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A Walk on the Wild (West) Side

An invitation from Firehouse Subs Cofounder Robin Sorensen to visit his Montana ranch proves that some people will go the extra mile for a good meal.

By Tori Phelps | Photography courtesy of Bell Cross Ranch

Honesty is always a good place to start, so here goes: I’ve never been an outdoorsy kind of girl. Vacation, to me, means either exploring a new city or lying on a beach so still that cabana boys must poke me hourly to determine whether I’m still alive. So when the call came, inquiring about my interest in spending a few days on a Montana ranch, my response was a resounding, “Um, sure?”

The purpose of the trip was simple: to familiarize a handful of journalists from across the country with Firehouse Subs’ food and the brand’s nonprofit, Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation. Firehouse Subs cofounder Robin Sorensen didn’t know that I’d added another item to the agenda: to help me understand why, when I told friends and family about the trip, every single one wanted to take my place. In order to ride a horse? To hike a mountain at the crack of dawn?

Okaaay.

A Walk on the Wild West Side, Firehouse subs, Robin Sorensen, Chris Sorensen, Montana
Brothers and Firehouse Subs founders Chris (left) and Robin Sorense
 

Spoiler alert: I get it now.

Day 1: Shotguns, Scenic Views, and Subs

I had arrived at Bell Cross Ranch, a nine-thousand-acre spread in rural Cascade, Montana, late the night before. With just enough time to scarf down a plate of enchiladas the staff had saved for me before falling into bed, it didn’t feel much different from checking into a posh resort.

And then the sun came up.

 

Still groggy from a long day of travel and the time change, my only thought was locating a very large, very strong cup of coffee in the lodge. But sleep deprivation was no match for what greeted me outside my door. Montana is called Big Sky Country, but it’s the land that takes your breath away. The panoramic view seems to stretch on forever, broken up only by mountains that gracefully reach toward that big sky. I wasn’t prepared for the sheer grandeur of a Montana vista, especially before coffee.

Ever the enthusiastic host, Sorensen welcomed the visiting journalists and invited us to dive into a breakfast of huckleberry pancakes, featuring the state’s famed berries. I stuffed myself silly. Don’t judge me. It turned out to be a good thing because we had a packed schedule, beginning with an introduction to some of the animals that call the ranch home.

A Walk on the Wild West Side, Tori Phelps, Bell Cross Ranch, Firehouse Subs
Entrance to Bell Cross Ranch
 
A Walk on the Wild West Side, Tori Phelps, Bell Cross Ranch, Firehouse Subs
Journalist from across the country get familiarized with Firehouse Subs' food and the brand's nonprofit, Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation.
 

The lodge was decorated with elk, wolves, and even mountain lions that had been taken on the property, but we city slickers happily settled for meeting cows, donkeys, horses, and goats. Led by West, one-half of Bell Cross Ranch’s husband-and-wife management team, we cooed over the babies, delighted in stroking soft muzzles, and got sucked into the passion West clearly has for his craft. We had a million questions: How do you keep track of them all? (Electronic ear chips and tags.) How do you control breeding? (Good old-fashioned castration, the by-products of which are then fried up as Rocky Mountain oysters.) Some things we could have remained uneducated about.

Up next was skeet shooting with Firehouse Subs’ CEO, Don Fox, and West, the first activity that factored into the coveted Best Cowboy and Best Cowgirl trophies to be awarded at the end of the visit. I was under no illusion that I would be in serious contention for that award; I just wanted to avoid the decidedly noncoveted Doofus Award, a trophy featuring only the hind end of a horse.

West patiently explained the finer points of skeet shooting to a crew that, for the most part, was as unfamiliar with guns as it had been with ranch animals. I had never even held a gun, let alone fired one, so I opted for the twenty-eight-gauge shotgun, which he said had less kickback than the twelve-gauge. Unfortunately, “less” kickback still translated into a good hard shoulder punch with each shot.

 

Clay pigeons were released from multiple locations: some flying across our field of vision, some coming toward us, some zooming from underneath the platform, and some sailing over the top. “Pull!” was the magic word that released each disk, and, like our confidence, the strength of the command grew as our senses adjusted to the acrid smell of gunpowder, the staccato crack of the shotgun, and the echoes ricocheting off the mountains around us.

First-timers who managed to hit something got a round of applause and congratulatory back slaps (you make friends quickly when there are guns involved—I think it’s evolutionary), while more experienced shooters who turned clay pigeons into dust got reverent “wows” from us Doofus Award contenders.

At noon, we headed back to the lodge for—what else?—a variety of Firehouse subs. Several journalists there (including me) had never tasted Firehouse Subs’ fare, despite there being more than 770 restaurants in forty-one states and Puerto Rico. Even among this group of experienced foodie journalists, you could hear murmurs of surprised appreciation, followed by meticulous deconstruction of the sandwiches to figure out what made them so different. Sorensen saved us some time by breaking it down for us: they source the best-quality ingredients they can find, rather than the most cost effective, and then they steam the meat and cheese together.

 

Sorensen is often asked why Firehouse Subs puts this meaty-cheesy goodness on top of the sub, rather than under the toppings like other sub shops. His answer? The steamer is simply the last stop in the sub-building process. Ergo, the meat and cheese—the reasons you buy the sandwich in the first place—are the first things you bite into. “I didn’t really plan it that way,” he admits in his typically candid manner, “but it’s worked out pretty well.”

You could say that.

A Walk on the Wild West Side, Tori Phelps, Bell Cross Ranch, Firehouse Subs
Photography by Bell Cross Ranch
 

Firehouse Subs was launched in 1994 by Robin and Chris Sorensen, brothers who followed their father, forty-three-year veteran Capt. Rob Sorensen, into firefighting careers. After just a couple of years, however, Robin decided to pursue his passion for food. Chris joined him in launching the company, though he also stayed on with the department for another five years. This lifelong familiarity with the ravenous appetites of public safety workers helped shape the philosophy behind their new sub venture: meat and lots of it.

After we rolled away from the tables, it was time to see more of the ranch. A lot more. If you want to explore these nine thousand acres of mountains and sheer drops, you have two options: horse or Polaris Ranger four-wheeler. I chose the Polaris and a guide who knew what he was doing—Robin Sorensen, himself.

One of ten partners in Bell Cross Ranch, Robin shared his enthusiasm for the land, including the mule deer that played hide and seek with us, and a small natural spring waterfall framed by rocks that had fallen from the surrounding mountains. Who needs to buy stones from Home Depot when you’ve got Mount Cecilia? A Walk on the Wild West Side, Firehouse subs, Robin Sorensen, Chris Sorensen, Montana

 

As we explored more corners of the ranch that afternoon, my fellow passengers and I continued to be struck anew by the scenery: “It looks like a movie,” one journalist remarked. “I keep waiting for a director to yell ‘Cut!’” said another. But after a while, our silence said it all. Even wordsmiths had run out of ways to describe the magnificence of Montana’s landscape. A Walk on the Wild West Side, Firehouse subs, Robin Sorensen, Chris Sorensen, Montana A Walk on the Wild West Side, Firehouse subs, Robin Sorensen, Chris Sorensen, Montana A Walk on the Wild West Side, Firehouse subs, Robin Sorensen, Chris Sorensen, Montana

 

Day 2: Horses, Rescue Boats, and More Subs

Apparently, shooting is the best way to kick off the day in Montana. This morning, it was mounted shooting, which is the fastest-growing equestrian sport. But our first glimpse of it—our instructor, Julie, riding at lightning speed on horseback while firing a single-action Colt .45 at targets—was met with slack-jawed panic when we realized we had to do the same thing. I had enough trouble shooting at a target while standing still, so I didn’t hold out much hope of success while doing it on horseback.

All too soon, I was squeezed into a gun belt pulled can’t-breathe tight. Then I tucked the two Colts into the holsters while giving both the horse and myself a pep talk. We were being timed—this was, after all, the second component in that trophy race—but I didn’t catch my time because I was too busy ruing the balloon targets I had missed and the fact that my run was over. Yep, it was amazing. By the end, every journalist who had thrown a trembling leg over the horse’s back at the beginning was shouting, “Can I do it again?” We were officially under Montana’s spell.

At noon, we tasted another hot specialty sub, as well as a sub from Firehouse’s new under-500-calorie Hearty and Flavorful menu. The new menu, consisting of six subs and four chopped salads, took a year to develop because Robin and his brother insisted that they had to be, well, hearty and flavorful. “A Hook and Ladder without mayo or cheese wasn’t the answer,” he said of the brand’s best-selling sandwich. “Where’s the flavor?”

 

The solution was to trim the bread by a third, swap in light mayo, and pare the cheese down a bit—but keep the same amount of meat. This lower-carb, higher-protein approach is what the market demanded, Sorensen said, admitting that even his own teenage daughter had requested healthier options. Sure enough, she’s become a Firehouse Subs regular again since the Hearty and Flavorful menu debuted in February.

Hunger fully satisfied, we turned our attention to the more serious side of Firehouse Subs: its Public Safety Foundation. The nonprofit arm, founded in 2005, supports first responders and public safety organizations through grants and equipment donation—in a very real way helping frontline workers save lives. It’s a mission the Sorensens grew up with, and they’re determined to sustain this legacy for the millions of first responders who do so much with too little. Since its founding, more than $9 million has been donated to hometown heroes across the nation.

We saw the foundation in action during a rescue boat donation to the Cascade County Sheriff’s Office, which had been dealing with a troubling trifecta: three major navigable rivers, an existing rescue boat on its last legs, and no way to pay for a new one. Until someone remembered that Firehouse might be able to help.

A Walk on the Wild West Side, Firehouse subs, Robin Sorensen, Chris Sorensen, Montana
Shotguns, scenic views, and subs
A Walk on the Wild West Side, Firehouse subs, Robin Sorensen, Chris Sorensen, Montana
A Walk on the Wild West Side, Firehouse Subs, Tori Phelps Bell Cross Ranch
Brothers and Firehouse Subs founders Robin (left) and Chris Sorense
 

Soon, a new rescue boat worth more than $38,000 was sitting in front of the Sheriff’s Office, with deputies, volunteer firefighters, and local search and rescue teams on hand to check out the donation. Considering the frequency with which Cascade County first responders are summoned to perform river rescues—and, sadly, recoveries—as well as evacuate residents during floods, Undersheriff John Stevens’s gratitude was understandable. “You don’t realize what you’ve done for our community,” he said. “We can’t thank you enough.”

 

Despite Sorensen’s “aw, shucks” attitude—he joked that the donation was actually self-serving since his family visits several times a year—he was keenly aware that this boat would likely save lives in the near future. Apparently you can take the sub maker out of the firehouse, but you can’t take the firehouse out of the sub maker.

A Walk on the Wild West Side, Firehouse subs, Robin Sorensen, Chris Sorensen, Montana  

As for me, I discovered that you can take the Midwestern out of this girl—and swap in a little Montana magic. When awards were handed out that evening, I was relieved to escape the Doofus Award. But I was positively shocked to win the Best Cowgirl Award. While I was trying not to shoot myself or anyone else, I’d racked up the best women’s score in skeet shooting and made a respectable showing in mounted shooting. Go figure.

A Walk on the Wild West Side, Firehouse subs, Robin Sorensen, Chris Sorensen, Montana View of Navy Pier Featuring Lake Michigan And The Centennial Ferris Wheel A Walk on the Wild West Side, Firehouse subs, Robin Sorensen, Chris Sorensen, Montana  
A Walk on the Wild West Side, Firehouse subs, Chris Sorensen, Tori Phelps, Montana
Tori Phelps pictured here with Chris Sorensen wins Best Cowgirl Award.
 

While the golden horse statue is a lovely reminder of the trip, the biggest takeaway from my time at Bell Cross Ranch is a thorough appreciation of what my family and friends were trying to tell me. Mother Nature has many glorious incarnations and perhaps, like me, you think you’ve seen her at her best. But maybe—just maybe—you haven’t.

Oh, and shooting at something really is the best way to start the day.

— V —



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