STEVENSVILLE - When Mark Stoltzfus received the first phone call about building an Amish-style chicken coop, he didn't interpret the odd query as a niche business opportunity.
As the phone calls continued to trickle in, though, it occurred to him that it was a niche he could fill.
"About three weeks ago people started calling about chicken coops," Stoltzfus said. "They'd seen some of our other structures and asked if we could do coops in the same style."
The "style" he refers to is a traditional, board-and-batten craftsmanship unique to the Amish, and Stoltzfus is something of an expert. That's because he grew up in the rolling hills of southeastern Pennsylvania, in Amish country, where a deeply religious sect of people - including his own family - have been building family heirlooms for more than two centuries.
The Amish are renowned for their old-world craftsmanship, and Stoltzfus found that the style of Dutch Country appealed to western Montanans. His business, West Coast Quality Structures, offers horse barns, garages and garden sheds, all built in the classic, rough-cut Amish style, with authentic pewter door latches and hinges shipped out of Lancaster County, Pa. - the heart of Amish country.
"I grew up Amish," Stoltzfus says. "As soon as I got out of school I started doing barn construction with my dad. This Amish design is hugely popular out here, and that's what sells our buildings. The way we build them is just like they used to make the old barns."
But chicken coops?
"I don't know much about chickens except that they lay eggs and you eat the eggs," he said.
To be fair, Stoltzfus, 33, knows more than he's willing to admit. He knew to design nesting boxes where the chickens lay their eggs, and to build a side entrance with a ramp. The chicken coops also have a roosting bar, and two front windows for ventilation.
A finished chicken coop sitting outside Stoltzfus' shop near Stevensville will be shipped to a customer in Missoula, where in December 2007 the City Council loosened up regulations to allow more hens in the city limits. Another coop was still being built last week and is heading to California.
Shop manager Lee Borkholder, 22, is one of two employees who build the structures for Stoltzfus, and his knack for creating Amish-style buildings is no accident. Borkholder also grew up Amish, and has been working in construction his entire life.
"It's just part of our background," he said. "Ever since you're this tall you know construction, or you learn some trade or skill."
Those skills have come in handy since Stoltzfus opened his business in January 2007, with Borkholder and another builder crafting nearly 100 structures last year.
Stoltzfus says it's unusual for members of an Amish community to strike out on their own, but his family accepted his decision, and his oldest brother is even a partner in the business.
Despite a downturn in the economy, Stoltzfus says he's pleased with the relative success of West Coast Quality Structures, which boasts of "more room, minus the mortgage."
"For just having started the business last year and given the state of the economy, we're really happy with the success of everything," he said. "We're not hiring new employees and branching out, but we're selling structures, and right now that's what counts."