Bret Ferris of Missoula recently decided to quit his “comfy” full-time job, with its accompanying steady paycheck and benefits, and commit himself full-time to his own entrepreneurial passion – a mobile food truck called Dobi’s Teriyaki.
He sold his old truck and bought a newer trailer and spent all summer remodeling it. It’s a big leap for the UM School of Journalism graduate, but he believes there’s a healthy appetite in Missoula for quick, quality food beyond the sit-down restaurant scene.
Zach Westre, co-owner of Bitterroot Bison Co. in Missoula, also recently decided to put a twist on the farm-to-table concept and started a mobile catering business to offer their grass-fed bison meat in the form of gourmet tacos, chili, burgers and sloppy joes. It’s a pasture-to-food truck business that he believes will find success.
His family has a herd of 108 bison near Lolo to go along with a herd of 60 near the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge near Stevensville.
“People becoming more health-conscious and caring about what they put in their bodies could be the catalyst that brings the bison herds back to where they were 200 years ago,” Westre said.
Ferris and Westre are part of a growing number of mobile food vendors in Missoula County. According to City-County Health Department Records, there are at least two dozen mobile vendors with current licensing. A staff member at the department was unable on Thursday to generate a computer report listing exactly how many there are.
Ferris started out working his food truck in 2014 because he noticed that one of the staples of his childhood diet was unavailable here.
“Growing up in Seattle, I was eating (teriyaki) probably three or four times a week when I was in high school,” he said. “I was pretty disappointed with the teriyaki fast-food options out here. So I went with a food truck on a whim and it became a nice little side business. And just last month I decided to pull the trigger and go at it full-time.”
Ferris has noticed a plethora of new and unique food trucks around town.
“There are new ones popping up all over the place,” he said. “You’ve got Wally and Buck (a gourmet burger food truck in Missoula) – those guys are killing it, too. I want to try Big Thai Country (a new Thai food truck). There’s people with big trucks and people with tiny little pull-behind trailers.”
Ferris said despite some of the things he heard, it wasn’t too difficult to obtain all the business licenses and health permits from the city and the City-County Health Department.
A mobile plan review costs about $250, but applicants also need to pay about $390 for other associated costs. They also need to take a daylong health safety class, which costs $200.
Ferris' most problematic issue has been finding a good spot to park.
“If you were to look at some of the bigger cities that have a bigger food truck populations, they are a lot more lenient with where they are allowed to park and operate,” he said. “Missoula right now, you don’t see any food trucks during the day because they don’t allow us to park anywhere in public parking. Everything has to be on private property, and downtown there’s very limited private property. The El Cazador (Mexican food truck) is the only one that has it off the road.”
Ferris said he would advise anyone who is thinking of getting into the business to be aware of the fact that parking is an issue. In places like Portland, food trucks can be found during the day on many public streets.
“A lot of people do that research and decide they don’t want to do it because of that,” Ferris said. “It’s definitely discouraging that we can’t pull up and park and do kind of a food pod.”
The one-way streets in downtown Missoula also pose a minor but annoying problem, Ferris said, because that means food trucks have to have their window on a certain side of the truck if they want to face the sidewalk. A truck with a food service opening on the right side would be useless on, for example, Main Street.
Ferris said that food trucks also help cut down on the number of intoxicated people with no food in their stomachs.
“It’s super beneficial,” he said. “We’re getting all these drunk kids food in their system. I think we’re helping cut down on drunk driving.”
He marinates his food for a long time before he serves it, and he estimates he goes through 100 pounds of chicken on a busy weekend.
“With the bigger events like Homecoming, we’ll go through 50 pounds of chicken a night,” he said. “We’re real busy from 12:30 until bartime at 2 a.m. Those are the busy nights. The brewfests are pretty big moneymakers, or when there’s a night Griz game in town.”
Westre owns the Bitterroot Bison Co. food truck with his business partner Chris Mack. Westre’s parents, who manage the animals, started out with five bison in 2000 and have grown the herd by leaps and bounds since then. The bison meat industry grew by 22 percent last year to keep up with a rising demand.
“The Wall Street Journal did a huge write-up on bison, and bison meat sales topped $340 million last year (according to the National Bison Association),” he said. “The only thing that held it back was there wasn’t enough supply to meet demand.”
Bison is leaner than beef, and that’s what’s driving the uptick, according to Westre.
“People are starting to be more health-conscious,” he said. “There’s a big health kick coming in.”
His family has been selling burgers from a tent at different events for the past six years, but when Westre moved back from living in Australia last year, his father wanted to expand the business.
“We came up with a food truck,” he said. “We are looking to cater weddings and events and we’ll be at concerts like the River City Roots Festival. Before we actually got to the custom-built trailer, I got a job at Lolo Peak Brewery. We supply them with bison meat and my dad is friends with their head chef. He took me under his wing. All the food we have, I talk with him about the logistics of making the food.”
He’s proud of the fact that his business supports local agriculture, and because the meat doesn’t have to be transported or fed on grain, the process produces less greenhouse gas than the traditional method of raising cattle.
“Raising animals like we do locally really cuts down on emissions a huge amount,” he said. “They’re all grass-fed, all naturally raised, with no nasty stuff.”
People in Montana are generally more accepting of bison meat than elsewhere in the region, Westre explained.
“We’ve gone to events in Washington with 250,000 people and we’ll go there and do all right,” he said. “Then we’ll come to Missoula and do an event with much less people and do 10 times better. People in Montana are way more accepting. It’s a staple item in Montana.”