By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
He yawns, jams his hands into the pockets of his jacket, sighs. Beside him, the fry cook grills a pile of sizzling pork, which fills the kitchen with the aroma of charred bacon. Outside, a commissary worker hoses down the parking lot while a Mexican radio station blares. A middle-aged woman lugging two five-gallon buckets, one filled with salsa, the other with meat, stomps up the slick steps of the truck, slipping as she enters.
This is the life, Raul says, seven days a week, all year long. Even for Raul, who logged several years on an oil rig, the food-truck business can be dirty, tedious and hard. During the past few months, it has become even harder. Denver zoning inspectors, acting upon complaints from residents and businesses, have cracked down on a regulation requiring food trucks to move after four hours. According to the city, the ordinance is intended to keep mobile food vendors mobile and to prevent them from disturbing homeowners, merchants and commuters.
But for Raul and others who've invested their life savings in these trucks, the ordinance has meant the slow death of their businesses. Between the time it was approved in August and this morning in early January, sales at the loncheras have plummeted 50 percent. Raul, a wiry, serious and brooding man of thirty, can barely pay his bills, support his wife and son, make the mortgage on their Lakewood home and help his ailing mother and father.
So he stands inside his truck on this frigid morning, preparing to defy the city. Again. Although his permit states that he cannot open until 1 p.m., Raul says he must be ready for business in his spot at Alameda Avenue and Raritan Street by 11 a.m. in order to catch the breakfast crowd. Although his permit states that he must close his location next door by 9 p.m., Raul says he often lingers in order to serve the late-night stragglers. Those extra few hours could bring him a $1,000 fine or even jail time, but Raul believes he has no choice.
"If I work the hours they say, I won't make any money," he says. "I'll be out of business right away. I have to risk."
At 10:30 a.m., Raul steers his truck onto Morrison Road, traveling a few miles to the parking lot of Polo's Records. There he parks, flicks on the neon "open" sign and proceeds to break the law.
Even as a boy, Raul knew he would one day leave Mexico. His father was a farmer in Zacatecas, and the family was poor. During the dry season, they were even poorer. When Raul was nine, his family moved to Jerez and opened a small grocery store, but Jerez wasn't much better than Zacatecas. Before long, Raul's father sought work in the United States. For seven months at a time, he would cut timber in Colorado and cook restaurant food in Las Vegas.
When Raul, the oldest of five children, turned fourteen, he decided to follow his father. He was working at a gas station but not earning enough to buy himself a new pair of jeans, a dress shirt and a good set of boots. His mother pleaded with him to stay in Mexico and work at the store, but Raul simply said, "I'll call you when I get there."
"In Mexico, I always wanted to buy my own house and live there rent-free," he recalls. "But my dreams changed. In Mexico, it's hard to do good business. You already have to have money. You already have to have land. We didn't have those things. I had to leave for my future."
He bought a one-way bus ticket to Tijuana and arrived at the sprawling border town with only $10 in his pocket. Without friends, relatives or a place to stay, Raul wandered the streets, sleeping under bridges, cleaning windshields for spare change, scrounging food. One day he made his way to a hill overlooking the border. Beyond a chain-link fence topped with razor wire and riddled with holes, he saw the distant skyline of San Diego. Out of nowhere, a man appeared.
"Want to go to L.A.?"
Raul said he didn't have the money; all he had was a rumpled scrap of paper with his father's phone number in Las Vegas. The man led him back to Tijuana, dialed the number and told Raul's father: "I have your son here. For $750, I can bring him to L.A." Raul's father sent the $750. Soon after, Raul, the courier and another immigrant returned to the hill. After a few nervous moments, they sprinted toward the border and wriggled through a hole in the fence.
That night and into the early morning, the three trudged through miles of scrub, prickly pear and sand, diving into arroyos at the thump, thump of INS helicopters. At dawn they saw a white van parked beside a road. They climbed inside. A few hours later, they were in L.A.
"It was easy," Raul recalls.
The courier drove to a Huntington Park apartment where other Mexican nationals lived. One of them handed Raul $20 and told him to find something to eat. Raul wandered though the neighborhood in a daze.
"I was surprised," he says. "Everyone had a car. The yards all had grass. All the houses were nice. It was a pretty city. I was a little bit afraid to be there, but I knew I had to do it this way."
After a few weeks, his roommates found Raul a dishwashing job at Tom's Burgers. Raul then contacted his father, who put him in touch with a cousin, Romulo Cabral, who had arrived in L.A. several years earlier. With a job, an apartment and a relative nearby, Raul stayed in Southern California until 1990. Then one afternoon, during a lunch break at Tom's, a Hispanic gang member pressed a pistol to Raul's head and demanded cash. Raul handed over $20 and watched the robber flee the store, firing at a car as he did.
"That's when I decided to move," he says.
Now seventeen, Raul joined his father in Las Vegas and found jobs as a dishwasher in a casino and a busboy at a coffee shop. His father, who already had his citizenship documentation, applied for Raul's green card. But after three years in Vegas, Raul and his father both lost their jobs during a labor dispute. Raul returned to L.A., while his father went back to Mexico to get the rest of the family and move them to Colorado.
Raul had no intention of living in a place as cold and unfamiliar as Denver. But after visiting, he decided to stay with his father, mother, brother and sisters. He found a job cooking at a Mexican restaurant. Four years later, he traded his apron for a hard hat in the oil fields. Three years after that, while laying tubing, Raul wrenched his back.
At age 27, with a wife and infant son, Raul didn't know what to do. Although the oil company had issued him a $25,000 disability check, his family couldn't live off that for long. He'd always dreamed of opening his own business, but he didn't know where to start.
Then, during a family discussion one day, his cousin Romulo asked, "Why not a lonchera?"
Romulo Cabral had arrived in Denver a few years after Raul. Like his cousin, Romulo also tried working in the oil fields, but he soon decided he wanted to be his own boss. He thought about opening a restaurant, but that would be very expensive. Instead, he bought one of the loncheras he'd seen rumbling through L.A., with their Our Lady of Guadalupe murals on the outside and their narrow, fully equipped kitchens inside. And in 1998, King Taco hit the streets.
As one of the first lonchera proprietors in Denver, Romulo struggled to get a handle on the business. He drove everywhere seeking the perfect spot for his truck. Eventually he settled among the stationery taquerías, mercados and panaderías on Morrison Road, the heart of Denver City Councilwoman Ramona Martinez's district, where the Hispanic population has nearly doubled in the past decade, from 23,305 to more than 40,901. It's one of the fastest-growing parts of the city, yet there has been little major development there.
But new businesses spring up every day, businesses that cater to Mexican immigrants who long for a taste of home: boot shops, record shops and loncheras. King Taco quickly found a following, as customers gathered at Romulo's window to order his tortas, tacos, quesadillas and asada.
"Maybe you should try it, too," Romulo now told his cousin.
Raul, who'd helped Romulo behind the grill once or twice, went to L.A. and bought a used 1985 Chevy, which he brought back to Denver. The lonchera's engine needed work and the kitchen required remodeling, but Raul had "a good feeling."
His family did not.
"You're crazy," his father said. "I don't believe in the truck."
"You don't believe," Raul replied. "But I do."
In May 1999, after spending $4,000 to renovate the lonchera he christened El Tacazo, Raul applied for a business license, a health department permit and fire department certification.
"That was my future," he explains. "I had to do everything right. They gave me my license and said, 'You're ready to work.' I didn't have any problems."
With his wife and a brother beside him, Raul steered his truck toward factories, construction sites and busy street corners. But by the end of that first day, he'd made barely fifteen dollars.
"It was a real bad time," he says. "I didn't make enough for gas."
One day, an electrician repairing some wiring in Raul's house suggested a spot where he could park the lonchera: an unpaved lot off Alameda at Raritan, which the electrician happened to own. For $150 month, El Tacazo could have a home.
Raul agreed. Eight months later, working from 10:30 a.m. to well past midnight, he was clearing $600 a day -- enough to buy a home and a few horses, as well as indulge his passion for the rodeo. At last, his family believed.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
"In the summertime, with the food out there, you could walk out and just smell the stench," Bennett recalls. "I'd ask them nicely to collect their trash, but unfortunately, they don't speak English very well, and we didn't communicate as well as we might. I had a friend who is Puerto Rican speak to them, and things got better for a while, but I'd have to go out every few weeks to sweep and clean. I hired an exterminator. I wasn't too happy."
Trash wasn't the only problem. Raul's lonchera often blocked the views of motorists trying to enter traffic on Alameda. And at night, especially on weekends and during the summer, customers congregated in the parking lot and alley to eat, talk and play music.
"Cars would park all over the sidewalk and the right-of-way, and people would sit all over," Campbell says. "It became this weird gathering place. This unwieldy, unorganized, out-of-control thing. I just don't feel comfortable having grown men hanging around the alley after midnight."
Campbell insists that she and her neighbors don't have a personal problem with Raul and that his nationality has nothing to do with their complaints. They simply have a different vision of how food trucks should operate near neighborhoods.
"I always thought these businesses were really wonderful when they pulled up to a construction site or a factory and served people who didn't have access to hot meals," Campbell explains. "Their customers had access to restrooms and trash facilities. They'd be there a few hours and then move. I have a lot of empathy for the small business owner, but I just have more respect for folks who pay rent and utilities, hire people, shovel snow on the sidewalks and pay taxes. If he wants to open a restaurant, we'd welcome him, but a mobile food business best serves the community by being mobile."
Campbell didn't approach Raul directly with the complaints, she says, because it wasn't her place to enforce the city's laws. Instead, she contacted Denver City Council members Ramona Martinez, Debbie Ortega and Kathleen MacKenzie, who represents the Athmar area, and requested "the most stringent regulation possible."
Early in 2001, a delegation from La Gente Unida, including Raul and Romulo Cabral, sat down at a negotiating table with councilmembers Ortega and Martinez and other city officials, and tried to state their case.
After Strapko had rescinded the two-hour order several months earlier, zoning officials had endorsed a proposal that would require all outdoor eateries to be attached to restaurants. But when truck owners pointed out that the rule would essentially close down their businesses, the idea was scrapped.
Now the vendors explained that they couldn't pack up every few hours and still make a profit. Since loncheras cook food right on the spot, it takes several hours just to clean, prep and open for business. If drivers had to keep moving, they'd also lose customers who count on them to be in a certain place.
"People come to my truck every day because they know I'll be there," Raul explains. "If people don't see me, they won't stop."
Besides, being stationary is part of the lonchera tradition. In Mexico, outdoor food carts stand on practically every block. People make a habit of stopping by a vendor, buying a burrito, settling on the curb to eat. Mexican natives living in Denver say loncheras remind them of home.
"The people who eat at my truck like to go outside and eat and see a friendly face," Romulo says.
Loncheras are popular, the vendors contend, because more and more people in Denver are demanding their food. Eating at food trucks is less expensive and faster than eating at restaurants. The food tastes different, too. Raul and other lonchera cooks use the kind of meat, cheese and vegetables that cooks do in Mexico: tripe, tongue, stomach, fresh tomatoes, hand-made corn tortillas. And they prepare the food the Mexican way, too: boiled or fried with a smoky pork flavor, spiced nice and hot. Not only that, the loncheras offer soda pop and candy imported from Mexico, items you can't find in most restaurants here.
"My customers don't want to eat in restaurants," Raul says. "They said that the food doesn't taste the same. If they like food trucks, it doesn't matter how many restaurants they see. They come to the trucks. The people who work at Chipotle even come to me."
Martina Morales has proof of the loncheras' popularity. In November 2000, she opened Paty's Taquería, a restaurant at 825 South Federal, a few blocks from where she parks her lonchera. Although the food for Paty's and the truck is prepared in the same kitchen by the same cook following the same recipes, customers still preferred the lonchera over the taquería.
"They don't like the food inside," Morales says. "The restaurant will be empty and there'll be a line outside the truck. I don't know why, but I like it better there, too."
Not only do customers count on finding the loncheras in a certain spot, but moving the heavy trucks can be treacherous, vendors say. Once, while trying to comply with the two-hour rule, Raul got caught in heavy traffic and slammed on the brakes to avoid a car that had stopped abruptly. In the process, he sent his brother flying from the kitchen into the cab.
"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."
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."
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.
"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.
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.
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.
"We'll have to see," she says.
Campbell may not have long to wait, Raul says. If business stays this bad, he might have to sell both trucks and start over. He glances at the clock -- whose four-hour increments now rule his life -- zips his jacket, and shuffles toward the kitchen to begin another day.
"I came here to work," he says. "That's all I want to do."