After 10 years of scoops, Marissa Keenan and Sam Dauenhauer reflect on the evolution and growth of Sweet Peaks Ice Cream
Story by Katie Cantrell | Photography by Hunter D’Antuono
Ahot summer day. A first date. A breakup. For celebrations, consolations, or no reason at all, Montanans head to Sweet Peaks Ice Cream. Flavors like tried-and-true salty caramel and out-of-the-ordinary pine-flavored Montana Christmas have become a ubiquitous part of life in the Flathead Valley. So it’s a good thing Sam Dauenhauer and Marissa Keenan, the husband-and-wife team behind Sweet Peaks, decided to make ice cream instead of sushi.
When they met in 2007, Keenan was the sales director for a vintage sign company and Dauenhauer was, as he puts it, “selling mortgages in a windowless basement,” a job that paid the bills but left his artistic soul cold. They shared an entrepreneurial spirit but weren’t quite sure where to take it. Dauenhauer thought about designing a line of children’s clothing. Keenan had been incubating an ice cream idea for years: triangle-shaped ice cream sandwiches named for the peaks in Glacier Park. As their relationship started to get serious, so did their dreams, including one to bring a sushi restaurant to Kalispell.
“So we bought all the books on how to make ice cream,” Dauenhauer recalls, “and all the books on how to make sushi, and every night it was sushi and ice cream.”
“Thank God we decided on ice cream,” Keenan says, laughing.
Keenan had visions of selling the ice cream sandwiches from an Italian pushcart in front of the Bigfork Summer Playhouse. Dauenhauer wanted to go bigger.
“I was the one who was more hesitant about going full force,” Keenan says.
Even though she had always wanted to own her own business, she was reluctant to walk away from her steady job. Contributing to her worries was the feedback from friends and family, who told them they couldn’t possibly build a business on ice cream in Montana. Winter was too long. Not enough people lived in the Flathead. But, to them, not trying was worse than the possibility of failure, so they took all their savings and an investment from Dauenhauer’s parents and made the plunge.
On April 12, 2010, a rainy Monday in Whitefish, they peeled the paper off the windows, turned on the lights, and crossed their fingers.
“I think we did, like, 40 bucks,” Dauenhauer says.
The first day wasn’t a blockbuster. But business kept building. Dauenhauer retrofitted a horse trailer into a mobile scooping shop and built visibility at the weekly Whitefish Farmers Market. Keenan quit her day job at the end of June, and the rest of the summer passed in a blur of churning and scooping.
“I would work in the store, then start making ice cream at the end of the shift until 2 in the morning,” Keenan says. “And Sam would get up at 2 in the morning and drive to Whitefish — we’d pass each other on the road — and he would start making ice cream until I would get there to open the store. And we did this pretty much all summer long. We just made as much ice cream as we could.”
They passed each other like ships in the night through the summer, except for August 28: their wedding day. By then they had two employees, high schoolers who had slipped handwritten letters under the shop door asking to work there. While the first season was hectic, each week they were making and selling more ice cream. And then winter came.
“And people were like, ‘You gotta sell soup. You gotta sell sandwiches,’” Dauenhauer says. “But Marissa and I have always been on the same page that if you believe in doing one thing really well, you’re going to succeed no matter where you’re at in the world. I think we maintained the philosophy that if we just focused on ice cream, then it would pay off.”
He pauses. “But I also think every winter for about six years we were pretty terrified.”
Still, they stuck with their strategy: sell more ice cream in the summer to offset the slow winters. They tinkered with flavors, knowing that great chocolate and vanilla were essential but also experimenting with edgier tastes like avocado lime and lemon dill. They opened the second Sweet Peaks location in 2011, a seasonal shop off the side of the Bigfork Inn, which Keenan’s parents owned at the time. Then came a shop in Kalispell in 2012, Missoula in 2014, Coeur d’Alene in 2016, Bozeman in 2017, Spokane in 2018, and in 2019 they opened Wild Coffee Company in Whitefish. The Coeur d’Alene and Bigfork locations have since closed, although a shop in Bigfork is expected to reopen this summer.
The years without shop openings brought growth of another kind: the births of their two younger children Dagny and Solomon, joining older sister Aria. And now they’re moving into their next phase: partnering with two Texas investors to take Sweet Peaks to Dallas in 2020.
Through 10 years of long winters and bold expansions, Keenan and Dauenhauer recognize the combined force of their different strengths.
“Sam is super artistic, and he understands that sometimes we have to do things that are out of the ordinary,” Keenan says. “He has an attention to detail in stores and brings a lot of enthusiasm and creativity. He’s the risk taker, and I’m the one that translates the risk into something that’s doable.”
“The only reason that Sweet Peaks was ever able to continue or exist was because Marissa was the yin to my yang,” Dauenhauer says. “She’s a very good speaker, analytical but also inspirational. When you have 140 employees [during the summer peak], you need somebody at the top that everybody’s looking at. And they’re not looking at me; they’re looking at Marissa.”
Keenan and Dauenhauer are also quick to point out that their respective talents wouldn’t have meant anything without the customers who keep coming year in and year out, sunshine or snow.
“I remember at one point just looking at all the stores and all the staff and my personal life and just being so surprised … How does a $2, a $3 cone, one at a time, support all this?” Dauenhauer reflects. “We know all the reasons, but it’s still a surprise, having the community support you.”
Katie Cantrell contributes regularly to Flathead Living. Find her at www.katiecantrellwrites.com, or on Instagram and Facebook @KatieCantrellWrites.