In the last three years, the popularity and creative offerings of food trucks have grown across the country, especially in Los Angeles. Whether selling Korean tacos or gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches, these trucks travel around major cities announcing their whereabouts using social networking tools like Twitter and Facebook.
In Boyle Heights, however, food trucks – called loncheras — are not new, but a longtime — and essential — part of the landscape. Some of these trucks have been operating on the same street corner for decades. But owners say that today’s economy, increased inspections, and complex permit processes make it more challenging for them to make a good living.
Food truck owners Gisela and Rafael Sánchez operate their business near the corner of Evergreen and César Chávez. As nightfall approaches, Rafael can be found setting up a light system, while Gisela serves tacos and burritos to a line of customers. Three decades ago, they began selling food from a small stand. Soon though, they had enough money to acquire a truck and began operating in the Inland Empire. As the years progressed, they worked downtown and eventually began calling Boyle Heights home.
Their business has struggled to survive throughout the years, but the couple has been successfully enough to support their family and even send their two daughters to college. Still, the Sánchezes say the economy has changed for the worse. “Before there were good times. Not anymore,” said Rafael.
He listed the costs that reduce his profits. “I have to pay 6 percent of what I earn every three months to the L.A. County Board of Equalization, $1,000 [per month] for my truck to be cleaned, and $230 per week for maintenance. All this comes from my pocket,” said Rafael.
Jesús Hermosillo conducted a 2010 study for the UCLA Center for Labor Research & Education on the lonchera business. Hermosillo reported that the health regulations were complex and that the business owners did not always understand them. “The County Health Department needs to have better communication,” said Hermosillo.
“Some of the inspectors do not speak Spanish.” Among the challenges facing today’s food truck owners are high gas prices, permit requirements, rigorous inspections, maintenance costs and complex city and county regulations. The latest concern for the food truck owners: paying to register for inspections to receive a food quality letter grade.
New in 2011: Health grades
Beginning in January 2011, Los Angeles food truck owners have had to comply with a new ordinance that requires trucks to display a letter grade from public health officials, just like restaurants. According to the Los Angeles County Department of Health, 16 food trucks have registered in the 90033 ZIP code.
But other trucks operate in Boyle Heights that are registered elsewhere, enabling them to avoid the additional costs of the new inspection rule for letter grades. Raúl Ortega, owner of Mariscos Jalisco, has thrived in Boyle Heights despite the additional costs and tough new inspection rules. Parked on Olympic at Lorena, his seafood taco truck opened 11 years ago and has long lines of customers throughout the day.
Customers return for the fresh ingredients and unbeatable prices. Mariscos Jalisco became beloved for its cocteles de campechana and shrimp tacos– shrimp cupped in a crunchy taco shell drenched in a spicy tomato sauce– topped with freshly sliced avocado. And it gained fame outside the neighborhood because of positive reviews by food critics such as Jonathan Gold, who is now with the Los Angeles Times. Like many food truck owners in the area, the Sánchezes park their truck overnight at a commissary in Maywood. Because Maywood is outside city limits, the letter grade ordinance does not apply.
“If a commissary is in a city that has not passed the ordinance, then they don’t have to have a letter grade. It all depends on where the commissary is,” said Pat Jocan from the L.A. County Department of Public Health. The food vendors in Boyle Heights are a mainstay, with offerings that range from the famous cocteles de campechana to shrimp tacos and tasty tacos de asada. When it comes to street food, ”Boyle Heights is the mecca,” said Ortega.