The Truck Stops Here

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

And if the vendors don't follow them, there will be consequences. "It's a light touch in the beginning, but if they've been notified, educated and still have not complied, then enforcement needs to be heavy-handed," Ferrer says. "This ordinance will work. Unfortunately, some of them will have to find out the hard way."

Martina Morales, who couldn't find a spot on Federal that fit the city's requirements, was ticketed for violating zoning laws by parking her lonchera at her own taquería. Another vendor was arrested when he refused to close at 9 p.m.

In November, Morales and other vendors revived the lawsuit against the city claiming, among other things, that Denver was discriminating against Hispanics.

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 have a list of 300 mobile food vendors operating in Denver, but the city is only ticketing the Hispanics in Westwood," says Robert Giron, vice president of La Gente Unida. "We're not sure what the force is behind it, but we believe the city is trying to close them down."

The lawsuit is "groundless," says Assistant City Attorney Bigler, adding that the city has counter-sued the vendors. The ordinance is citywide, he argues, and doesn't single out any group based on nationality or beliefs. Despite the vendors' claim that the rules are designed to put them out of business, Bigler says the ordinance actually legitimizes food trucks by establishing rules governing their behavior.

"They add a lot to communities and bring amenities that a lot of people want," Bigler says. "But at the same time, their operations need to be looked at to ensure that appropriate standards are in place. We want them to do business. But we want them to do it responsibly."

In December, following a protest by the vendors on the steps of the City and County Building, Denver District Court Judge John Coughlin denied the vendors' request for an injunction against the city.

"More Hispanics, maybe entirely Hispanics, have been ticketed for violation of this ordinance," the judge determined. "But there's no evidence that African-Americans or Anglos are violating the ordinance and not being ticketed. Most of these people who are in this business are Hispanics and so, obviously, more Hispanics are going to be ticketed if they violate the ordinance."

Informally, however, Coughlin asked the city to revisit the issue. "What about six?" he asked. "Six hours could be a big difference to these folks. I think it would be a lot more fair if they could have six hours rather than just four."

Bigler said he would relay the request.

One morning in early January, Carol e Campbell returned home after a late movie and saw that Raul's truck was still parked at Polo's Records, with several customers milling around. She picked up the phone and called the police.

"I got really irritated," she recalls. "Here it is well after midnight, the legislation has passed, and this guy is still doing his thing."

The next morning she went to City Hall and requested Raul's file. But the paperwork was incomplete, so she headed home and opened her own file.

Campbell kept a log of Raul's comings and goings. She compared the number of parking spaces against those required by the ordinance. She noted where Raul positioned his truck. Then she handed her findings to inspectors.

"The rules are there for a good reason," she says. "The ordinance is fair to both sides. I'd like to see them go into compliance with good spirits and with everyone working together for the good of the community. If they want to open a business, then they ought to stand up and be honorable businesspeople."

After receiving Campbell's complaint, Ferrer and his team once again canvassed the city for violations. Although the health department reported few problems with loncheras, Ferrer found that only eight of the thirty vendors on his list had obtained the new zoning permits.

Raul had the right permits, but they didn't prevent him from getting more tickets. The weekend after Campbell's visit to City Hall, he was given four citations -- one for opening before he was supposed to, and three more for assorted infractions. The record store was ticketed. So was Romulo, who was surrounded by police after he refused to move King Taco.

"It's like you're tied with ropes," Raul complained. "You can't do nothing!"

According to the permits he received in October, here's what Raul can do: He can park in the lot of the Colorado Chinese News, a newspaper office, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., and then next door at Polo's Records from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Those neighboring businesses say they haven't had a problem with El Tacazo. "We are good citizens," says Wendy Chao, owner of the Chinese News. "We want to give people opportunities. Everyone has to survive. But we need to do our work, too. We want to follow any law that the city has. If Raul can keep clean and do his best, he can stay."

With these side-by-side permits, Raul thought he could stay in the same area for eight hours and serve all of his regular customers.

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