Taste of Mexico: The Camino planning agave bar, locally sourced fare at Mercantile

Camino, offering traditional Mexican fare, will join Zoo Thai (pictured) and the steakhouse 1889 on the ground floor of the Mercantile in downtown Missoula.

A new Mexican eatery slated for the Mercantile in downtown Missoula plans to source local ingredients in its food and offer an agave cocktail bar to wash it down.

On Wednesday, Missoula County commissioners approved a $159,000 economic development loan application to The Camino to help the upstart business create eight full-time jobs for low-income workers.

The restaurant plans to open by October on the ground floor of the new hotel.

“Part of the requirement that would come with this loan is that it would have to create at least 8 full-time equivalent (jobs) for low- to moderate-income people,” said Melissa Gordon with Community and Planning Services at Missoula County. “We have about $700,000 available. The loan would be based on the thorough evaluation of the applicants.”

The loan stems from Missoula County’s portion of the state’s Community Development Block Grant Economic Development Revolving Loan Fund.

While the funds can be placed toward public infrastructure for low-income housing development and public services, it can also be directed toward creating jobs for low-income workers.

County planning services is working with MoFi on The Camino’s loan application. The nonprofit financing and consulting service, based in Missoula, is underwriting the application and developing the loan documents.

“This will be the first loan we’ve made in a long while under the system and partnership with MoFi,” said Gordon. “They completed the underwriting analysis and offered proposed terms.”

Terms of the loan include 5.2 percent interest over five years. The Camino co-owner Tad Hilton said the business plans to rapidly repay the loan.

“We have a unique situation where we can run a full bar without having to invest in a full liquor license,” said Hilton. “We’re under a concession agreement with Mercantile Enterprises, which owns the license. That gives us a lot more working capital to pay our loan off aggressively when we’re not having to pay the debt service on an $800,000 liquor license.”

Business partner Phillip Schaefer described The Camino as a regionally focused Mexican restaurant. Along with creating jobs, the loan will also help the business partner with local farms for specific ingredients, including herbs, protein and produce.

“We’re looking at pulling the techniques, flavors and traditions from Oaxaca to Yucatan – the coasts – and creating an agave-forward cocktail bar to compliment the cuisine,” said Schaefer.

The restaurateurs, who both work at Montgomery Distillery, have already established a relationship with a number of local farms from the Bitterroot to St. Ignatious. They also enjoy a relationship with the Western Montana Growers Cooperative.

“We’re actually working with some of these farms to grow specific ingredients we can’t source in the area,” said Hilton. “There’s some chepiche, epazote and hoja santa herbs you can’t get here, and they’re willing to grow those for us.”

Menu items will include Mexican-inspired tacos, antojitos, small batch tequila and mezcal, and craft cocktails. The restaurant is one of several slated to open this year in the Mercantile. It will join Basil, a breakfast and lunch cafe; the seafood and steak restaurant 1899; and Zoo Thai.

“The reason that we offer gap financing for economic development is because these are high-risk loans,” said Commissioner Cola Rowley. “It provides businesses the leg up they need to launch and get off the ground and create jobs. We’ve given out several of these loans before – Pyramid Mountain, Free Cycles, Western Cider.”