Editor’s Note: Frontera NorteSur is proud to announce the beginning of a new series of articles written by NMSU students. In what we hope will be a permanent addition to our news service, FNS will feature occasional articles on different themes and issues relating to the borderland, immigration, health and a host of other issues. Today’s story is a fascinating culinary and business journey into the booming world of immigrant taco truck owners in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The author is Nicolás Cabrera, NMSU graduate student in Spanish and a Spanish high school teacher in Albuquerque.
As the neon lights from motels on Central Avenue go dark, the lights and smells from taco trucks are slowly moving in to take their place. A taco truck boom has been taking place in Albuquerque for over a decade now as immigrant entrepreneurs bring the flavors of their home countries via mobile food units to hungry customers.
Mobile food units, popularly called taco trucks because many of them specialize in Mexican-style tacos, are kitchens on wheels. Customers order an array of food options from the trucks that are then prepared on the spot. If tables and chairs are provided, customers can eat there but food is typically packaged for take away to be consumed in vehicles or at home.
Carlos Sánchez is the owner of Sánchez Tacos and has been in business for ten years now in front of the Fair-N-Square supermarket on Central Avenue. Business has been booming for him and recently his fifth taco truck opened for business near Griegos Road and 4th Street in Albuquerque’s North Valley.
“The key to success in this business is preparing everything fresh. If I invest $100 today, I’ll make it back tonight,” he says in the interior of his shiny, new $73,000 taco truck. “We make everything here on the spot and that’s what our customers expect.”
Alma Cisneros is a customer who was picking up tacos de barbacoa and agrees. “The fresh ingredients are important even if I’m just picking up a quick last minute meal,” she said.
Sánchez, who came from Mexico to Albuquerque via California, noticed during a visit here that there were no taco trucks despite a sizeable Hispanic population. So, he decided to take a big business risk and start one to meet the demand for the taste and flavors of his home country. After a rough start, he now oversees five taco trucks across the city every night, seven days a week, and puts in long hours like many other mobile food vendors across the city.
“During the week we open at 5:00 pm and in the winter we close at midnight and at 1:00 am in the summer,” said Sánchez. “On the weekends we open at 3:00 pm and we close at 3:00 am. But if I still have a line at 3:00 am, I’ll stay open and continue selling.”
Street vendors can be found throughout the city on a given day or night, but they can be most easily found clustered along Central Avenue, especially on Fridays and Saturdays. There are relatively few restrictions imposed by the city on where they can operate. The mobile food vendors must have permission from the owner to operate if they are on private property. If they are operating in a public area, like a park, it has to be in a safe place and they have to get permission from the city’s parks and recreation department. Lorie Stoller, the Environmental Health Manager at the City of Albuquerque, says that there are no restrictions on hours of operation.
Across town near 98th Street and I-40, Antonia Puentes and her sister are entrepreneurs from Durango, Mexico. With the help of some other family members, they run Sabor México from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, seven days a week. While their mobile food unit may have different business hours and a different set of customers, they offer the same basic menu of Mexican food.
“We serve typical Mexican quesadillas, tacos, and tortas such as adobada, al pastor, asada, barbacoa, buche, carnitas, chicken, and tripitas,” she said over the sounds of semi-trucks and freeway traffic. “A lot of our customers are truckers and tourists. About half of them are American and half are Mexican.”
For over four years she has run Sabor México in a dirt lot near this intersection because of its high traffic volume. But lots of automobiles whizzing by doesn’t always translate to lots of taco orders. Like many others in this business, her entrepreneurial pursuit has had its ups and downs. When she first started, business was booming with lots of truckers and tourists, but then the economy fell into recession and it hurt her profits.
“Last year was a tough year but this year has been better,” she said. “But the economy is always a big factor on how we’ll do.”
Like many other small business owners, Puentes has a dream. The goal for her fledgling business is to upgrade from a simple taco truck to a full-fledged taquería, a restaurant that specializes in Mexican tacos. She says this side of town needs a Mexican restaurant that serves authentic tacos.
But tacos aren’t the only items for sale at taco trucks. Sánchez Tacos, for example, keeps their menu simple with four Mexican foods: quesadillas, tacos, burritos and tortas, a type of hot Mexican sandwich. There are taco trucks around the city that sell other items, such as menudo, pozole, gorditas, enchiladas, hamburgers, hot dogs, barbecue, and countless other dishes. The taco trucks also carry an assortment of beverages that hail from the country of origin, such as Mexican Coca-Cola, Fanta, and Jarritos soft drinks. In the summer some also sell aguas frescas. These are traditional Mexican sweet beverages with flavors such as horchata, tamarindo, mango, watermelon, cantaloupe, lemon, and many others.
But more there’s more than Mexican food for sale. Cecelia García, a city environmental health specialist that conducts inspections on the west side, says she’s seen a wide variety of foods that mobile food units prepare.
“In my area predominately it’s going to be Mexican food,” she said. “There are some other really interesting trucks throughout the city. Also in my area we do the trucks for the movie industry. It’s much different and very eclectic.”
The mobility that the trucks offer allows them to sell food at special events, in addition to their day-to-day operations. Stoller said, “For the larger functions such as Summerfest or the Albuquerque birthday celebration and church fiestas, sometimes its just easier for the food vendors to use mobile trucks rather than the booth situation. It’s just easier and safer, so they’re getting that business as well.”
Twice a year García inspects the units and the commissaries where wares and food are stored. People should not be afraid to eat from taco trucks because each one has to meet the same health and safety codes as restaurants. The city has taken steps to promote and support mobile food units and their owners. According to Stoller and García, their office wants to help these entrepreneurs to succeed. They offer trainings in both English and Spanish to new and current owners. Their office has also written a guide to permitting to help new business owners get started. In addition, the Mayor’s Office also sponsors the Truck Tuesdays initiative at Civic Plaza where mobile vendors can sell their food to downtown workers and tap into new customers.
Support from the city and demand from the public has given Albuquerque a steady increase in mobile food permits over the last few years. According to the city’s Environmental Health Department, in December 2011 the city had 97 active permits for mobile food units and as of November 2014, there were 113 such permits.
As successful as the taco truck boom has been in Albuquerque, like all entrepreneurs, these immigrants are taking risks when they go into business. The business risk is highlighted by the fact that profit margins can be thin and vary day to day. Puentes said that in this economic downturn, on a good day she can earn about $400 and on bad days she’s lucky to break $100.
“One never knows,” she said. “It always varies and even if you don’t make any sales you have to pay your employees. Sometimes the passion is what keeps you going because there’s no money in it as an owner. And owners have to work day and night if they want to come out ahead.”
Sánchez also recalled how his first year was tough and that he almost had to close shop. But things started to take off when he found the right location and established a base of loyal customers. According to the taquero, 99% of his customers are Mexican and this has translated to steady sales and some customers buying supper from him two or three times a week.
Part of the charm of taco trucks for many immigrant families is finding the flavors from home in New Mexico. Elizabeth Castillo and her husband take their children to eat from taco trucks regularly.
“We like that taco trucks are fast and convenient,” she said. “They make us think of Mexico and are a taste of home here in Albuquerque. I especially like it when I eat tacos al pastor, which are my favorite.”
When customers such as the Castillo and Cisneros families are buying from mobile food units, they are maintaining the street food culture that is widespread in many countries, especially in Mexico and other parts of Latin America. Cisneros said, “Taco trucks make me think of Chihuahua, my dad’s home.”
Throughout Mexico, for example, it is not uncommon to find taco trucks open every night of the week well past midnight selling freshly made food.
Sometimes those late-night hours can be dangerous, however. While Sánchez does encounter minor problems with some customers who are inebriated or rowdy, there was one time in particular when he got held up and his brother was shot.
“About three years ago I was robbed,” he said. “I was calm because I knew what to do during a hold-up. The robber came in through the door and had a gun in his hand. He took all the money and then shot my brother for a gold chain he was wearing.”
His brother survived and the robber only took that night’s money. Sánchez takes it all in stride. He sees it as part of the risk of doing business and doesn’t plan to quit anytime soon. The taco truck boom is in full swing and he plans to keep selling tacos as long as there are hungry customers.
“It’s definitely booming now,” said García. “I feel that all the vendors that I have in my area are really doing a good job. I think it’s a good opportunity for a new business to start up.”
Taco trucks can be simple kitchens on wheels powered by a generator, or full self-contained units. With the liberty to set up shop virtually anywhere, they offer a mobility that restaurants will never have. They are not confined to one place and they can easily move if business is going slow. But once they have found their place, taco trucks get repeat customers.
Sabor México has tourists who come back year after year looking for their tacos on Albuquerque’s West Side while Sánchez Tacos continues to expand. Both these taco trucks, and dozens more throughout the city, showcase how immigrants craving the food and flavors of their home countries etched taco trucks into the city’s landscape.
— Nicolás Cabrera