In 2012, Kendall Rogers and Mike Robinson built a pedal-powered cart that housed a commercial refrigerator, a hand-washing sink, cabinets for storage and a two-ton brick pizza oven. Calling themselves Clove Cart Pizza Peddlers, they planned to pedal the cart around town, selling handmade and freshly baked pies at the Clark Fork Market and elsewhere. The plan seemed complete, save for one hiccup: they couldn’t find a Missoula City-County Health Department-approved kitchen in which to prep their food and wash their dishes.
“It was a month before farmers market started, and I still hadn’t found my commissary,” Rogers says. “And it was just crazy, because you get your cart all established and then you realize all the rules and regulations, and that’s a whole other ball of wax. I guess I made an assumption that it would be easy in this town, but it really wasn’t.”
The health department’s regulations for wholesale food manufacturing—the umbrella under which Clove Cart and other street-food and market vendors fall—are thorough, to say the least. For example, ventilation hoods must be placed over nearly all heat-producing units. Sinks must be reserved for specific purposes, such as vegetable cleaning. Only established commercial kitchens can meet these kinds of stringent requirements, and when Rogers was starting her cart, those were difficult for small vendors to access. Rogers found one available in a restaurant, but only during its late-night or early morning off hours.
“I was at a crossroads,” Rogers says. “By the end of last year, I needed to figure out how I was going to increase my business and meet all the [health department] rules.”
The solution emerged in September 2013 when Erin Horner rented space in the Holiday Village strip mall on Brooks Street and opened Mama’s Pantry Commercial Kitchen, a health department-approved community kitchen designed specifically with small vendors in mind. With the May 3 opening of the Clark Fork Market and the Missoula Farmers Market beginning its season on May 10, a wave of established vendors like Rogers are now reserving time in the relatively new community kitchen. Horner says she’s also getting regular calls from people hoping to launch new food businesses during Missoula’s busy market season.
“It’s really neat to have people call that just woke up this morning and went, ‘I love to make this. I wonder if everyone else would like to try it?’” Horner says. “It’s great to get those calls. We get them on a daily basis. But there is a process—and sometimes, depending on what you’re making, the process can be long.”
Horner is intimately familiar with the challenges inherent in that process. She’s sold homemade jams and jellies at the Clark Fork Market since 2006 and her own experiences helped inspire her to open Mama’s Pantry.
“About two years ago we started hearing some of the vendors down at the market that were saying, ‘We don’t think we’re going to be able to keep coming back. We don’t have a kitchen available to us. We can only get in after midnight.’ And this, that and the other,” Horner says.
Last year, Horner decided to start selling her Mama’s Pantry brand of products in stores, which meant she too would need to find a commercial kitchen to use. While she considered building a private kitchen for her production, she decided instead that a shared space would both defray her costs and provide a much-needed resource for others in Missoula’s growing street- and market-food community.
A series of restaurants had previously occupied the space Horner chose for Mama’s Pantry, so the infrastructure—as well as some of the equipment—she needed was already in place. Even so, Horner invested heavily to purchase new prep tables, a mixer, a freezer and other supplies. After receiving approval from the health department, Horner began using the kitchen herself and renting it out to others on an hourly basis. Among her first renters were Nicole Taranto and Bradley Daniel, who were in the process of launching a food cart called Bao Chow, which offers steamed Asian buns.
“Erin was really good about working with us on a price when we first started, because she knew it was hard for us to afford full price,” Taranto says. “So, she’s kind of been a godsend in helping us get going.”
While the commercial kitchen struggled during the slow months of its first winter in business, it survived by diversifying. In addition to food vendors like Bao Chow, caterers rented Mama’s Pantry before major events, and social workers used the space to teach cooking skills to their clients. As use of the kitchen—and inquiries about its availability—increases with the start of market season, Horner faces a new challenge: accommodating everyone who wants to use it.
“We won’t turn people away,” Horner says. “No way. If you have something you want to make, that’s what we’re here for. We’ll work through it. We’ll figure something out.”