Keeping it Local: Red Rooster Kitchen cooks up specialty goodies all year long

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Photo And Story By Jaci Webb Of The Laurel Outlook
Thursday, December 23, 2021
Donna Godwin and her son Chris Benefield, who co-own the Red Rooster Kitchen, expanded the Laurel business to include a retail store two years ago.

Donna Godwin and her son Chris Benefield, who co-own the Red Rooster Kitchen, expanded the Laurel business to include a retail store two years ago.

Speciality jellies and jams feature “skirts” that make them unique.

Speciality jellies and jams feature “skirts” that make them unique.

You would have to look far and wide this holiday season to find a 70-year-old business owner who loves her job more than Donna Godwin, who co-owns Red Rooster Kitchen with her son Chris Benefield.

Just a week before Christmas, Godwin and Benefield were busy cooking up a batch of one of their 32 different jams and jellies, decorating cutout cookies, and making it all look effortless – even fun. Godwin said she tried to retire once after selling her Billings Red Rooster Café when she was in her mid-60s, but retirement didn’t suit her.

“I don’t really know what retirement looks like,” Godwin said. “You can only clean your house so many times.”

When she first opened the Red Rooster Kitchen seven years ago at 401 E Main St. in Laurel, the plan was to just make jellies and jams. But Godwin couldn’t resist baking up a few of her specialty baked goods like scones and caramel rolls. She also leases space in her commercial kitchen, but currently has no available space.

While many businesses have struggled during the pandemic, Godwin said her business is thriving. Her first wholesale customer was a Laurel coffee kiosk.

“Heidi from Heidi’s Coffee Cabin was our first customer. Then the owner of Java Down Under in Billings tried one of our scones she got at Heidi’s. She flipped it over to see who made it, and she became our second customer.”

One of the most important customers to come on board was Glacier National Park, which buys more than 6,000 jars of jelly and jam to sell in their gift shops. Her specialty jellies and jams are also available at Ace Hardware stores across Montana. An extra touch Godwin adds to the halfpint jelly jars is what she calls a skirt – a little fabric frill that fits between the lid and the jar.

“That’s what separates me from everybody else – the skirt. They buy it for the skirt, but the second time they buy it is for what’s inside.”

Most jams and jellies sell for $8.50 per half pint, but huckleberry goes for $11 and Flathead cherry products sell for $10 per half pint. Picking chokecherries during the summer months takes up a fair amount of weekends for Godwin and Benefield and all the friends they can recruit. Chokecherries cannot be grown and sold commercially, but rather they are picked in the wild. Another must-have local item is rhubarb. Godwin will knock on doors during the summer months to ask if she can harvest someone’s backyard rhubarb.

“Most people just say, ‘Go ahead and take some. I always pay them back with some jelly,” Godwin said.

Godwin also bakes three kinds of bread – honey wheat, peasant bread and sourdough. The peasant bread is by far the most popular, Godwin said. People like that it has no milk or eggs in it.

It’s an old-fashioned, dense bread that works great for making French toast or grilled cheese sandwiches, Godwin said.

“I had a guy come in here to buy bread because he said he’s tired of eating Sweetheart. I didn’t have any to sell him, but we’ll get to baking more after Christmas.”

Godwin grew up in Denver, Colo., and moved to Montana with her husband David and their five children when a mine closed in Golden, Colo. David went to work at Stillwater Mine and Godwin bought the Apple Village in Columbus in 1991. Her father had been a cook and her mom was a waitress, and they convinced Godwin to go into the restaurant business.

“When you’re in the restaurant business, you’re in it for life,” Godwin said.

Benefield was working at a high-end bistro in Detroit when his mom opened Red Rooster Kitchen. She talked him into joining her, and he said he was happy to leave the stress behind him.

Mother and son keep up a steady light-hearted banter during the workday.

“I’m happy to come to work every day,” Godwin said.

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