The Truck Stops Here

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

Unsure of where to go or what to do, Raul and Romulo asked Joel and Beverly Gutierrez for help. The couple ran a combination taquería and wholesale chile-and-spices business called the Chile Store at 4986 Morrison Road, home of a former meatpacking warehouse. Since 1998, at the request of Denver health department officials, the Gutierrezes had also operated a commissary for food trucks. For $700 a month, Raul, Romulo and others could prepare food, store supplies, clean equipment and park loncheras overnight.

Joel is from Mexico, and Beverly is from Hatch, New Mexico. After they opened their commissary, they befriended many of the lonchera owners. Since the couple had experience with the city and Joel was bilingual, they agreed to help clear up the food-truck confusion. But the Gutierrezes, too, were shuffled from department to department.

A customer outside Romulo Cabral's King Taco lonchera.
John Johnston
A customer outside Romulo Cabral's King Taco lonchera.
Romulo's King Taco was one of the first loncheras in town.
John Johnston
Romulo's King Taco was one of the first loncheras in town.

"We went to every office we could think of to find a way of becoming legal," Beverly recalls. "We were told they violated an administrative zoning law, but we could never find it. No one knew what was happening or why."

They didn't know, says Kent Strapko, zoning administrator for the city, because food trucks had never been a problem before. In the past, vendors had parked outside construction sites, served food for an hour or so, then driven on. In twenty years, the city had received just four complaints.

When those complaints came in, Strapko says, zoning officials had followed an administrative policy established by his predecessor, which required trucks to move after two hours. The two-hour policy had never been formally codified, because authorities had never seen the need. But in November 1999, as the rumbling over loncheras grew louder, Strapko issued a memo explaining the policy for inspectors, vendors and merchants alike.

Instead of smoothing things over, the memo only made matters worse.

Raul tried to move El Tacazo every two hours. But his sales dropped off so dramatically that he threw up his hands in frustration and returned to the Polo's Records lot at Alameda and Raritan. Romulo bounced around various locations on Federal before finally settling at a muffler shop near Alameda and Hazel Court.

"It was crazy," Raul recalls. "When I started to do business, I had to close down."

The situation came to a head in the summer of 2000, when police towed a lonchera owned by Martina Morales. In response, Morales, who by then had received eight tickets for failing to move her truck every two hours, sued the city for violating her rights of due process, enforcing a vague policy and discriminating against Hispanic vendors. Romulo hired an attorney, too. And Joel and Beverly Gutierrez formed an organization of food-truck vendors called La Gente Unida.

"The way they were being treated was unbelievable," Beverly says. "They tried to do the right thing, but no one would give them a good explanation. And since they don't speak English very well, they didn't understand a lot of what they were being told. People were just rude to them. It was so unfair in so many ways."

With the battle lines drawn, the Denver City Attorney's Office decided to study the zoning department's two-hour policy. Thomas Bigler, assistant city attorney, soon determined that zoning didn't have the authority to establish such a policy. In September 2000, Strapko rescinded the rule.

But because a handful of loncheras had grown into a fleet in just a few years, with complaints increasing exponentially, Denver officials decided that new regulations were needed. While various city departments negotiated the proposed rules with vendors, neighborhood groups, city councilmembers and businesses, the loncheras were allowed to operate without time limits.

Morales dropped her lawsuit. Raul and Romulo stayed on their corners.

One afternoon last spring, Carol e Campbell pulled her minivan out of the garage and into the alley behind her home on West Nevada Place. She and her kids were greeted by the sight of two men behind Polo's Records, near Raul's lonchera. One man was holding two paper plates of food; the other was squatting with his pants down, defecating.

"I flipped out," she says. "I had seen people urinating in the alley before, and that's disgusting enough, but this was so base. I told the kids to avert their eyes, and I sped up."

Before that, Campbell, a founder and former vice president of the Athmar Park Neighborhood Association, hadn't considered El Tacazo a neighborhood asset, but she hadn't actively opposed it, either. As the association's zoning co-chair, she had "bigger fish to fry," she says, including a messy, noisy and overcrowded auto shop near the record store. But the alley incident was the last straw. Now El Tacazo sat squarely in her sights.

"That's definitely not behavior I want my children around," she says.

Campbell had moved to Athmar Park in 1988, in part because of the community's cultural diversity. She joined the neighborhood association to battle gangs and graffiti, but wound up tackling everything from cleaning up trashy yards to installing new mosaic park tables. When she turned her attention toward food trucks, she found other neighbors with complaints.

Cheryl Bennett lives across the alley from Polo's Records. Not long after El Tacazo arrived, her dumpster began filling with napkins, Styrofoam containers and half-eaten food. Then mice appeared.

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