When you run a farm-to-table restaurant rather than buying canned ingredients in bulk, Mother Nature can literally wreak havoc on your supply line and your plans.
That’s what happened a few weeks ago to Kim West and Kari Brittain, the owners of the brand-new Tia’s Big Sky restaurant at 1016 West Broadway in Missoula.
“The big hailstorm we had knocked holes in the cabbage and the peppers,” Brittain explained. She grows a good portion of the restaurant’s produce in her backyard garden and on her nonprofit farm near Reserve Street.
For the two, sourcing their meats and vegetables locally is not just a public relations stunt, and it’s not just something they do with a few ingredients so they can claim to be “local.”
It’s a mantra they live by, and they’ve sacrificed a lot of time and energy to make their restaurant a direct connection between local agriculture and customers. Everything is made from scratch – from the tortillas to the homemade pozole to the rotisserie organic chicken to the tacos. West has earned a loyal following in Missoula through her Tia’s Tamales food truck, and the new restaurant still has her four flavors of tamales: seven-chile pork, pumpkin, chicken mole and chorizo. They’ve added desserts like tres leches cake and galletas (chocolate chunk cookies) and now offer salads and side dishes like pinto beans with bacon.
West, who is also a ceramic artist, honed her culinary style while living in Costa Rica for two decades and sailing the coast of Mexico.
“I wasn’t a very good cook before that,” she jokes. “But when you live on a sailboat, you have to learn.”
She said it’s been extremely complicated to figure out the logistics involved in making everything from scratch from locally sourced ingredients.
“There’s a reason why people do ‘out of the can’ or ‘out of the package’,” she explained. “It’s a formula. You can count on the cost. We are having to figure it all out. But I really believe that you can taste the difference in our food. Chicken that comes pre-cooked loses its moisture and flavor right away. Our chicken is organic and just has so much more flavor. There’s no preservatives.”
Brittain is in the process of installing a greenhouse so she can continue growing veggies nearly year-round.
Their restaurant is unique to Missoula in many ways. They are hoping to start the city’s first “food truck pod”, a common sight in cities like Portland, where different food trucks gather in a predictable spot so customers have consistency. Already, they’ve attracted one regular: Sonny’s Original Cheese Steaks from Stevensville. They charge a small rental fee, and food trucks will eventually be able to use electricity on site and avoid the hassle of trying to find private parking in different parts of town. Eventually, they are going to install a garden area and perhaps some public art.
Brittain said they didn’t really have time to enjoy the opening of the restaurant earlier this month.
“I don’t think we even had time to even think about it,” she said. “We were learning everything. It was so much energy. It was awesome, but it was nervous energy. You know, when I’m weeding my garden, it’s like therapy.”
The site used to be the location of the well-known Big Sky Drive-In restaurant, which is where the Tia’s Big Sky name came from. The entrepreneurs were able to secure Tax Increment Financing funds from the Missoula Redevelopment Agency to rehab the site, which was abandoned for several years. It sits within Urban Renewal District II, and is part of a portion of West Broadway that has seen a variety of new businesses popping up over the last few years.
Both West and Brittain say that being across the street from the Poverello Center homeless shelter has been a great experience, with some residents even reminding them when they forgot to lock their gates a couple of times.
Going from a food truck to a brick-and-mortar restaurant has been challenging but rewarding, West said.
“You go from preparing for two events a week to being open five days a week,” she said. “We’re not paying ourselves yet, so we’re just living on applause. But once you get a rhythm and everyone’s working together it’s like an opera or a symphony and everybody’s dancing. And it’s fun.”