By Ben Olson
Editor’s Note: In this first installation of an ongoing series highlighting young business leaders in Sandpoint, we’ll check out Wildwood Grilling.
Katie Bradish would be the first one to tell you that Wildwood Grilling’s products are about as low-tech as you can get.
“We’re selling the idea of cooking with wood in fire,” said Bradish. “That’s pretty straightforward.”
Wildwood’s products include grilling planks, wraps and smoking chips. The genius behind their business model is that all of their products start from short lengths and grades of wood not utilized by lumber stores.
“It’s a recovery product,” said Bradish, the director of sales and marketing. “Finding a use for short lengths is pretty unique.”
Since 1995, Wildwood Grilling has quietly established itself as the number one grilling plank manufacturer in the world. They ship their products all over the world, including all across the United States, the United Kingdom, Austrailia, Thailand and Canada.
The company employs 56 people, half of which are in their 30s or younger. Bradish, 29, said the young blood around the office helps keep the company fresh and vital.
“We have a lot of energy here,” she said. “In a traditional office, there is this idea that ‘This is how we’ve always done it,’ but we don’t have any firm processes, so we can organically figure out a process that works.”
The employees are spread between a large office located in Kootenai and the mill site, located coincidentally on a historic mill site on Shingle Mill Road that has produced cedar shingles since the ‘30s.
Wildwood’s process from turning raw forest products into planks is actually pretty simple. In the chop room, the short lengths come down the conveyor belt and are sorted into like types. Employees cut the pieces to length and discard the unusable chunks.
“In winter, the chop room is a closed system, which means it heats itself,” said Taylor Bradish, director of operations (and Katie’s husband). “Also, all of our employees get free firewood.”
One thing I noticed immediately was the cleanliness of the room. It wasn’t like any wood cutting room I’d ever seen before. The reason for that is Wildwood’s dedication to Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) for ensuring products are produced consistently and controlled according to quality standards.
“We have the same certification as paper plates and cups,” said Taylor. “We’re actually the only company in the grilling plank industry to have GMP certifications. All the lubrications we use on our saws are food grade silicone.”
Near the chop room, there is a small room for building displays to feature products in grocery stores, and also a space to manufacture 1/50th of an inch cut wraps that are great for roasting vegetables.
“These wraps are especially popular with restaurants like Hard Rock Café and cruise ships,” said Taylor.
The planks are moved from the chop room to the finishing room, where edges are softened and all sides are worked to eliminate potential splinters. The planks then enter the top secret branding room where a special machine burns personalized logos into the wood. It is so secret, in fact, that Taylor requested no photographs to be taken of the machine. They have 550 brands on file for their various customers.
After the planks are branded, they are packaged in shrink wrap and stored in a clean room to await quality assurance checks and shipping.
Taylor, who formerly worked with Idaho Department of Lands, is especially proud that Wildwood purchases a lot of wood in the region.
“We buy 97 percent of our cedar from Idaho,” said Taylor.
Katie’s father, Ernie Brandt, started Wildwood Grilling in 1995 and taught her everything she needed to know about business. Though not retired, Brandt has enjoyed handing over the reins to the next generation of plankers.
“Ernie was the best teacher I could have ever asked for,” said Katie. “I didn’t learn as much in college or school than I did with Ernie. He gave a lot of responsibility to a bunch of young punks.”
Over the past few years, Wildwood has consistently seen a growth rate of 30 percent, thanks to the explosion of the grilling industry.
“People are grilling more now,” she said. “The idea is elemental. You get your hands on wood and put down your phone. You walk away, you feel great.”
For Katie, the common lament that that Sandpoint doesn’t have a whole lot to offer younger workers isn’t true.
“People say they don’t think Sandpoint is a good place to work after college,” she said. “I disagree. I feel like there are at least five other businesses in town where I’d absolutely love to work. There’s tech, aerospace, or you can start something of your own. We’re all about job satisfaction here—I like when our employees go down to the Beer Hall and wear a Wildwood hat and are proud of where they work.”
Earlier this month, Katie hired three additions to the Wildwood team, all of them in their 30s or younger.
“This is the Sandpoint dream,” she said. “To have a house and a ski pass and the ability to create jobs and look for cool people. I really like my job. I never thought I’d be back in Sandpoint, being able to work with such a cool team and be happy and comfortable.”
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