By Tyler Allen Explore Big Sky Associate Editor
BIG SKY – Uncle Dan’s Cookies have been photographed at Mount Everest base camp, underwater in Zanzibar, and in Antarctica. When Dan and Denise Wade owned Gallatin Gourmet Deli in the Meadow Village, they had five bulletin boards full of cookie photographs from around the world.
Dan Wade opened his kiosk in the Mountain Village at Big Sky Resort this past Thanksgiving, marking a return to the business’s birthplace. A second location followed at the Lone Peak Tram on Feb. 1.
Dan parked his first cookie cart in the Mountain Mall every day during the winter of 1983-84, near the present-day Hummers location. On sunny days he wheeled it through the double doors of the mall, posting up in the middle of the plaza.
And why cookies?
“Cookies have all the food groups,” Dan says. “Crunch, chocolate and chew.” When he started the business in the ‘80s his nephew Justin had just been born, and he liked the ring of “Uncle Dan.”
Now, three decades later, Uncle Dan’s Cookies has landed prime real estate in the Big Sky base area, between Whiskey Jack’s and the Summit hotel.
“I saw a small plot of fallow land and opportunity,” he said of his tiny footprint on the country’s biggest ski resort. “I’m not trying to be a mile wide and an inch deep, I’m trying to be an inch wide and a mile deep.”
That focus on his craft is obvious when you sink your teeth into a classic chocolate chip cookie or a Blue Sky Bar. The flavors remind you of the baked goods your mother used to make when you were a kid. The difference is Dan’s mom was a professional.
A high school home economics teacher, Betty Wade taught her son how to bake as a boy in McMinnville, Ore. Dan went an hour from home for college at Oregon State University, where he graduated in 1979 with a hotel and restaurant management degree. Later that year, Dan found his way to Big Sky.
“I came up from Rexburg, through the park to Gardiner, then over to Bozeman,” he recalls, of a road trip he took that fall with his sister. “I came back [south on 191] because I had heard of Big Sky but couldn’t find it on the map.”
He walked up to the front desk of the Huntley Lodge, interviewed with the head chef that day, and was hired on the spot for the coming ski season.
After working at the Huntley for six years as a headwaiter and dining room manager, Dan left to pursue his passion with a full-time cookie business in Bend, Ore. But the gravity of Big Sky pulls you back from a long distance away, he says, and a job offer at the Mountain Lodge – where the Black Bear is now – was the clincher after two years in Bend.
Dan met Denise during his tenure there. “It was love at first sight,” he said, laughing. “At least for half of us.”
In the following years he worked as Lone Mountain Ranch’s head sleigh ride chef, opened Gallatin Gourmet Deli with Denise, worked as Moonlight Basin’s first food and beverage manager, and then left hospitality entirely for a decade to do property management.
All along, Dan continued baking and selling his cookies at these various establishments, perfecting his craft. And as of this winter, Uncle Dan’s Cookies are finally back where they belong.
“I had my first Uncle Dan’s Cookie almost 30 years ago, and I’ve been wanting more ever since,” said Big Sky Resort General Manager Taylor Middleton. “Dan’s one of the most entrepreneurial people I know, and having him back on the mountain is great for our guests.”
The tram kiosk has presented the greatest challenges this season, Dan says, as wind and heavy snow have occasionally shut down the tram or the triple chair, preventing potential cookie eaters from accessing his confectionary high camp.
Plus, Dan says, he and his employees transport both cookies and 25-pound water jugs up there in a backpack, which can make for an interesting dismount off the chairlift with all that weight.
“But it’s a great location, because of the captive audience,” he said. “I’ve scouted it for years.”
When Dan made the deal this fall with the resort, he added six employees so, including himself, he now has four “certified Uncle Dan’s bakers,” as Dan calls them. He still does property management four days a week and devotes three to the cookie operation.
Cookie headquarters is in the Westfork Mall, in the old Trailhead Pizza space, a spot Dan plans to utilize for another unfilled niche in Big Sky, possibly as soon as this summer – perhaps for a sub sandwich shop, he says. At minimum he’s hoping to have cookies available at the farmers market and other events.
“Now I’m doing it not because I can do it, but because I should do it,” Dan said of the business venture. “Can I be profitable and create jobs, as we move on to what might happen next?”