It’s a few minutes short of noon, and customers are lining up to place orders at The Hopper Kitchen and Market on Helena’s downtown walking mall, also known as the New York Block. It’s heartwarming to see folks supporting this new eatery owned and operated by Dan and Chelsi Bay. This energetic couple has structured their business to source local products for their kitchen, thus supporting farmers and ranchers in the state, which keeps the money in Montana. Their way of doing business in Montana respects the land and people that make up this great state.
Dan is a sixth-generation Montanan, born in Helena and raised part time on a ranch near Wolf Creek. He claims his romance with restaurants started with his first job as a dishwasher at age 15. Chelsi, also born in Helena, and raised in Spokane, gained a deep appreciation for genuine hospitality while working at various establishments throughout the years. The two would meet while attending college at the University of Montana, where Dan trained at a culinary program run by the university. While in Missoula, Dan gained invaluable experience at Burns Street Bistro under classically trained chefs and learned how to utilize all parts of an animal and produce to avoid waste.
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They spent a season in Vieques, Puerto Rico, where Dan worked as a chef and Chelsi served and bartended. Sourcing local foodstuffs was the norm on this island, between fruits, vegetables, meats and fish. When they moved back to Helena, they established Wolf Creek Catering Company but always hoped for a brick-and-mortar eatery one day. Chelsi took a job with the Montana Department of Agriculture, while Dan divided his time between catering and helping his dad on the family ranch. With the onset of COVID, the catering business came to a grinding halt.
Dan confessed he is “weird about browsing real estate listings.” In the fall of 2020, he said, “I couldn’t sleep after coming across this particular listing on the walking mall.” A call to the realtor got the ball rolling, and by May 2021, renovations were underway at the former yoga/wellness storefront they now owned.
“We saw this as our golden opportunity, to have everything under one roof, as opposed to the catering where we were everywhere.”
A makeover turned the space into a light, trendy eatery. The original terrazzo floor had some holes and cracks. In keeping with the idea that Last Chance Gulch came to life with the discovery of gold, Dan used a gold-metallic resin to patch up the floor. The Hopper opened for business on April 13 of this year. Having a permanent kitchen gives Dan and his Chef de Cuisine Mat Pittman, the space to craft and perfect their recipes.
Dan and Chelsi couldn’t be more excited to join their neighbors in providing a go-to destination for food and drink on Helena’s walking mall. With Ten Mile Creek Brewery, The Hawthorn for wine, Lucca’s for fine dining, Big Dipper ice cream, The Parrot Confectionery for candy, and live music on Saturdays, this downtown location is the place to be in Helena. Outside seating along the block allows customers to pair a microbrew or glass of wine with the food offered at The Hopper.
The Hopper features beef from the Mannix Ranch near Helmville. Partnering with local distributors like Western Montana Growers Co-op and Quality Foods Distributing, this locally owned business incorporates other local providers including Lifeline Dairy and Kalispell Kreamery, Bausch Potatoes, Grains of Montana, Sunflower Bakery, Opportunity Farms, and Resurrection Ranch for their fresh produce. Other proteins such as pork and lamb are sourced from small ranches throughout the state. Whatever isn’t served in the way of meats, such as the bones, is used for stock, soups and sauces. The same goes for vegetable scraps. What remains is turned into compost.
The name, The Hopper, pays homage to gold that was discovered in Grasshopper Creek in 1862, near Bannack, Montana. But it also reinforces the idea that Chelsi and Dan welcome their customers to throw their thoughts about food into the hopper, as the couple is always working on new menu offerings.
When asked to describe their menu, Chelsi used the words fancy and fast-casual dining. One patron calls The Hopper a permanent food truck. The options on the menu have a global appeal, from the Brazil Bowl with Churrasco-marinated Montana grass-fed skirt steak, spiced black beans, chimichurri, pickled shallot, cherry tomato, and avocado crema, to the Bao Bun Tacos, featuring steamed dough, Char Siu barbecue pork, Cantonese slaw, house ketchup, scallions and sesame.
House-made falafel, miso-candied bacon BLT, fried goat cheese, a “huckleburger,” Reuben, and wings that have been brined, crisped and kissed on the grill are showcased on the menu. When asked where he dreams up his dishes, Dan quipped, “I love to travel and then try to bring the flavors and cultures I experience back to the Montana palate.” The daily specials reflect the freshest ingredients that Dan and his team are able to secure.
Poutine is an option, but only if you’re not counting calories. The Hopper’s take on this dish, which history says originated in Quebec back in the late 1950s, is a combo of French fries and Lifeline cheese curds drenched in roasted garlic herb pan gravy and local mushrooms. The Garden Melt utilizes artichoke hearts, confit beets, roasted pepper, pickled shallot and Havarti cheese topped with a creamy cashew basil spread and served on nine-grain bread. For the kids, options include chicken tenders, grilled cheese and grilled Nutella and banana (described as choconutty and bananalicious).
The other component of The Hopper is their small market, featuring Montana-made products such as Timeless Seeds Lentils, Country Pasta, Oil Barn Safflower Oil, Silk Road spices, and honey from Rivulet Apiaries. The dairy case features Vintage Cheese of Montana, Amaltheia goat cheese, Amish butter, Farmer Boy eggs, and pre-made sandwiches and salads. The Bays are continually adding more products for the convenience of customers. A variety of seltzers, ciders and beer, both on tap and in cans, are available to wash down the goodness from the kitchen.
The Bays are keen on leaving a legacy for their young daughter, Basil, to be able to grow up in a Montana we know and love, where people take care of each other. I applaud them for what they are contributing to the Helena community.