Dan and Lisa Williams wanted to break into the coffee business in Billings but were uncertain how.
They checked out a few franchises, and considered a coffee cart, but found them too expensive. Instead, they went a new concept and their own brand — Expresso Brake — and began serving coffee out of a food truck.
That was in late May. Three weeks later, the Williamses are scrambling to keep up with orders, driving their $150,000 retro-fitted 2016 Chevrolet van from the West End to the Heights.
“What we want to have is a set route, (for) people who work in offices or can’t get away. They know where we’re at,” Dan Williams said.
His wife added, “They can depend on us. Monday through Friday, they expect us.”
Expresso Brake is the newest take on the food trucks, a mobile business that’s rising in popularity in the Billings area. Summer is peak time for most trucks, when warm weather and abundant festivals attract the most crowds.
Yellowstone County has 45 “mobile food establishments,” according to Marilyn Tapia of RiverStone Health, which regulates food servers.
The agency doesn’t track yearly stats of food trucks, but Tapia noted they have been “definitely growing” in the past few years.
Customer interest is growing, too. About 6,000 people are now members of a Facebook group called Billings Food Truck Tracker, which was formed two years ago to help hungry diners find the trucks.
The group, founded in 2014 by self-professed foodie Russ Morris, also has a website and tracks 21 food trucks in Billings and Laurel. People frequently post on the Facebook page wondering where the trucks are.
Many operators are hoping to launch their brand with the food truck, then open a brick-and-mortar shop with a built-in customer base.
“We’ve had pretty good business. We’ll probably do better business when we’re in a permanent location,” said Scot Ireton, co-owner of the Sandee’s food truck.
Ireton and his wife, Jennifer Ireton, launched the business in May. Jennifer Ireton’s parents, Carm and Shirley Hampton, were the original owners of the Sandee’s hamburger stand on Billings West End, and the Iretons were hoping to capitalize on the nostalgia for the greasy food.
So far, it’s been a hit, and Ireton said the couples have secured a lease to move into the former Domino’s pizza spot at 520 Wicks Lane in the Heights, near the lot where they normally park their truck.
He added that he’s unsure of an opening date because the Iretons are focused on the busy summer food truck season.
A food truck turned out to be a good option to ease into the restaurant business in Billings, Ireton said. Die-hard customers make the effort to find Sandee’s, which Ireton expects will translate to his permanent location. The food truck has also taught them about the business before making a larger investment, he added.
“We have learned a lot,” Ireton said.
Ashley Robichaux, owner of Cajun Phatty’s, said she’s happy to see more food truck opening in town and adding to the culture.
Cajun Phatty’s was one of the first trucks to open two years ago, and Robichaux said more businesses in town are welcoming them.
The truck is a regular at High Plains Brewing in Laurel, and Robichaux said other breweries — particularly those that don’t serve food and offer parking — are popular places for the trucks. (One is usually parked at Canyon Creek Brewery on Billings West End. The lot between Angry Hank’s and Thirsty Street is also a hot spot.)
“We’re really excited about all the new trucks, and we’re hoping for a more diverse group to come in. The more that the food trucks are out, the more people are going to want to visit the food trucks,” Robichaux said.
Cajun Phatty’s moved into a brick-and-mortar location for about a year on First Avenue North, but the spot didn’t work out, Robichaux said. Like other operators, Robichaux wants a permanent location, but she’s keeping the food truck feel.
Details haven’t been nailed down, but Robichaux is working to buy a larger trailer that would remain in one spot. She’d keep using her current trailer for her catering business.
“The trailer is more flexible, and it’s a lot more fun,” said Robichaux, who helped open multiple restaurants in her native Louisiana as a consultant.
“You can do whatever it is you want. You can be creative, have a smaller menu. You’re always around people. People are just happy all the time,” she added.
That’s what the Williamses are discovering at Expresso Brake. The truck is popular with small offices, and the couple is trying to nail down the most efficient route to cover the whole city.
“You pull up in front of a place, and you see people coming from somewhere else,” Dan Williams said.
The two still have other jobs. Lisa works in accounting, where she has more time after the tax season, and Dan is a manager at a building supply company.
If all goes well, Expresso Brake could find a permanent home, but the Williamses are also excited about potentially franchising to other cities. They own the rights to the name and the logo.
The biggest challenge of a food truck is people finding where they are, Dan Williams said. Most order by phone at 406-839-HOST (4687), text messages, or through the shop’s Facebook page.
“We can provide a service that nobody else is doing,” he said.