As the season for food trucks reaches its peak, a new Vietnamese and Southeast Asian food truck is coming to Helena and an existing vendor is expanding to a full restaurant.
The owner of the Waffle Wagon food truck is expanding to open a full restaurant on 6th Street in the old Cielo location.
Claire Bischoff has operated a food truck since May of 2016 although the short season and a limited customer base forced Bischoff, a professionally trained pastry chef, to keep a second job. But a determination to be her own boss and having a year-long income encouraged Bischoff to take a second risk and open the restaurant. Nosh Cafe will serve breakfast and lunch five days a week while the Waffle Wagon food truck will operate mostly at events.
There are 26 licensed mobile food vendors in Helena according to the Lewis and Clark County Health Department. In larger cities, or even college towns in Montana, food trucks have a predictable weekend crowd. They can park in a downtown location late at night and have plenty of business once the bars close. Bischoff said vendors in Helena don’t have that same exposure. While the Waffle Wagon is successful at bigger events like brew fests and Alive at Five, Bischoff said setting up daily doesn’t always pay off. Food trucks also have to go through a sometimes lengthy permitting process and navigate where they can park.
When Bischoff bought an empty shell of a truck in 2015, she quickly realized the process to get licensed can be difficult to navigate. She also had to find a place to park the truck and often pay fees to do so, use social media to make sure customers knew where to find the truck and follow health department rules requiring her to rent a commercial kitchen for food prep.
Although business in Helena is good, it isn’t good enough to get by on only a few months of income. While Bischoff was building a catering and special events addition to her business, she said she thinks it would have taken three or four years before the Waffle Wagon was sustainable.
“It would be dicey if I wouldn’t of gotten this space,” she said.
While opening a restaurant has its own challenges, Bischoff will be her own boss with the potential of a consistent income. When she saw Cielo was closing, she reached out to the owner who said the space would be perfect for her. The landlord of the building happened to love the Waffle Wagon’s food and offered her the space.
“I’ve always thought this space would be ideal,” she said.
Now Bischoff is working to establish a customer base in her brick and mortar building, expand her menu to appeal to more people and choose the right hours of operation to be efficient.
Nosh Cafe had a soft opening with limited hours for a week, but will regularly open for breakfast and lunch from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. In addition to Waffle Wagon favorites like chicken and waffles, the menu includes sandwiches, toast and salads. Bischoff is serving coffee from Black Coffee Roasting Company in Missoula.
While a food truck alone didn’t make sense for Bischoff, some see it as a way to dip their toes into the food industry. Rachel Conn started bringing her new Vietnamese and Southeast Asian food truck, Saigon Alley, to events last week. Conn said she thinks opening a food truck is less risky, at least initially, than opening a restaurant.
“I’d been bouncing back a few different ideas about what would be the best entry route into the cooking world on my own,” she said. “I thought that the food truck is a really good option because you don’t own a building. You’re not as financially at risk.”
Conn cooked in professional kitchens for years, but took time off to pursue other interests. Now she’s looking forward to flexibility and a nontraditional kitchen.
“In a lot of kitchens you’re under these fluorescent lights and you don’t know what the weather is like,” she said.
Conn quit her other job to get her truck started, but said she’ll probably have to pick up a job in the winter. She hopes to eventually have a sustainable catering business and online ordering and delivery service to keep Saigon Alley in business all year.
“You have a lull in the winter where you really can’t serve outside or people don’t want to come and stand by your truck,” she said. “But then we just have to be innovative business makers at that point.”
Saigon Alley is initially offering an abbreviated menu, but will expand throughout the summer.
“Because my attention span is short and I love food from around the world, I’m kind of reserving the right to have a wanderlust special which could be from an entirely different place,” she said.
People can find out where the Waffle Wagon and Saigon Alley will be parked by checking their Facebook pages. Cafe Nosh is located at 105 E. 6th Ave.