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If you put your palm over the Blackfoot River on a Montana highway map and spread your fingers west, you’re essentially covering the whole Omnibar production chain with your hand.
Cows culled from the Burchenals’ ranch in Ovando are slaughtered at White’s Wholesale Meats in Ronan. The meat and other ingredients are mixed, rolled and baked by Vandevanter Meats in Columbia Falls. There, they are packaged using a unique horizontal wrapping machine rebuilt by a guy in St. Regis—the only person in North America who works on such contraptions. Six Pony Hitch, a design firm in Missoula, created the Omnibar logo of an open-mouthed bear, the Old West lettering on the packaging and the company’s motto: “Eat it all.”
“It’s a Missoula product. It’s highly reflective of this community. That’s what’s been fun about developing it,” company founder Cooper Burchenal says. “One of the true virtues and delights of Montana is if you need to talk to someone as a resource, there’s almost nothing that stands between me and an expert. It’s a very entrepreneurial place.”
Cooper and Anne have tested their entrepreneurial mettle before. He is educated as a sculptor and painter. She has a deep interest in horticulture. They used to run a nursery on the banks of the Ohio River devoted to native grasses. It blossomed as a space for art and outdoor events, but not as a business. They shuttered Ohio River Grass in 2001 and moved to Montana. Cooper became a founding partner in the Missoula design firm saltStudio, but that enterprise faded as the partners went their separate ways.
Still enthralled by the entrepreneurial spirit, Cooper and Anne looked at what they already had and started again.
The ranch near Ovando had been a Burchenal family destination since Cooper was a boy. His father, Ralph, was a successful Cincinnati banker who owned farms in the Midwest. But Ralph Burchenall’s fondness for agriculture was no match for the majesty of a ranch at the edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area. A pack trip into the Bob tilted him forever westward and he bought ranchland on Monture Creek in 1971. Today, the ranch contains acreage from several properties and leases 3,436 of its acres to the University of Montana’s Bandy Experimental Ranch.
The family visited in summertime, sometimes traveling in an old school bus outfitted with bunks and living space. While summers were always a social time, community took a more central role when Cooper’s 12-year-old older brother was struck by lightning in Ohio and killed. Their mother, Toone, sought solace in the company of crowds.
“The only way she could stay sane and keep the pain at bay was to have a lot of people around,” Cooper says.
The tradition of reaching out and inviting others in is central to Cooper’s character and defines his approach to building Omnibar. It explains how Cooper and Brent Ruby came to know each other, how Cooper and Anne found the rare packaging machine in St. Regis, and how Cooper put together his team of local manufacturers.
“I would never have come up with something like this in my wildest dreams,” says Ron Vandevanter, a veteran jerky maker who runs the Columbia Falls meat-processing plant that mixes, bakes and packages Omnibar. “Cooper is good at finding things. He just knows how to find the right things and people.”