Canyon Ferry Mini-Basket built its business success by catering to locals as well as vacationers in the open spaces of Montana.

The Canyon Ferry Recreation Area is a short car ride from East Helena, Montana. Nestled against several mountain ranges and formed, in part, by a dam corralling the headwaters of the Missouri River (yes, it starts in Montana), Canyon Ferry is a popular outdoor destination with three marinas that offers boating, fishing, hunting, and camping in summer, and ice-boat races in the winter.

Those heading out to this natural paradise often load up on food and other supplies at Canyon Ferry Mini-Basket before they do. This Sinclair Oil-branded, SSCS customer is one of the last stops on the busy, well-travelled road that heads out to Canyon Ferry’s wide open spaces.

The Mini-Basket’s closeness to the recreational area has become part of its identity, reflected in the store’s tagline, “On your way to the lake,” as well the generous selection of hunting, fishing, and camping supplies that the store keeps well-stocked.

But vacationers and sportspeople are only part of the 5,000 square foot operation’s market. Being on the edge of the greater metropolitan area of Helena, the state capital, the c-store’s success is also founded on a returning clientele of local customers, many of them in blue collar industries. It’s a formula that works: the Mini-Basket perennially wins “Best Convenience Store” from the readers of the Helena Independent Record.

Owners Rob and Traci Merzlak have been the proprietors of Canyon Ferry Mini-Basket since November 2007 after Rob had spent 20 years working up to management at Osco Drug. “When CVS bought Osco, it seemed like a good time for our family to consider a career change,” says Merzlak. “I’d worked at a convenience store when I was younger and always found it a comfortable place to be—I even met my wife there! So when the current location, which had been there since 1985, came up for sale, Traci and I took the opportunity to dive in.”

When Rob says, “dive in,” he’s not exaggerating. While Traci handles the financials and selected administrative tasks, Rob’s always been hands-on in the store: personal interaction with customers attracted him to the business in the first place. “The plan was always pretty simple,” he says. “Treat employees with courtesy, dignity, and respect, and it spills over to how our customers are treated. The best way to make sure it happens is to be an active part of it.”

Canyon Ferry Mini-Basket underwent a significant remodel and expansion in 2017, which is when the business kicked it up a notch, including a greatly expanded range of Foodservice offerings to satisfy hungry people at all times of the day.

To offer the widest possible variety of hot items without sacrificing the personal attention Rob wanted to give to his customers, he partnered with Hot Stuff Foods 12 years ago. Foodservice concepts range from pizza (Hot Stuff is the fifth-largest pizza provider in the U.S.) to morning pastries and burritos to a complete deli set-up.

“There’s a variety of people who walk through the doors,” Rob says. “We’d like to satisfy every one of them by what we have on the shelves, and while it is now always possible, the Hot Stuff option makes sure we have something ready for everybody. It’s turnkey. It helped us to become a destination.”

Through all its growth, however, there was one thing that Canyon Ferry Mini-Basket did not have: a computer system. Rob had sustained his success with what was essentially a manual system, a rarity in this day and age. Understanding that their business was expanding and becoming more complex, especially in terms of item pricing, Rob understood he had to computerize. That’s where SSCS came in, but to read about it . . . well, you’ll just have to wait until Part 2 next Thursday. See you then!