Great Falls, MT: Food Trailers Roll Around Town

By Erin Madison -Tribune Staffer

Brandon Cartwright decided to turn his love of cooking into a career and open a coffee and crepe shop.

But when plans for the coffee shop got delayed and moved and delayed again, Cartwright decided to kick off his business by running a mobile food trailer.

He began selling sweet and savory crepes and gourmet espresso and coffee out of his jet black trailer adorned with a large dog logo in July.

Since then, the Faster Basset wagon has been spotted at Great Falls events, as well as making regular appearances outside the Staybridge Suites, at MSU-Great Falls College of Technology and at Malmstrom Air Force Base.

Cartwright still plans to open a permanent location this spring near the Staybridge, but the trailer helped build a following and get word out about Faster Basset, named after Cartwright’s basset hound, Bea.

“The plan was always to use this as a very strong advertising campaign before the business opens,” Cartwright said.

Food trucks are becoming more common all across the country — The Food Network even featured a show recently called the Great Food Truck Race, where mobile food trucks competed to sell the most food. The nationwide trend is hitting Great Falls, too. Several mobile food vendors are offering their goods to the Electric City — no longer just at events, but on a regular basis at high-traffic locations.

Sean Knox, owner of Big Mouth BBQ, started selling his Texas-style pit-smoked meats out of a trailer in 2001. For about four years he drew crowds every Friday when he ran his trailer just off Exit 0.

“We ran about four years strictly out of the trailer,” Knox said.

In 2005, Big Mouth opened its first building-based location.

Starting the business with a mobile trailer was a great way to build the brand and attract customers with a relatively small investment.

“The food business is really tough to make it in, especially when you dive into a brick and mortar establishment,” Knox said. “Trailers are a great way for people to start.”

Entrepreneurs can get into a food trailer for about $50,000, he said. That’s a lot less than it takes to start a restaurant and gives the owner a chance to get the business established.

While starting a mobile food business is less expensive, it’s not without its challenges.

City code requires that mobile food vendors cannot operate out of the same location more than 20 times in one year or five times a month.

That’s made it difficult for Faster Basset to develop a loyal customer base because for most people, getting morning coffee is very much a routine, Cartwright said. People want to go to the same location every morning.

“It’s hard because we have to move so much,” he said.

Cartwright operates his trailer twice a week near the Staybrigde, but alternates setting up on two different parcels of land. That allows him to be in that area 40 times a year.

He also sells coffee and crepes at Malmstrom Air Force Base twice a week, which isn’t subject to city code.

Knox, who earlier this year was told he couldn’t set up his trailer downtown due to zoning restrictions, hopes the city will loosen the rules on food trucks.

“I certainly hope that we end up getting a little more reasonable policies when it comes to mobile food,” he said.

Knox recently returned from Austin, Texas, which is considered the food truck capital of the country, he said. There you can find food trucks on every corner selling everything from sushi to cupcakes, he said. And they’re a big draw for the downtown area.

Clean operations

In Cascade County, mobile food vendors must be inspected and approved by the City-County Health Department.

Food trailer owners start by submitting a diagram, floor plan and menu to the health department. The department reviews those items to make sure the trailer is equipped with everything needed to sell the food on its menu.

“It all is very specific to what’s provided as far as a menu,” said Sandy Johnson, environmental health manager with the CCHD.

The owners have to have plans on where they’ll get fresh water and where they’ll dump waste water. They also have to have access to a commercial kitchen where they can prepare or store food.

The Health Department inspects each trailer before it goes into operation and inspects them again at least once a year. Officials try to do those yearly inspections when the trailer is operating, Johnson said.

Much easier

Thelma Taggart began selling tamales once a week out of her food trailer on the corner of 6th Street Southwest and 10th Avenue Southwest in April.

She previously ran a restaurant out of the Black Eagle Country Club, but decided to transition to a food trailer instead.

It is something that she and her husband have wanted to do forever, Taggart said.

Taggart offers her tamales, sold by the dozen or half dozen or as a platter with rice and beans out of a church parking lot. She lives across the street from the church, so it’s a convenient location. Taggart sets up shop every Tuesday.

“We just thought tamale Tuesday just kind of sounded good,” Taggart said.

Taggart developed a good customer base and takes orders on days she’s not selling out of the trailer. She plans to close down the trailer for the winter, but hopes to find an indoor location to keep her business going.

Taggart learned a lot from running a restaurant, but prefers the trailer.

“I was married to it (the restaurant),” Taggart said. “This is so much easier.”

Even though Big Mouth BBQ now has a restaurant location, Knox tries to use the trailer as much as possible.

“That’s where my heart is,” he said. “That’s what we love to do.”