The Truck Stops Here

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

But he found that even if he stayed all eight hours, that wasn't long enough to keep the money coming in.

So he and his brother bought another truck, thinking that between the two of them, they could make enough money to recover the cash they'd lost because of the restricted hours imposed by the ordinance.

But they couldn't get a permit for the second truck, which remains parked at the Chile Store.

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.

Raul and other vendors tried parking on side streets. Since the four-hour ordinance applies only to private property, Ferrer suggested that the vendors might be able to stay longer on the public right-of-way if they got permission from the Department of Public Works. Some of the vendors went ahead and parked there without the permits.

It didn't take long before Public Works officials ordered that those trucks be moved -- and then issued even more tickets.

In that one weekend in January, Raul wracked up a potential $4,000 in fines. "What am I supposed to do? How can I pay these tickets if I can't work?" he asked. "Why don't they come take me to jail now? Take my truck. I'm here!"

A few minutes before 9 p.m. on a cold night in January, Sylvia and Jackie Young wheeled their Mazda minivan into the parking lot of Polo's Records.

The couple had spent the previous half hour scouring Federal for their favorite lonchera, but couldn't find it. They were beginning to get worried that they might not find any lonchera at all. Because it was late, because Sylvia had just gotten off work and because the kids had been shuttled off to the sitter at the last moment, the couple had decided to buy them a treat: carne asada and barbacoa prepared at a lonchera.

"The kids love it," Sylvia says. "And so do I. I'm from Mexico. It tastes like home."

While Jackie retrieved their order, Sylvia worried out loud about the disappearing loncheras. The city should let them stay open past 9 p.m. -- and it should ease up on the four-hour time limit, too. Part of the loncheras' appeal is that one's always around when you're hungry, when you're pressed for time, when you're taking the kids to the sitter at the last minute.

"Why are they trying to hurt people like this?" Sylvia asked. "They're just trying to make a living. We should embrace people like this instead of putting them down."

Jackie returned with their food, and soon their van disappeared into the traffic on Alameda.

When another car pulled in minutes later, its driver was turned away. El Tacazo had shut down for the night.

Facing a grand total of $7,000 in fines, late last month Raul Cabral decided to follow the rules. He now opens El Tacazo at 1 p.m. He serves food eight hours. He closes at 9 p.m. And he has suffered the consequences.

"Business is down 75 percent," Raul says, nursing a cup of coffee at the Chile Store. "On a good day, I make $200 or $300. At night, I'm not sleeping. I don't know what to do."

An attorney for the vendors has asked a judge to set aside all of their tickets until the lawsuit against the city has been settled. While that request is under consideration, Joel Gutierrez has been telling Raul, Romulo, Martina Morales and other vendors to stay the course and continue to try to follow the rules. Business is bad everywhere, he says, even at the Chile Store. In the few years since the couple started acting as advocates for the vendors, his building has been inspected by the city more times than in the previous eighteen years combined.

"Don't give up in the middle of the stream," Joel tells Raul. "That's what they want."

Raul nods glumly. For the first time, he's beginning to think that his father was right. Maybe he was crazy.

"I've put my life into this," he says. "I opened a business. I bought a home. Now everything is going down. I don't make enough for my house payment. I don't even have enough money to go back to Mexico."

Councilwoman Martinez says she feels bad for the vendors. In fact, she might be willing to revisit the four-hour time restriction, but not until the ordinance has been on the books for a year. "Our communities are going to have to adapt to some of the culture that loncheras bring," she says. "But at the same time, they have to adapt to some of the rules and regulations in our city. There has to be a balance."

"Look at what they are: They're mobile food vendors," Ortega agrees. "They have the ability to go anywhere in the city of Denver to sell their food. At this point, the ordinance is what it is. I'm happy to revisit it, but before I'm ready to say let's go ahead and change it, I want to see how it's going from an enforcement and neighborhood standpoint."

Carol e Campbell continues to monitor Raul's compliance with the rules. She's not convinced he has enough parking spaces. Until that's settled, her El Tacazo file will stay open.

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