DONNIE SEXTON The last best records
It’s almost noon and customers are lining up to place orders at The Hopper Kitchen and Market in Helena’s Downtown Walking Mall, also known as the New York Block. It is heartwarming to see people supporting this new restaurant owned and operated by Dan and Chelsi Bay. This energetic couple has structured their business to source local produce for their kitchen, supporting farmers and ranchers in the state that keeps the money in Montana. Your way of doing business in Montana respects the country and the people who make up this great state.
Dan is a sixth-generation Montanan, born in Helena and raised part-time on a ranch near Wolf Creek. He claims his romance with restaurants began with his first job washing dishes at the age of 15. Also born in Helena and raised in Spokane, Chelsi acquired a deep appreciation for genuine hospitality over the years while working at various establishments. The two met while attending the University of Montana, where Dan was training at a university-led culinary program. During his time in Missoula, Dan gained invaluable experience at Burns Street Bistro under classically trained chefs and learned how to utilize and produce all parts of an animal to eliminate waste.
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They spent a season in Vieques, Puerto Rico, where Dan worked as a chef and Chelsi served and bartended. Sourcing local groceries was the norm on this island, between fruits, vegetables, meat and fish. When they moved back to Helena they started Wolf Creek Catering Company but always hoped to one day have a traditional restaurant. Chelsi took a job with the Montana Department of Agriculture while Dan divided his time between catering and helping his father on the family ranch. With the outbreak of COVID, the catering business ground to a halt.
Dan confessed that he’s “strange about browsing real estate listings.” In the fall of 2020, he said, “I couldn’t sleep after coming across this particular listing at the mall.” A call to the agent got the ball rolling, and by May 2021, renovations were underway on the former yoga/spa storefront at the gears they now possessed.
“We saw this as our golden opportunity to have everything under one roof as opposed to catering where we were everywhere.”
A renovation transformed the space into a bright, trendy eatery. The original terrazzo floor had some holes and cracks. In keeping with the idea that Last Chance Gulch came to life with the discovery of gold, Dan used a gold metallic resin to patch the floor. The hopper opened on April 13 of this year. A fixed kitchen gives Dan and his chef Mat Pittman the space to create and perfect their recipes.
Dan and Chelsi couldn’t be more excited to join their neighbors in creating a food and drink hub at Helena’s Walking Mall. With Ten Mile Creek Brewery, The Hawthorn for wine, Lucca’s for fine dining, Big Dipper ice cream, The Parrot Confectionery for candy and live music on Saturdays, this downtown location is the ideal spot in Helena. Outdoor seating along the block allows customers to pair a microbrew or glass of wine with the food on offer at The Hopper.
The Hopper features beef from Mannix Ranch near Helmville. This locally owned business works with local distributors such as Western Montana Growers Co-op and Quality Foods Distributing and includes other local suppliers including Lifeline Dairy and Kalispell Kreamery, Bausch Potatoes, Grains of Montana, Sunflower Bakery, Opportunity Farms and Resurrection Ranch produce for their freshness. Other proteins, like pork and lamb, come from small ranches across the state. What is not served as meat, such as the bones, is used in broths, soups and sauces. The same applies to vegetable waste. What is left is turned into compost.
The name The Hopper pays homage to gold discovered in 1862 at Grasshopper Creek near Bannack, Montana. But it also reinforces the idea that Chelsi and Dan welcome their customers to get their thoughts on food down the funnel, as the pair are constantly working on new menu offerings.
When asked to describe their menu, Chelsi used the words fancy and quick-casual dining. One patron calls The Hopper a permanent food truck. Menu options have global appeal, from the Brazil Bowl, featuring churrasco-marinated Montana grass-fed skirt steak, seasoned black beans, chimichurri, pickled shallots, cherry tomatoes, and avocado cream, to the Bao Bun Tacos with steamed dough, Char Siu barbecue pork, Cantonese coleslaw, house ketchup, scallions and sesame.
Homemade falafel, miso candied bacon BLT, fried goat cheese, a Reuben “Huckleburger” and wings that have been brine, crispy and kissed on the grill are featured on the menu. When asked where he dreams his dishes come from, Dan quipped, “I love to travel and then try to bring the flavors and cultures I experience back into the Montana palate.” The daily specials reflect the freshest ingredients that Dan and his team can secure.
Poutine is an option, but only if you don’t count calories. The Hopper version of this dish, which is rumored to have originated in Quebec in the late 1950s, is a combination of French fries and Lifeline cheese curds, drenched in roasted garlic and herb skillet and locally sourced mushrooms. The Garden Melt uses artichoke hearts, confit beets, roasted peppers, pickled shallots and Havarti cheese, topped with a creamy cashew and basil spread and served on nine-grain bread. Options for the kids include chicken breast fillet, grilled cheese, and grilled Nutella and banana (described as choconutty and bananalicious).
The other component of The Hopper is their small market featuring Montana-made items like Timeless Seeds lentils, Country Pasta, Oil Barn safflower oil, Silk Road spices, and Rivulet Apiaries honey. The Milk Crate includes Vintage Cheese of Montana, Amaltheia Goat Cheese, Amish Butter, Farmer Boy Eggs, and pre-made sandwiches and salads. The Bays is continually adding more products for customers’ convenience. A variety of seltzer, cider and beer, both on tap and canned, are available to wash down the delights from the kitchen.
The Bays want to leave a legacy for their baby daughter, Basil, so she can grow up in a Montana we know and love, where people care about each other. I applaud them for what they contribute to the Helena community.