Peter Boniface and David Pepin: 'These crazy sandwiches'

Backcountry boys lead a growing business

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Sandwich fans in Steamboat Springs can thank Peter Boniface's mother.

Boniface, who owns the Backcountry Provisions sandwich shop along with high school classmate David Pepin, said it all started in the kitchen of his youth.

"In high school, everybody would want to go to my mom's house for lunch," said Boniface, who went to school in Marion, Mass., near the Rhode Island border. "She's Italian so she had good stuff, like roasted red peppers. We'd all make these crazy sandwiches after morning surf sessions."

The love for meats, veggies and cheeses placed between slices of bread has become a career for Boniface and Pepin. The two 36-year-olds opened their store at 635 Lincoln Ave. in 1999 and have since not only expanded that location, but also recently opened a new store - "with the same feel," Boniface said - in Jackson, Wyo., near the Jackson Hole ski resort.

The success could be because these two fun-loving, quick-with-a-joke East Coast transplants are all business when it comes to sandwiches.

"We work really, really hard at trying to bring the best products in," Boniface said. He leans forward over a table at Backcountry - adorned, as all the tables are, with a topographical map of local wilderness areas - and makes direct eye contact to emphasize his point. "We're all about our food having impact."

Creating that impact not only involves the ingredients of a Backcountry sandwich, such as the stuffing-and-cranberry Pilgrim (the store's top seller) or the roast-beef-and-spicy-mayo Expedition. Impact, Boniface says, also comes from the order in which the ingredients are layered: first the sauce, then meat, then veggies, with cheese on top as a moisture barrier.

"If you put that same combination in a different order, the sandwich would be crap when you open it up," Boniface said, stressing that the name of their shop describes the intent of their sandwiches: to "hold integrity" throughout a day skiing, hiking or biking in the Routt County outdoors.

"We field-tested all of them ourselves," he said. "That's the beauty of cured meats - it's the kind of food Roman armies carried with them to conquer Europe."

A few minutes after the noon lunch whistle blasted off like an air raid siren, the bells on the shop door jingle as a customer walks in.

"Tony, how you doin'?" asks Boniface, working the register today while Pepin, Travis Lawson and Pam Callnan make sandwiches and prepare fixings in back.

After ordering some spicy black bean soup to go, Tony strikes up a conversation about snow in the San Juan Mountains.

"We had some people in from Telluride a while back who said they were mowing their lawns and riding mountain bikes," Boniface said.

"Get out of here!" Tony replied.

The talk continues, equally mixing between customers and employees, as Boniface reaches below the counter and hands Tony a sample of German-style cured salami.

"That's the original PowerBar right there," he said.

Knowing the names of customers is a trademark of Backcountry staff, especially Pepin, whose has an uncanny knack for the skill.

"Being in the (food service) business so long, you realize people appreciate being approached by their name - or as close as possible," said Pepin, who once had 110 employees as manager of a large Boston restaurant. "I try to make it part of my job."

Pepin and Boniface now have eight employees, almost all of whom - coincidentally or not - are from back East.

"We pretty much only hire people from New England," Boniface said, standing in front of a wall adorned with a Boston Red Sox poster. "Except for Travis - he's from Texas. See him back there in the corner, sweeping?"

This is clearly a shop where good-natured ribbing is part of the culture, and Lawson quickly fires back.

"Look at you, getting all famous!" he said, laughing at the prospect of his bosses appearing in the newspaper.

As business heats up, Lawson joins Pepin and Callnan on the sandwich line, where all three are old hats. Grabbing a loaf out of the oven behind him, Pepin quickly slices it into sections that are measured with just a glance. They match perfectly.

"You should get four out of each one," he said, ducking down to grab some veggies before giving Lawson's creations a quick appraisal.

"Those are some sexy looking sandwiches right there," Pepin said.

Boniface came to Steamboat in 1991. Pepin moved out in 1998. "I packed my truck and never looked back," Pepin said.

It took the pair more than a year to find a location for their shop, which originally was half the size it is now. They had no financial backers.

"Creating a business in a rural community is tough to begin with. When you have two friends do it and they still maintain their friendship along with their business, that's amazing," said Noreen Moore, business resource director for Routt County. "It's kind of like they're beating the odds on both levels."

They've done it with a lot of support.

Both Pepin and Boniface are married, have children, and live near Fish Creek Falls Road.

"I've always been a downtown guy, ever since I moved here," said Boniface, who has two daughters - 5-year-old Isabele and 6-month-old Lila - with his wife of seven years, Kelly.

He rides his bike into work nearly every day, exhibiting a love for exercise that is evident on him and Pepin. Both men are fit, tanned and bright-eyed, and - like nearly all of their employees, including Lawson - have some degree of semi-unkempt facial hair.

Pepin's wife is expecting a child in June, he said. The couple already has a 19-month-old son.

"He's awesome," Pepin said simply.

His business partner had a simple explanation for why they've stayed in Steamboat and have no plans to move.

"It's a great life out here," Boniface said. "We love it."

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