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Big Dipper navigates pandemic with focus on community, unity

Charlie Beaton, founder and owner of Big Dipper, recently opened a new location on the south side of Missoula. (Missoula Current file)

For 26 years, Big Dipper Ice Cream has operated in Montana with four locations in Missoula, Billings and Helena, as well as the iconic “Cone Boy” ice cream truck. But the COVID-19 pandemic presented a new set of challenges to owner Charlie Beaton, who opened Big Dipper in 1995.

A University of Montana alumni, Beaton graduated from the College of Business in 1991 after moving from his hometown of Helena. Since it’s opening, Big Dipper has become a staple in the Missoula community, with the original Big Dipper located on the corner of Higgins and Fifth Street.

Beaton believes that Big Dipper has also helped create a larger impact on the community beyond serving ice cream. Recently, Big Dipper hosted the local Hellgate High School band to perform a mini-concert every Thursday evening during May to fundraise.

“Big Dipper has been a community gathering spot for years. We’ve donated to and sponsored hundreds if not thousands of events over the years,” said Beaton.

But the pandemic greatly limited Big Dipper’s sales the past two years, not just within the brick and mortar shops.

“For the second year in a row we’ve lost all of our ice cream business at Yellowstone and Glacier Parks. We normally sell thousands of tubs of ice cream to them and they are not opening their ice cream operations again this year due to the pandemic. We also lost almost all of our ice cream truck and UM business the past year,” said Beaton.

Despite the hit to total sales this year, Beaton was able to utilize stimulus money and PayCheck Protection Loans to help cushion the impact of the lost sales. Big Dipper added additional features that catered to sales during the pandemic, including expanding their online ordering as well as adding a contactless pick up option.

One of the larger issues went beyond just financial recovery however. Beaton’s biggest learning experience during the past two years was facing political division in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests and mask mandates.

“Politics can really divide a community. Our employees took a lot of abuse from customers refusing to wear masks on top of more abuse by people that opposed our Black Lives Matter posters. It was actually really sad. When we should have collectively been working together we had so many people that were real jerks to the kids working at our shops,” said Beaton.

Beaton’s plans for the future include continuing hiring great employees and being involved with the community as much as possible.

Face to Face: Big Dipper Ice Cream pivots during pandemic to reach customers