The Truck Stops Here

Denver's loncheras were cooking until the city put the brakes on mobile vendors.

Debra Medrano is executive director of the Morrison Road Business Association. When she took the job in 1997, after making a name for herself on northwest Denver revitalization projects, her mission was simple: to transform the hodgepodge of auto shops, warehouses and appliance stores into a bright and bustling corridor of stores and lofts loosely based on LoDo, but with a Tex-Mex twist. Her strategy: increase sales-tax revenue, attract development, create jobs, beautify the neighborhood. Her pitch: "If you look like heck, no one will buy you, but if you let me fix you up, I can sell you."'

With support from merchants, property owners and city officials, she set about doing just that. She secured grants to build new curbs and gutters, repaint facades, replace windows and strategically position flower boxes, streetlights and trees up and down the road.

Martina Morales in the kitchen of her lonchera, which is much more popular than her nearby restaurant.
John Johnston
Martina Morales in the kitchen of her lonchera, which is much more popular than her nearby restaurant.

Then King Taco arrived.

Medrano got a call from Sherry Cordova, owner of Demi's Chubby's restaurant on Morrison Road, an eighteen-year-old satellite of the northwest Denver landmark. Cordova had looked out the window, and she didn't like what she saw: lines of customers outside King Taco, parked in the lot of a bar across the street.

Cordova wanted to know if Romulo had permission to sell food at all hours of the day and night. She wanted to know if Romulo had a health department permit. She wanted to know if Romulo paid taxes. And she wanted the executive director of the Morrison Road Business Association to find out.

Medrano called the city's neighborhood inspectors, who looked into the matter and reported back that food trucks had to move locations after two hours. Well, Medrano replied, King Taco wasn't moving every two hours. Inspectors should visit Morrison Road and enforce the law, she said.

Very soon, a city inspector visited Romulo's truck. The inspector asked if he had a business license and a permit from the health department.

Romulo said he did.

The inspector asked if he had permission to park his lonchera at the bar.

Romulo said he did.

The inspector said he had to move.

When Romulo asked why, the inspector didn't give an answer. So Romulo told him: "I have all these permits. Why should I move?"

Back and forth they went, week after week.

The more pressure the city applied, the more Romulo resisted.

"They kept asking me the same questions, and I kept giving them my permits," he recalls. "They said my truck was ugly, and I told them, 'I don't think it's ugly.' They told me I'd have to move and that I'd get in trouble if I stayed, but I said, 'I'm just trying to make a living.' They didn't want to listen. They didn't explain anything."

In the fall of 1999, a drunk driver hit the lonchera and knocked over a light pole, a tree, a utility box and a phone booth. Romulo didn't have insurance to cover the damage, Medrano says. So she approached property owners up and down Morrison Road and told them that the food vendors "aren't responsible for anyone but themselves." If another accident happened, the property owners could be liable for damages.

Food trucks didn't contribute sales taxes to the neighborhood, either, she pointed out. They didn't attract new development, provide new jobs or beautify pockets of urban blight.

"And we have a lot of blightedness already," Medrano explained.

Romulo, who had bought two trucks by then, was furious when he heard what Medrano was doing. The drunk-driving accident wasn't his fault, he says. In fact, if King Taco hadn't been parked there, the car might have plowed into the bar and caused even more damage.

Still, he decided to move from the parking lot and try a few other spots on Morrison Road, including one in a lot across from Medrano's office. At this point, other businesses began to complain, including the owner of an alarm store who said he'd return to work each morning and find his parking lot littered with bags, paper plates and bottles left by lonchera customers.

Romulo denied the charges, but left Morrison Road in order to try several spots along Federal. Wherever he went, inspectors followed.

"They tried to scare me," he says. "But I don't scare. They said they would impound my truck and take me to jail. I told them, 'Do your job and I'll do mine.'"

A few miles away, at Alameda and Raritan, Raul was having his own problems. A city inspector told him that he had to pave the parking lot. Raul said it wasn't his property, but the inspector replied that rules were rules. So Raul spent $4,000 resurfacing the lot.

A while later, the inspector returned and told Raul to leave.

"If you knew I wasn't supposed to be here, then why did you have me pave the parking lot?" Raul asked.

The inspector apologized, mumbled something about the rules changing, and said that if El Tacazo was still in the parking lot when he returned, Raul would be ticketed.

Raul went to City Hall looking for an explanation, but he couldn't find anyone who knew why he had to move. So he drove El Tacazo back to the parking lot. The inspector returned and ticketed him.

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