The corner space in Mountain Line’s Pine Street bus transfer center has been a misfit in downtown Missoula since Subway left in 2014. It’s small and drab, not unlike the concrete station itself. That’s why Ethan Sky Siegel was drawn to it.
“It’s funky, and no one wants it,” he says.
The Ninja Mike’s owner grew up in Chicago, and the space, with its walk-up window and high foot-traffic, seemed perfect for the kind of hole-in-the-wall joints that dot bigger cities. Inspiration struck: Siegel could bring his breakfast sandwich business from the farmers market to the bus station. He submitted a bid last April on a whim. It was accepted.
Except Siegel didn’t have any money, so he withdrew his bid, and let the idea simmer while he got creative. A year later, after months of negotiations with the Missoula Urban Transportation District and a crowdfunding campaign that raised $22,868, Siegel signed a lease April 30 to open a Ninja Mike’s storefront at the transfer center.
The agreement won’t generate revenue for the publicly funded bus service anytime soon, but Mountain Line operators are betting Ninja Mike’s can help transform the commuting hub.
“We’re really trying to revitalize a space that’s sat vacant for a while, and we think it will really improve the environment and keep a safe place for commuters,” says community outreach coordinator Bill Pfeiffer.
The agreement requires Mountain Line to pay for $103,000 in upgrades to make the facility suitable for a restaurant with a grill — namely, a ventilation hood and a larger hot water heater. The up-front costs will be covered by a capital reserve account funded by local taxpayers and later recouped in full over the seven-year term of the Ninja Mike’s lease. The lease approved by the board pencils out to $20 per square foot, Pfeiffer says, which is in line with the market rate listed in a request for proposals the transportation district issued in 2016. If Ninja Mike’s leaves, the upgrades will allow the space to more easily attract future tenants, Pfeiffer says.
Built in 2000, the transfer center is already starting to seem like a relic for a bus system that’s since taken big steps to become a more relevant part of how Missoulians get around town. In 2016, Mountain Line began hiring private security to patrol the station, which is located between the county courthouse and city police department, after two reports of assault, as the Indy reported. Around 2,000 riders use the transfer center daily, according to the 2016 RFP.
Siegel says he’s heard from “naysayers” who are critical of his choice of location, but he takes the skepticism “as a challenge.” Siegel says he embraces the chance to serve a cross-section of the city, from homeless residents to lawyers, and plans to build a menu that reflects that clientele.
Ninja Mike’s will celebrate its 10th anniversary at the Clark Fork farmers market this summer, and will continue to operate there. The stand was one of the first to offer savory food at the market, initially with made-to-order egg, cheese and sausage sandwiches. Siegel says the market stand now sells an average of 400 sandwiches each week.
Siegel has made his sandwiches stand out by sourcing his ingredients locally — a practice that will continue as he begins catering to weekday commuters.
“I’m trying to have a fast-food option where you don’t sacrifice on ingredients,” he says.
The downtown store will be a glorified version of the winter food truck Siegel introduced for one year in 2016. There won’t be any seating, and the menu will launch as a simple breakfast service that includes a burrito, a sandwich, a skillet and a taco, each with pre-made or made-to-order options.
Siegel says he had to discontinue the food truck due to cost-prohibitive health code requirements. But the experience prepared him for operating in a location where not all passersby have spending cash to drop on locally sourced fast food. The truck was stationed outside Imagine Nation Brewing, across from the Poverello Center, so Siegel says he created an informal pay-what-you-can system for homeless people who couldn’t afford a sandwich at menu prices. He’s planning to provide additional training to staff at the downtown location in hopes of instilling a culture of “mutual respect” with all customers. He expects to open sometime this summer.
“We’ll see where it takes us, man,” he says.