In 1974, Raul Martinez was credited with opening the country's first taco truck. Selling food out of a converted ice-cream truck that he had parked outside of a bar in East Los Angeles, he eventually turned his business into King Taco, a restaurant chain with 22 locations across Southern California.
Since then, food trucks — like the Hollywood Walk of Fame and water crises — have become a feature of Southern California. The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, which oversees food trucks, told NPR that the city currently has 5,568 food trucks and carts.
Yasmany Mendoza is the owner of Tacos y Birria La Unica, a family-owned food truck based in the Mid-City neighborhood of Los Angeles.
"We specialize in birria. We do beef birria, goat birria, steak, chicken, cabeza. Everything's made with handmade tortillas," Mendoza says.
He reflected on the five years his family has been in business: "We started from the bottom first. We started with a food truck and now we have two. Hopefully in the future we can have a brick-and-mortar — thank God with all of our clients that have been supporting us since Day 1."
With more than 164,000 followers on Instagram, hundreds of positive reviews online, and a state-of-the-art decommissioned FedEx truck, Tacos y Birria La Unica is what the American dream looks like in practice.
Struggling with higher costs
And like all business owners in pursuit of that dream, the Mendozas are feeling the squeeze of 8.6% inflation — but they're especially feeling California's gas prices, which are currently over $6 a gallon.
Of all the many conveniences food trucks offer over traditional brick and mortar restaurants — lower startup costs, lower overhead — transportation costs aren't one of them. Mendoza estimates that over the past year, he's gone from spending $125 to fill up his tank to around $200.
Matthew Geller is CEO of the National Food Truck Association and he says that "everything's more expensive. It's 75 to 85 cents a mile to drive anywhere. [Food truck owners] are being very careful about how they waste that gas because every dollar that goes into your tank doesn't go into your pocket."
Geller runs a company that helps connect food trucks with catering events. "Everyday, I talk to someone that's making a decision about whether to vend or not based on how far it is," he says.
Business owners are also feeling the broader effects of inflation overall. The cost of food and key items has gone up, Mendoza says.
"The vegetables, the meat, everything. For example, the oil we use for the food truck used to be worth $20, now it's $40. A box of lemons used to be $20-$25 and now it's like $80. Avocados used to be $30 a box, now it's like $60."
In some ways the solution could be simple: To accommodate rising costs, business owners can raise prices to retain their margins. But in the world of food trucks, there's another and perhaps equally important economic factor at play: expectations.
Food trucks are known for their convenience and affordability. Consumers forgo the frills of a traditional restaurant in exchange for lower prices.
Morgan Grain, a foodie who lives in downtown Los Angeles, says, "sometimes if I know I want something cheap, I'll go to [my local] taco truck. I can get a good amount of tacos, and nachos, and a pineapple soda for like $20 — and that's like two meals."
A balancing act
This confluence of factors — higher gas prices, inflation and the overall shock of the pandemic economy — has created a delicate balancing act for Mendoza. He has to be sensitive to the expectations of his customers, but he also has to worry about the bottom line. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that consumers are paying 7.4% more for food in restaurants compared to last year.
"If you don't raise up your prices, you're not going to make money. But at the same time, you can't raise it too high cause some customers are going to complain," Mendoza says.
One thing Tacos y Birria La Unica won't compromise on is quality. Mendoza still plans to produce his birria tacos with handmade tortillas, freshly cut limes, and the recipe that's been passed down through generations.
"It's the recipe that my mom cooks from birthday parties and all that," he says.
Fortunately for Mendoza, some customers are accepting of price increases and sympathize with the position of business owners.
While waiting for her food, Grain makes her priorities clear.
"If the food's good, I'll definitely pay for it. I understand how my grocery bills are going up. Theirs probably are too," Grain says.
When and if inflation and gas prices will ease is still unknown, but for Mendoza, the path forward is relatively simple: "We have to work with what we have."
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