Are you so excited to dust off your running shoes, bicycle, or hiking boots that you’ve forgotten your body is battling the effects of decreased physical activity in winter?
Story by Katie Cantrell | Photos by Hunter D’Antuono
Pulling up to The Farmhouse Inn and Kitchen on Lupfer Avenue in Whitefish, the skies indicate it’s fast becoming one of those Montana days: the kind that dawned sunny with the promise of warmth before inexplicably turning cold, gray and drizzly.
The tables on the front porch, although perfect for socially distanced dining, only seat a couple of hardy souls waiting for takeout. The kitchen, however, is warm, bright, and hopping. Seven young employees bustle around the tight space, swirling crepe pans, frying bacon, and prepping salsa and piecrust dough for the afternoon. Brandi Peerman, who owns The Farmhouse with her husband Steve, has staked out a tiny bit of counter space near the swinging doors. She’s using a plastic stencil in the shape of wheat stalks to decorate loaves of sourdough bread with cocoa powder before sliding them into the oven.
“These should have been baked early this morning, but we had an electrical issue,” she calmly explains, even though she’d like the loaves to already be in the wooden crates on tables outside the restaurant, waiting for their Friday morning farm box pickups.
The Peermans are nothing if not endlessly adaptable. When the state shutdown order came in March, their business — a boutique B&B with a café serving breakfast and lunch — went from bustling to zero overnight. No bed and breakfast guests, no one dropping by for a latte or a huckleberry sriracha turkey sandwich. Instead of turning inward and hunkering down, however, the Peermans shifted gears and reached out.
They expanded their hours and started offering a dinner menu. With no income from room rentals and the need to produce more food to cover their expenses, they tore out the ground floor guest room and doubled the size of their kitchen. They put together farm boxes for purchase: weekly assortments of anything the Peermans produce, which have run the gamut from pork sausage and fresh produce from their 16-acre farm to herbal hand sanitizer, goat milk soap, and house-roasted coffee. As the state started to reopen with protocols for restaurants, Steve built charming and well-spaced wood banquette tables in the courtyard where the cornhole boards once sat.
And, even though they didn’t know how they would keep making ends meet, the Peermans started giving away food.
On March 18, Brandi posted on social media both that they’d had to lay off their 11 employees and that their kitchen would be offering food supplies and free meals to anyone in need, seven days a week. They started assembling weekly community boxes — like the farm boxes, but free to those in need. Instagram posts of their dinner specials, like mouth-watering Czech-style pork chops with hot German potato salad, came with encouragement for those around them facing insecurity: “If you can’t afford to pay, it’s okay. Just come by and we will take care of you.”
Both the pork chops and the open invitation reflect Brandi’s roots. Her mother, the daughter of a Czech immigrant, would cook for large gatherings of friends and family nearly every weekend on their California farm and also regularly pack up and deliver meals to people in need. Brandi learned to cook from her, as well as her great-aunt Nettie, who used to feed anyone from the café that she ran in the back of the family’s Sacramento hardware store, whether they could pay their tab or not. Brandi has incorporated many of the family recipes into the Farmhouse menu, although with some Montana twists, like putting huckleberries on the traditional Czech kolache. She and Steve also firmly believe in looking out for those in need.
“Our family’s general belief is that if you try to do the right thing, help people as much as you can, then it will all work out,” Brandi explains.
What neither Steve nor Brandi actually says, but which becomes clear throughout the morning, is that they both also believe in treating everyone with dignity. Brandi stresses the confidential nature of meal requests: most of them come in via private messages on social media, and she simply prints out a kitchen ticket like she would for any takeout order. The community boxes are beautiful and likewise virtually indistinguishable from the paid farm boxes.
One mother who swings by to pick up a box had been making ends meet cleaning Airbnb rentals and was also in the midst of launching a doula practice when the shutdown happened. Both jobs instantly evaporated, leaving her scrambling. And while the food in the early-season Farmhouse box isn’t abundant — enough for probably two or three meals for a couple of people — the fact that it’s presented like a gift, not a handout, makes a huge difference in this time of uncertainty and stress.
“It’s thoughtfully put together, and it makes me feel . . . I don’t know, it’s a different feeling picking up this box than at the food bank,” she says. “Not that I don’t appreciate it [the food bank], but, you know, here they don’t have to put flowers in the boxes, and they do. I definitely want to support them when things get back to normal, whatever normal is.”
The support from paying customers, along with some donations, has been covering the cost of the free meals and the community boxes. One such woman comes in to order breakfast, saying she hadn’t been in before but wanted to support Farmhouse because of how she’s seen them supporting the community.
Steve thanks her, and then says, “We never know when it’s going to be our turn to need help. It could be any of us. We’re in a position right now to do this, and we’re glad to. While we can, we’re going to do what we can.”
Katie Cantrell contributes regularly to Flathead Living. Find her at www.katiecantrellwrites.com, or on Instagram and Facebook @KatieCantrellWrites.