The Truck Stops Here

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

"You have hot water, hot oil and a steam table," Raul says. "It's safer just to park."

Raul told city officials that if the neighbors were upset, they should have come to him. At El Tacazo, he routinely tells customers to lower their radios and behave. He also positions trash cans beside his truck and hauls the garbage back to the Chile Store. If a customer needs a restroom, he can visit Polo's Records, where Raul has an agreement with the owner.

"People getting together is normal," Raul says. "Sometimes they bring beer, but I wouldn't say they are drunk. Probably they leave trash, but I try to pick it up. I understand what people are saying, but this is my business. I'm trying to do what's right."

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.

City officials say they listened intently to both the vendors and the neighbors, trying to be fair to all sides.

"Every time we had a draft for proposed legislation, they were at the table with us," says Councilwoman Martinez.

"We made sure that everyone we could identify was invited to sit at the table," Councilwoman Ortega adds. "And we tried to address their issues and concerns. But we had to try and address the neighborhood issues at the same time. We had to find a reasonable balance."

Still, the negotiations became contentious. Officials "were with us one day and against us the next," vendors complain. Eventually, they became frustrated and demanded that they be allowed to operate as they had before: without time restrictions.

"We'd talk and talk and talk, but they didn't really listen," Beverly Gutierrez recalls. "They'd change the subject. They never answered our questions. They seemed like they knew what they wanted to do. An aide to Ortega even said, 'You'll be lucky to get four hours out of this.'"

Which, when the dust settled, is exactly what they got.

This past May, a new proposal for regulating food trucks arrived at Denver City Council. Among other things, it called for mobile vendors to operate between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m., park 200 feet from a restaurant and 50 feet from a neighborhood, receive written permission from parking-lot owners to be there, submit plans showing where they would operate and sell food without taking parking from existing businesses, and agree to pick up trash. But for vendors, the critical stipulation was that they could remain in one spot for only four hours at a time.

At a city council meeting, Raul, Romulo, Joel, Beverly and others explained why the proposal would kill their businesses. Some drivers spent $1,000 a month leasing a single parking spot; if they moved three times a day, they'd spend $3,000 on parking alone. Add in food, employee salaries, truck maintenance and commissary privileges, and they couldn't possibly sell enough tacos to survive. If they had to close by 9 p.m., they'd miss the nightclub crowd that accounted for a good chunk of their clientele. They'd rather have fluctuating hours so that they could set their schedules. And they had to be allowed to operate longer.

"Who can live on four hours a day?" Raul asked.

In response, Councilwoman Happy Haynes offered an amendment to extend the time span from four to eight hours. The councilmembers accepted that change, with only Ortega and MacKenzie dissenting.

Carol e Campbell was outraged.

She hadn't attended that council meeting because she thought an agreement had already been reached. Although she and her neighbors preferred a two-hour limit, they considered four hours a good compromise.

When the eight-hour proposal went before the council again in July, Campbell made sure that she and other neighbors were there to testify. MacKenzie offered an amendment restoring the four-hour limit, and only Haynes voted against it.

"There is an impact to having an additional business operating in a parking lot," MacKenzie explains. "Four hours was true to the original spirit of negotiations."

Now Beverly Gutierrez was outraged.

She and the other vendors hadn't attended that July hearing because they thought the council had already passed the eight-hour time limit.

"No one told us about the meeting," she says.

When the proposed ordinance was brought before council for a final vote in August, fifteen vendors and nine neighborhood representatives spoke.

"They looked like they had already made up their minds," Beverly says of the councilmembers. "They were looking at the ceiling and typing in their computers. They weren't listening."

The proposal with the four-hour time restriction passed unanimously.

After the new ordinance was approved, Raul and the other vendors didn't know what to do. Some visited City Hall seeking the new annual permits but were told they weren't ready, Joel Gutierrez recalls. And as they continued to park their loncheras in their regular spots, tickets started coming.

Vincent Ferrer, the city's chief inspector of zoning and property maintenance, says his department had no choice. While the old two-hour rule may have been confusing, the four-hour rule was crystal-clear. Once it was adopted, inspectors had to enforce it.

"That's our job," he says.

Even so, they didn't start issuing the tickets overnight. Vendors were given thirty days to comply with the new ordinance, and copies were distributed in both English and Spanish. Ferrer, who's fluent in Spanish, was assigned specifically to handle the food trucks, and offered to personally explain the regulations to anyone who had questions. "There was education," he says. "They do know the rules."

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