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28 Years of Serving Sandpoint

Friendliness, great food and almost three decades of service from Jalapeños

By Abigail Thorpe

Photo by Annie Zasadny Photography

Walk inside the double doors of Jalapeños on 2nd Avenue in downtown Sandpoint and you’re immediately greeted by a color-splashed dining room, a fish tank that’s home to a local legend named Mango, and a bar where Bing Crosby once sat. At Jalapeños, employees are like family, and customers are like close friends.

Chances are if you live in Sandpoint you’ve stopped in the local favorite Mexican eatery, sampled some of their authentic California-Mexican cuisine, and maybe even had a signature margarita or two served up by Kari the bartender, who’s been there for 15 years and creates all of the traditional favorites—including a fun twist here and there, like house-infused habanero vodka and tequila.

What many people may not know is that Jalapeños’ history goes back almost three decades, and the building it occupies carries around a century of memories and character, some of which still remain to this day. Wander through the main dining area of Jalapeños and glance down at the wooden floor—once a basketball court for the old Elks Club that originally occupied the building.

As you round the corner into the bar you’ll catch a glimpse of the restaurant mascot, Mango, an 18-year-old blood parrot cichlid that many mistake for a large goldfish. She’s been around practically since Jalapeños moved into the space over 20 years ago, and a lot of love, pampering and recently a diet of frozen peas have kept her delighting guests much past the average life expectancy for a blood parrot, which is seven to 10 years.

Chet and Shari French first opened Jalapeños on April 15, 1993, on Cedar Street in what was formerly the old bootery and Fabulous 50s Fountain. It was one of the first Mexican restaurants to pop up on Sandpoint’s food scene, and it was packed every single day with a line out the door.

“I was a customer back then. It was like something new Sandpoint had never seen before,” remembers Dave Vermeer, who now co-owns Jalapeños with local Justin Dick, but at the time was the manager of the Coldwater Creek wine bar.

“We were packed from open to close every day, people lined up out the door and down the sidewalk. It was so fun!” laughs Chelsea Page, the current manager of Jalapeños who started when the restaurant first opened.

If there’s anybody who knows everything about Jalapeños, it’s Chelsea. For 28 years, through two moves and new ownership, she’s stuck with Jalapeños, because it is family for her.

Dave and Justin took over the reigns in 2014. From the start they were set on keeping the entire staff and preserving the beloved character of the restaurant, something Chet and Shari were careful about when they sold the place. They didn’t want to just sell it to anyone.

“We took every single person on as they were. We knew nothing about them, but we just felt in good faith that was the good thing to do,” explains Dave. To this day, their mentality remains the same. “We put more emphasis on caring for our employees and the relationship we have with them, because it's more than just a job here for us. That's how it's always been.”

Besides Chelsea, three of Jalapeños’ staff go back almost 20 years, and the majority have been there for more than four years. When it comes time for a new hire, they are careful to find someone who’s a good fit for the restaurant family, but they are always willing to give people a chance.

Calvin used to come in each week and sit at the bar for a drink and dinner. After some conversation, Chelsea found out he wasn’t getting the hours he needed at Jack in the Box, and was living in a tent out by the frisbee golf course, riding his bike in the snow to and from work. He used a portion of his limited earnings each week for that meal at Jalapeños and some time in the warmth with friendly service. It was the middle of winter, and Jalapeños offered him a job. Shortly after, they helped him find a rental house, paying the money for him to get in, and letting him slowly pay it off from his paycheck little by little.

He started as a dishwasher, and now he washes dishes, busses tables and prep cooks. For Dave and Chelsea it’s an incredible success story and example of the good people who sometimes just need a break. “We feel like it comes back,” explains Dave. If the restaurant ever needs anything, Calvin is there without question. “Being in a position where you can do something like that—you can give people that just need a change, give them a chance—makes us feel really good,” adds Chelsea.

Jalapeños also frequently gives back to the community in different ways—it’s hard to find some cause they haven’t supported. In 2019, Dave and Justin received 167 donation requests—over three a week. They offer their support to as many as possible, in whatever way they can.

Like the staff, Jalapeños’ customers are very loyal and return every week for their favorite item on the menu. A woman and her two sons make the trek out from Deer Park religiously three times a week to eat there, and last Christmas she brought in an envelope of money with $30 for each employee. It's a caring attitude that defines many of Jalapeños’ customers.

“So many of us have worked here for so long and we have so many regular customers—I mean we have people that come in here every single day—that they feel so comfortable with us. It's not like they're just our customers anymore, they're our friends,” says Chelsea.

Head into Jalapeños, and chances are you’ll leave happy and experience great service. From the bussers’ and servers’ smiling faces to Mango’s friendly greeting, it’s a convivial space where everyone feels welcome. Even the resident ghost is friendly.

Yes … ghost. There’s not an employee who hasn’t had some strange interaction with the spirit. From random buckets toppling over, to faucets being turned off, doors swinging when no one is around and the paper towel dispensers in the bathroom motion activating during the dark, closed hours when they’re not in use, it’s obvious it’s not only the guests who love Jalapeños.

So next time you find yourself on 2nd Avenue, head on in, say hello to Mango, saunter up to the bar that Bing Crosby once sat at when it was the Elks, and enjoy some first-class service, delicious eats and a house favorite—the Mexican Painkiller.

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