gadget for their cooking project.

“It’s about a handshake, and the sincerity of that handshake,” she says. “It’s more about the experience, than it is about a product.”

While it may seem like the shop is charmed in its success in such a tiny niche market, Jeannine knows it’s more than luck that brought her to where she is. She studies her market, knows the industry inside and out, and doesn’t miss an opportunity to learn more.

“I read everything about my industry – global trends, what chefs are doing and what they are using,” Jeannine says. “I think people who do not read their industry magazines or attend trade shows for their industry are missing the chance to be the best they can be.”

Cooking is big business at Swanky Fork, but at home, it’s all about family, and family comes first.

“I’ve cooked my whole life,” Jeannine says. “Family dinners were important and family time was six-o-clock every night. My mom cooked from scratch and we hardly ever ate out.”

Following in her mother’s footsteps, Jeannine calls her style of cooking “heart and soul cooking.” She uses fresh, seasonal ingredients, stirring up hearty, filling dishes. Soups and stews are her favorites, and wild game, and fish caught in local lakes and rivers frequent the Olson table.

“I instinctively know cooking, and I always enjoy family recipes,” Jeannine says.

Jeannine, moved to Red Lodge in 2006 with her husband Eddie and their son Jake, who was just six months old at the time. For almost 15 years, they lived in Silicon Valley. They both had good jobs in the tech industry. Jeannine worked in marketing, and Eddie worked in engineering. But Jeannine grew up in Billings, and she and Eddie longed for a slower pace of life and closer connection to family. Red Lodge seemed like the perfect fit. The couple quickly established a successful GPS engineering business in Red Lodge. Eddie worked with clients, while Jeannine helped with branding and marketing. SiliconSky GPS thrived through their hard work, but when the stock market tanked in 2009, their business went into a downward slide.

“We lost everything in about 6 weeks. We went to zero – zero – nothing. We literally were in the unemployment line,” Jeannine says. “It was a defining moment, but we were not willing to go back to Silicon Valley”

Eddie and Jeannine took odd jobs to make ends meet, and finally decided to take a run at small business. They cashed in their retirement and took the titles to all their vehicles into the bank, borrowed against the equity of their home, and took out a personal loan to start Swanky Fork. To Jeannine, it felt like a high-stakes poker game, filled with risk.

“But I figured that if I couldn’t do it, it couldn’t be done,” she says.

Eddie was all-in as well, helping spruce up the retail space and getting the store started. He now works for John Deere, but still frequently helps around the shop.

Jeannine started small, and now four years later, Swanky Fork has expanded and moved into a larger space in Red Lodge. Jeannine has plans to locate another shop in Billings, but is waiting to find the perfect space. Earlier this year, she traveled to Frankfurt, Germany, to the largest consumer trade show in the world. She went looking for the latest trends in cooking and came home filled with big ideas for her small shop.

Jeannine takes her small business as seriously as any Fortune 500 executive. She's quick to tell you that small business holds our towns and cities together, gives the consumer variety and choice and makes the marketplace more competitive.

“Our country was founded on small business,” she adds. “It’s the engine that drives this country, and we’ve gotten away from that. We need to bring it back.”

Jeannine has become a champion for small business and encourages women to go into business for themselves.

“If you go into small business and you show up every day and you work it and you are thoughtful and you reach out for mentors in your industry, you will succeed,” she says. “Yes, there’s risk, but there’s risk in everything you do. You can’t let fear stand in your way.”



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