Following Food Trucks
They are all the rage, popular on a number of TV shows, and taking over cities across the country. Bozeman even boasts a few. Food trucks are the fastest growing segment of the dining industry, and they can be found just about anywhere. Cities all over the U.S. have struggled to regulate these mobile, gourmet kitchens and Bozeman is no exception. Last summer, the regulation of food trucks was a popular, and occasionally heated, topic amongst members of the downtown business community.
Nearly one year ago, the Bozeman City Commission asked city staff members to outline regulations for the food trucks that had started pulling into downtown. Owners of brick-and-mortar restaurants were concerned about these new and unregulated competitors. To open a food truck in Bozeman requires an inexpensive business license from the city and an inspection from the health department. Then, food trucks are free to park where they choose, as long as they observe the City of Bozeman parking limits and posted signs. Technically, nothing is stopping them from setting up shop in front of an open restaurant during the dinner rush.
While no laws prevent food truck owners from parking near open restaurants, something else does. Call it an appreciation for fellow business owners, respect for a thriving downtown that can support a variety of businesses, or just a desire to be nice; in the past year, most local food truck owners have not opened their trucks in front of restaurants during business hours. Resources in the city offices are tight, and developing food truck regulations has not been a top priority, but despite the lack of established rules, food truck owners are slowly finding their niche and doing their best to stay off the toes of other restaurant owners.
Jay Blaske owns Tumbleweeds Gourmet Food Truck, and describes the general attitude of local food truck owners when he explains, “I avoid downtown, and don’t open in front of restaurants serving food. I am not trying to go downtown and poach anyone’s customers or steal anyone’s business.” Food truck owners in Bozeman are a tightly-knit group. Some of them are working with the city, the Downtown Bozeman Partnership, and other local business owners to establish food truck regulations that are fair for all involved.
Ellie Staley, program director for the Downtown Business Partnership, insists that the issue is no longer a contentious one. Owners of both food trucks and brick-and-mortar restaurants all feel that some structure for the food truck industry would be beneficial. The working group established by the city is attempting to draft regulations that protect everyone’s rights to conduct business. However, these policies may not be completed by this summer because, “we want to get it right,” Staley explained.
In the meantime, food trucks in Bozeman are thriving while established restaurants don’t seem to be suffering for it. In fact, local food trucks are so popular at local events that most of them don’t have time to serve food downtown. Some trucks open on Main Street to serve the late-night crowd after restaurant kitchens close on Friday and Saturday nights. Otherwise, you’ll have to look elsewhere for your food truck fix.
It’s the call of the open road and the freedom of business ownership that attract most food truck operators. That is what inspired Nic Bryce, owner of Rendezvous food truck, to buy an old paddy wagon from the Bellingham, Washington police department and devote hundreds of hours to converting it into a mobile kitchen. Now affectionately named Patty, the Rendezvous food truck takes Bryce all over the area during the summer months. Like many of the food trucks, he is at Bozeman’s farmers markets; at the Fairgrounds on Saturday mornings and in Bogert Park on Tuesday evenings. He also heads over the hill to the Livingston farmers market every Wednesday night, and this might be his favorite stop. “I get to cook gourmet food by the river for people who are having fun in a park,” Bryce explained. The freedom to choose what he serves (more than half his ingredients come from local sources), and where he serves it, makes all of his efforts worthwhile.
However, this freedom to move can make food trucks hard to find. Bryce and other food truck owners recommend following their businesses on Facebook and Twitter. They use social media to keep their foodie fans aware of their current location. Some trucks have more permanent locations than others do. During the winter months, Bryce serves gourmet crepes and coffee at the Panda/Sinclair station on Bridger Drive. Skiers headed to Bridger Bowl can grab a fresh and delicious breakfast or lunch on their way to the mountain.
Heap Burger, L.L.C.
When the Heaps moved to Bozeman with their bright red food truck, they envisioned going to a new location every day, but quickly found out that “people like knowing where to find us,” according to co-owner Athlene Heaps. Her husband, Jonathon Heaps, went to culinary school in Portland, Oregon, where food trucks are wildly popular. They decided to bring the concept to Montana, but found it was difficult to park their large bus in a small town. They found a semi-permanent spot at 1714 North Rouse, and leave only to cater special events. Generally, they serve lunch Monday through Wednesday, and lunch and dinner on Thursday and Friday.
As their name implies, they serve burgers. However, a Heap Burger is not just a typical burger. The Heaps grind their burger meat fresh daily and make their own potato chips. Gourmet burger selections include a fajita burger smothered in pepper jack cheese and fresh peppers, onions, and pico de gallo, or a hot Hawaiian burger topped with fresh pineapple, jalapenos, sweet chili sauce, and cheddar cheese. The Heaps change their specials regularly to keep their menu exciting.
Tumbleweeds Gourmet on-the-go
Tumbleweeds owner, Jay Blaske, likes to change his menu regularly as well. He specializes in tacos; gourmet tacos filled with a variety of meats, cheeses, beans, and veggies all with homemade sauces like Blaske’s Sriracha crema. He loses sleep over ensuring that all his food is fresh and made to order. “It’s a rough gig, but it is fun to do,” Blaske said as he described his schedule for a recent Friday. He was up at 6 a.m. to prep lunch for the teachers at Sacajawea Middle School. After finishing his lunch service, he began prepping the food he planned to serve to the late-night bar crowd. He expected to return home by 4 a.m. exhausted, but happy to have the opportunity to make a living doing something he loves.
Although the presence of food trucks in Bozeman has been a somewhat polarizing issue, it doesn’t need to be, according to Blaske. Bozeman has plenty of eager, sophisticated, and adventurous diners to go around. Tumbleweeds, Rendezvous, and Heap Burger are all so busy this summer that they have started referring work to each other. “There is an obvious demand, a thriving demand, for food trucks here,” Blaske said. Downtown’s parking limits and tight parking spaces make it difficult for food trucks to operate on Main Street, which seems to be keeping the peace until specific regulations are set by the city. Special events, fairs, and festivals keep the local food trucks busy, and provide a niche for these entrepreneurial eateries.
To find the food trucks mentioned in this article, visit their Facebook pages:
Sarah Cairoli is hungry; she’s going to find a food truck. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.