As spring slowly warms to summer, an increasing number of food trucks are on the prowl for hungry customers.
Last year the Flathead Valley boasted a formidable variety of fare served up from mobile vendors. Thai, American barbecue and Hispanic food all could be found out and about, wherever the crowds congregated.
This year, the offerings have expanded even further. The Flathead City-County Health Department said it currently has approximately 90 permitted mobile food vendors, a number that has been growing steadily over the last several years.
Tony Traina owns one of food carts that will debut here this spring. His love of mobile food vendors was born years ago when he was living in Seattle and would make frequent trips down to Bend, Oregon, to visit friends. He was always floored by the spectacular selection of interesting cuisine provided by carts, and the cheaper prices that often accompanied them, too.
He’s been working as a chef in the Flathead Valley for most of the last decade, and has been seriously mulling the option of opening his own food truck here for four to five years. Traina finally saved up what he thought was enough money and came across a used truck that would serve his purposes well. The four-wheeled vehicle formerly known as Wrap and Roll will now house and transport Fork in the Road, in which Traina will serve up dishes made almost entirely from locally sourced products.
He said his new venture will be guided by the belief that good food doesn’t have to be complicated, so long as it is made with love and sourced responsibly.
NATIONWIDE, THE food-truck industry has been growing for some time. Many major urban centers boast hundreds of carts, but even in more rural areas such as Montana, they are beginning to take hold.
Media accounts of restaurant owners complaining about food carts stealing their business are well-chronicled. Research from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, however, shows that areas with a surging food-cart market also experience strong growth in the traditional brick-and-mortar restaurant sector.
Between 2010 and 2016, the food-truck industry in Salt Lake City grew by over 400 percent, according to bureau statistics. In the same time-frame, the restaurant industry also grew 20 percent.
Food trucks and brick-and-mortar restaurants have ridden the same tide of a strong economy without detracting from each other in other places, and local food-truck owners Ryan Garnache and his wife feel the same thing can happen here.
Garnache runs Knucklehead BBQ, which can often be found parked outside of Sunrift Beer Co. on Saturdays and will be in front of Bias Brewing when it opens later this year.
Garnache has smoked his own meat for years, and eventually he decided he needed to find a way to get more of those meats to consumers.
“I think I made a little over 1,000 pounds of sausage last year, so I figured I better make something commercial out of it,” Garnache said.
Opening his own food truck made sense, as does positioning himself outside of breweries, a common strategy for mobile-food vendors in the Flathead.
State law keep breweries from also operating commercial kitchens without the proper permits, so having a food cart parked outside can be a symbiotic relationship for each business owner without preying on customers that would otherwise patronize full restaurants.
Garnache said he even picked up some business strategies from craft brewers, particularly the rotating seasonal menu options that keep customers coming back frequently.
“I think it’s a great concept,” he said. “It keeps people interested and coming back week after week instead of every other month or something like that.”
Knucklehead BBQ has some mainstay menu items, but also other items that come and go as supplies run out.
FORK IN the Road had its grand opening outside Kalispell Brewing Co. on May 19. It will operate primarily on weekends, and will oftentimes be found outside Kalispell Brewing. Like many food-cart purveyors, Traina still works during the week at another day job, cooking for GreenGo’s Homemade Meals on the Run in Whitefish.
Traina said the experience of getting a food truck has been mostly positive, but it was a lot harder than he thought. He said he didn’t cross his absolute maximum budgeting threshold when building his truck, but went far above his initial estimated budget.
He said the notion that opening a food truck is cheaper than opening a small restaurant is a misnomer in a lot of situations, because many of the standards that commercial kitchens are held to that require expensive equipment apply to food trucks as well.
He also said the city of Kalispell has been very helpful through the process, with health inspectors offering helpful insight into how best to equip the truck and planning officials telling him which parts of the city were available for him to park, cook and serve.
This year he plans to limit his business to various points in Kalispell, but in future years would like to expand his permits to include Whitefish and Columbia Falls.
He said he just missed the deadline to apply for spots at farmers markets in each town, which is a great place to see the selection of mobile vendors the valley has to offer. He said customers will see him there in years to come. His goal is to get one of his sandwiches on the Daily Inter Lake’s Best of the Flathead lists in the next few years.
Reporter Peregrine Frissell can be reached at (406) 758-4438 or firstname.lastname@example.org.