Mobile food trucks finding a market in the valley

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Michael Findley outside his BBQ wagon located in the parking lot of the Blue and White Motel in Kalispell in the 600 block of East Idaho on Tuesday, May 10.  (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

Michael Findley doesn’t quite remember how many years ago he started selling barbecue out of a miniature covered wagon, but he does remember it was the year after the O.J. Simpson car chase. Turns out that was 1995. He was living in San Diego, working his first fairs and fall events.

For the last three of his 21 years as proprietor and restaurateur of Billy Bob’s Chuckwagon Barbecue, Findley has fired up his smoker on U.S. 2 in Evergreen and says he’s living the life. His wagon rests on a main roadway in Kalispell, his camper just 50 feet away in the Blue & White Hotel parking lot.

On a recent Thursday, Findley played a Beach Boys album from a nearby station wagon as he waited for customers. For Findley, living the life means having the freedom to roam and sell barbecue.

“I love doing this,” Findley said. “Just riding the wave of life, directing how I want to live it.”

Findley’s barbecue wagon has sold food in many locales around the country. He began in Southern California, later found a winter haven in Arizona and eventually landed in Montana in 2009. He said coming to Montana presented a few new opportunities in how food trucks operate, including the ability to run an everyday operation in one location. It’s common for food trucks to flock to events or parks throughout the summer season, but Findley said his operation works best while stationary.

“There’s something to be said for being in one spot. It takes days to smoke this meat. At my age, I need to make as much as I can when I’m on the clock,” he said. “Plus, why leave this fishing hole if I’ve already got one?”

Several food trucks have found their own “fishing holes,” in the Flathead and around the country. In recent years, taco food trucks, Greek food trucks and Philly cheesesteak food trucks and several others have all anchored in the area.

Indah Sushi, another Flathead-based food truck, just returned from Arizona in early May.

Stacey Ingham and Tiffany Newman opened the truck for business last summer in Montana and, after some success, took their venture to Arizona for the winter. Food-truck activity explodes during the warm Arizona winters, Ingham said, between food-truck festivals, events, catering and the population that swells in the winter.

“It makes for really learning your operation. It was an awesome experience for us,” she said.

Indah Sushi took on contracts for corporate lunches and participated in the Taste of Phoenix, where thousands of people wander from truck to truck looking for whatever their palette may call for.

Ingham said that to stay competitive in such a dense market means putting out orders in as little as six or seven minutes, while retaining the quality of the food and still providing an atmosphere about the vendor.

“You have to put out a lot of food pretty quickly in order to maximize time. You’re bringing a menu into a place where you can put out the best, most appealing product in a short amount of time,” she said.

After honing their craft in Arizona, Ingham and Newman have navigated the Indah Sushi truck back to Montana for the Whitefish farmers markets on Tuesdays, the Columbia Falls market on Thursdays and several events around the Flathead Valley. Ingham said they’re looking forward to the many events and festivals in the coming months. Since the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce pulled the food truck event from its Feast of Whitefish, the sushi rollers are hoping to formulate their own food-truck festival.

“We’re hoping we can get a coalition of trucks and have a food-truck night,” Ingham said. She said they spoke with other “truckers” last summer about the idea and will begin looking for locations soon. Ingham doesn’t look at a mob of food trucks as competition, but sees an inviting environment that could provide a new dynamic to the Flathead Valley food market.

“People love to be able to go somewhere that one person can get barbecue, another can have sushi and they can sit down together and eat their choices,” she said.

THERE ARE CURRENTLY 82 mobile food vendors registered in Flathead County, according to public health officer Joe Russell. That means food trucks account for about 10 percent of the more-than 800 food purveyors in the county.

All food trucks are required to obtain a state license and be regularly inspected by the respective county. Trucks can travel from county to county without a new registration, Russell said, but trucks should contact their new county health department to stay up to date on the inspection process.

Russell said food trucks are held to the same inspection standard as brick-and-mortar restaurants, but the applicability of the standard is based on how the food is prepared, he said. A food truck that sells items prepared entirely in a kitchen building would have to meet fewer criteria than a truck that prepares and sells its menu from the truck he said, but overall the standards are the same.

“We try to be very accommodating,” Russell said. “We know people make their living selling food. We want them to sell safe food. That’s the provision of working in Flathead County.”

As for the city, food truck oversight falls under the Parks and Recreation Department. Parks Superintendent Fred Bicha said in order to operate a food truck on a city street, the city only requires that they purchase a $50 permit, good for one year.

Other trucks — or wagons in Findley’s case — can operate on private property like a company’s parking lot. Given the allowance to operate everyday, Findley said he’s expecting to staff his barbecue wagon nearly seven days a week during the busy summer in order to eventually get back on the road for some time off.

“Happiness is more important,” Findley said. “The more you work, the more you appreciate the time off.”

Findley hopes to head east to New England in the fall to watch the leaves change color. He’ll spend the fall there before heading to Arizona in the winter, California in the spring and back to Kalispell when the time is right. If there’s one thing Findley likes about the mobile food vendor business, it’s the mobile part.

“I’m just doing a lap of America,” he said. “It’s not about how great of barbecue you have, it’s the whole recipe for success.”

After discussing his plans for traveling the country, Findley filled a to-go box with barbecue beef brisket for the last customer of the day. The Beach Boys faded out on “Kokomo,” just as Findley closed down the wagon for the night.

Reporter Seaborn Larson may be reached at 758-4441 or by email at slarson@dailyinterlake.com.

Findley smokes meat for several days near his mobile vendor, Billy Bob's Chuckwagon Barbecue. (Seaborn Larson/Daily Inter Lake)

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