What would happen if you combined the pop-up shop phenomena with the food truck concept?
You might get a whole lot of cool, and you might also get Dish-Ability.
Dish-Ability is the brainchild of the Silver Bow Developmental Disability Council, Inc. — a Butte organization that advocates for the health, safety and independence of individuals with developmental disabilities.
The council launched Dish-Ability last summer primarily as an ice-cream food truck, but Todd Hoar, director of the council, said the organization has much bigger aspirations for the truck.
The organization bought the truck last year using money from Butte-toberfest, which the council puts on each October as a fundraising event. The idea behind the project, Hoar said, is to provide work-training and employment opportunities for the council’s disabled clients and to raise money for the organization.
So far the truck has served up mostly ice cream, but earlier this month the council tried something new: it partnered with Montana Tech student Giao Hoang, who converted the kitchen-on-wheels into a Vietnamese food truck during the Uptown Butte Christmas Stroll.
“It’s meant to be an inclusive opportunity,” said council board member Cassie Wick, noting that the council also wants to use Dish-Ability as a stepping-stone for prospective entrepreneurs.
Similar to a pop-up shop, the council plans to periodically host food vendors in the truck, who will be encouraged to donate a portion of their sales to the council, enlist its disabled clients to help with serving and the food prep and pay them for their work.
Food prep for Dish-Ability will take place in the council’s kitchen, Wick said, inside its headquarters at 305 W. Mercury Street. The council opened the kitchen in 2014 after converting a handball court into a five-station teaching kitchen using money from the Butte-toberfest fundraiser. In addition to providing work training, the kitchen also provides the council’s clients nutrition skills, according to Butte-toberfest website.
“Giao is really the first person to put (the idea) into action,” said Wick, who is also an independent-living specialist at the Montana Independent Living Project.
Wick said she and Hoang have been friends for some time, and that the Tech student often made authentic Vietnamese food for the Wick household. A meal between friends soon became a conversation about the possibility of Hoang making her food commercially, Wick said.
“It’s just so good,” said Wick.
Wick said people in the food-service industry can sometimes be hesitant about serving diverse options because of a perceived risk. But the turnout during the Christmas Stroll might just put those hesitations to rest.
Hoang said over the course of three hours she sold about 150 bowls of phở, a traditional Vietnamese soup containing meat, rice noodles and herbs, and that she was able to donate 10 percent of her sales to the council. Bánh bao, a steamed, meat-filled bun, was also served, Hoang said.
The Dish-Ability crew was a little behind schedule when they at last opened the doors of the truck. Before they had even arrived, a line had formed behind the truck consisting of Butte residents eager to try the new cuisine.
“It’s an experiment. And it seems to be popular,” said Dish-Ability volunteer Russell O’Leary, perhaps a bit nervous at the prospect of having to serve the crowd that had gathered.
Hoang, a ceramicist who’s pursuing a bachelor’s in metallurgical and materials engineering at Montana Tech, said working the Christmas Stroll brought back memories of growing up in Minneapolis and attending the Minnesota State Fair.
"My experience with the Minnesota State Fair has created this nostalgia for standing in line, checking out the latest and greatest food item on a stick," Hoang said, laughing.
"There's something fun about the anticipation of waiting in line for the food truck, watching people prepare it and also seeing what's available," she said.
Hoang, whose family immigrated from Vietnam to the United States in the 1990s through a refugee program, said phở and bánh bao are foods she grew up with, and so she was happy residents were willing to stand in line for something that for some may have been off the beaten path.
WHAT THEY SAID
Trish Robinson and her daughter Brylee Peters, 18, and son Trey Peters, 18, were at the head of the line for the Dish-Ability truck.
“We watch the food channel all the time,” said Robinson, who described her family as a group of “foodies.”
Sandy Van Zyl and Tim Christensen, Butte pastors, also came out for the stroll.
“We’re friends with Giao on Facebook” said Van Zyl, explaining that the Tech student posted a survey online to see if residents were interested in phở.
“I said yes, yes, a thousand times yes,” said Van Zyl.
As for Hoang, who was also the face behind Butte's recycling program in its early days and the Empty Bowls fundraiser, she’s got a lot on her plate.
She says she wants to keep pursuing ceramics and engineering and she’s going to take the summer to think about what a future might look like cooking her recipes commercially. She may continue working with Dish-Ability this summer, she said, and is exploring hiring someone through the council to help with the food prep.
“This is kind of for me a way to gauge the feasibility,” said Hoang.
But it’s also about the people.
“The program is very beneficial to people who need work,” she added.