STEVENSVILLE - In today's world of manufacturing, it's not often the owner of a business is the first person customers meet as they walk in the front door.
And then there's Bonnie Jones of Stevensville's Wild West Machine.
Once folks find the door to the office of the growing company just off the side road to Selway Corporation, they are greeted with a hearty hello from the impetus behind the popular GrainMaker mill.
She answers her own phone, too.
"People who call are like ‘is this, the Bonnie,' " Jones smiled. "Now everyone around here calls me, ‘the Bonnie.' For us, it's really just a simple matter of providing good customer service. We want to make sure that they have a real person to talk to."
Wild West Machine markets the popular GrainMaker - a quality, hand-operated grain mill manufactured by Bitterroot Tool and Machine, which is owned by Bonnie's husband, Randy.
Both businesses operate out of the same building sandwiched in between a fitness center and Selway Corporation.
"It's kind of like we have a marriage between these two companies," Jones said. "Actually, when I think about it, it's all about a marriage."
The first GrainMaker mill was built by Randy Jones as a present to his wife and favorite homemaker.
Back in 1998, Bonnie was home-schooling the couple's children and spending a good deal of time in the kitchen baking up to 80 loaves of bread for her family and a growing number of customers at the local farmer's market.
Bonnie had a cousin with a wheat farm in Big Sandy and she thought it would be fun to try to bake some bread made from that Montana-grown product.
What Bonnie couldn't find was a hand-mill that she liked.
Randy was a talented machinist and a good husband. He told his wife he'd make her one.
The couple had no idea where that small gesture of love would lead.
From that humble beginning, the couple has seen the demand for their classic red colored grain mill skyrocket to the point today where they are shipping the carefully-constructed machines all over the globe.
Their manufacturing facility was first located in newly constructed barn out in their backyard. It didn't take long before they outgrew the power supply there.
So they moved to a building near Stevensville's Super 1 store in 2003. About a year after, Randy purchased Bitterroot Tool and Machine and the company moved again.
There have been ups and downs along the way.
In 2008, when the national economy started its free fall, orders for the grain mills and other machinery work done at Bitterroot Tool and Machine took a dramatic downturn. On the week of Christmas that year, the couple was faced with the disheartening task of laying off their entire staff.
"It was the worst thing ever," Bonnie remembered.
By the next fall, orders for the mill started to pick up again and by April 2009, the couple was able to bring everyone back to work.
Wild West Machine recently received a USDA Rural Business Enterprise Grant, with assistance from the Ravalli County Economic Development Authority to assist with new technology and marketing.
The two companies employ between 18 and 25 people depending on the season.
With sales climbing, the company added three new models this year, including a flaker mill designed to roll oats or grain to make oatmeal or granola.
The mills aren't cheap. Prices range from $325 to $1,265. The mills can be customized to be operated by a small electric motor or a bicycle.
"I love the idea of being able to pedal off all that bread you make," Bonnie said.
What attracts people to the Wild West Machines is quality craftsmanship and their heirloom guarantee.
"We don't compromise on quality," she said. "Our mills have a lifetime heirloom guarantee. They are meant to be something that is passed down through the generations, loved and used."
When "the Bonnie" answers the phone, she often hears from customers excited about their hand-operated mill and anxious to talk to someone about it.
"My customers are my education," Bonnie said. "I've learned so much from them. I talk with people all over the world. It's fascinating to hear what they are using our mills for."
The mills are totally Montana made.
"That's important to people," she said.
To continue with that theme, the company has been adding a five-pound bag of hard white wheat from Wheat Montana in the box with every GrainMaker.
"It is the perfect merging of Montana agriculture with Montana manufacturing," Bonnie said. "And that's pretty special to me."
For more information, go to www.grainmaker.com or call 777-7096.
Reach reporter Perry Backus at 363-3300 or firstname.lastname@example.org.