When Nicole Taranto moved to Missoula from her hometown of Bozeman, opening Montana's only Chinese-style bao restaurant was not a part of the plan. She came here because she wanted to be a journalist. She enrolled at the University of Montana, started taking journalism classes and got a job baking pastries in the University Center. But before long, her plan began to change.
"I really loved my job," says Taranto, now 26, "but I didn't like my classes ... I decided to go to culinary school."
Taranto enrolled in the Culinary Arts Program at Missoula College and began learning the ins and outs of running a restaurant. "It's not just cooking," she says. "We learned about food costs, writing menus, employee management." At Missoula College, she also met Brad Daniel, a Missoula native who had worked in restaurants since he was 15. Like Taranto, Daniel enrolled in culinary school after deciding he wanted a career in the restaurant world. "I got to the point where I wanted more responsibilities in the restaurant," Daniel, 27, recalls. "I just got to that point where you ask, 'Now what?'"
After graduation, the couple talked about opening a restaurant but wanted more experience before taking on the risk. They settled on starting a food cart business, and in late 2013 opened Bao Chow, serving Chinese-style steamed buns and satay.
If you've never eaten at Bao Chow, I might be the wrong person to objectively describe its cuisine—I'm fairly obsessed. The dough is filled with things like teriyaki chicken or barbecued pork and the buns are steamed until the dough is cooked through. When you take a bite, the combination of chewy dough and sweet, salty meat is satisfying in a way that makes most other foods as appetizing as a protein bar. It's the sort of treat that can turn you into a opportunistic eater—when I happen across the Bao Chow cart on a street corner or at a Caras Park event, I'm suddenly hungry.
Hopefully, I won't have to eat like that anymore. In October, Taranto and Daniel announced plans to expand Bao Chow into a brick-and-mortar restaurant. They launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for equipment and are currently working with the University of Montana's Blackstone LaunchPad program—a nonprofit consulting group that mentors new entrepreneurs—to polish a business plan they can present to potential investors.
"Really, this has always been our plan," Daniel says. "Since before we opened [the cart], we've been collecting kitchen equipment. We have three-quarters of what we need for the kitchen already."
But there's still a long way to go. In addition to purchasing the rest of the equipment, they still need to find a suitable location, hire and train a staff, and source ingredients for an expanded menu, which will include, among other things, ramen and potstickers. The couple estimates they'll need to raise about $100,000 before they can begin setting goals for an opening date.
The restaurant industry is notoriously fickle. In 2015, American restaurant sales are projected to top $700 billion, and yet studies have shown that more than half of new restaurants fail within three years of opening. More than two-thirds close within a decade. To the layperson, the formula by which some eateries succeed while others fail can seem like alchemy.
Taranto and Daniel are well aware of the statistics but remain undeterred by the dubious odds. In the day of the celebrity chefs and the ever-expanding world of food media, owning a restaurant is a romantic dream, and Taranto and Daniel know that a business cannot survive on dreams alone.
"Lots of people look at owning a restaurant and assume they can just do it—that they don't need any formal training or industry experience," Taranto says. "They're wrong."
Taranto and Daniel closed the Bao Chow cart for the winter. They're doing some catering on the side and Daniel took a position cooking french fries at a downtown bar ("I'm the canola commander," he says). After they pay the bills, whatever money they make goes toward the restaurant.
Neither Taranto or Daniel comes from a restaurant family, and while they say their parents have always been supportive—Daniel's mom used to peel carrots while his niece washed dishes—it's not without trepidation.
"[They're] scared that we put all this effort into it and it's just going to fail," Taranto says.
But if they share any of that worry, the couple doesn't show it. They talk about the future of Bao Chow with the sort of level-headed confidence that cannot be feigned. Opening a restaurant is a dream they've earned.
"This is always something we wanted to do ... We can make quality food, we can treat our employees well—everything is a stepping stone right now," Taranto says. "This is my fate to end up in food."