Taco Wars in Los Angeles

Government seeks to help restaurants by chasing away taco trucks

East Los Angeles may have its share of problems-crime, homelessness, poverty-but have no fear, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is taking swift action to address the scourge-of taco trucks.

A new law, spurred by restaurant industry lobbying and spearheaded by Supervisor Gloria Molina, prescribes hefty fines and even jail time for vendors that linger in one place too long. It will apply outside the city limits to the unincorporated areas of the county, where about one million of the county’s ten million residents live. The move has caused a conflagration in the county, pitting “brick-and-mortar” restaurant interests and government planners against taco truck owners and their loyal customers.

Food vendors selling tacos, burritos, quesadillas, and other delicious Mexican treats out of catering trucks parked on the streets have been around Los Angeles for a long time, often providing affordable culinary options where few previously existed. A recent Los Angeles Times article notes that the taco trucks have “long been part of the cultural fabric of East L.A.”

Some have tried to justify laws restricting their business activity on the grounds that taco trucks pose a health and safety hazard, or somehow give the community a bad reputation, but the vendors’ real crime is that they have become too successful. Restaurant owners complain that the trucks’ mobile business model, along with their low overhead costs, provides them with an unfair advantage and steals their customers. Taco truck owners contend that it’s just plain smart and allows them to provide food that people like and want at lower prices. What’s next, are Baskin-Robbins and Cold Stone Creamery going to ask the government to eliminate the neighborhood ice cream man?

Existing law requires that the trucks move every 30 minutes, but some trucks remain in one place much longer-sometimes even all day-and owners consider the occasional $60 parking ticket just a cost of doing business. Parking violations are hardly the only regulations taco truck vendors have to worry about, though. According to another L.A. Times article, “Catering trucks must pass a number of health inspections before they are allowed to operate. For example, trucks must be parked within 200 feet of a bathroom, be equipped with soap, towels, and hot water, and owners must prove they have access to a facility where they can wash and store their vehicles.”

The new law extends the amount of time trucks may stay in one location to one hour but makes violations a misdemeanor offense, punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and/or six months in jail. Do we really wan the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and the district attorney to shift some of their resources from fighting violent crimes and theft to prosecuting taco trucks that remain in one spot for over an hour. All this for what essentially amounts to a parking violation.

The taco truck regulations are often justified on the grounds that they are necessary to protect public health and safety, but there is little to no evidence that they pose any real threat. There are nearly 14,000 taco trucks registered with the county, and some estimate that twice that many operate without registration. Yet, despite all this “illegal” activity, there are no widespread complaints of health problems or other harm to consumers, suggesting that even the previous less onerous regulations were unnecessary.

Equally unconvincing are arguments that the taco truck business is somehow undesirable or blights the community. “It just makes the community look like there’s no order,” charged Maria Cerdas, deputy to South Los Angeles Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke. And according to developer Ron Mukai, taco trucks “prohibit a community from moving forward. . . . There was a time when catering trucks filled a legitimate need because there was no willing vendor in East L.A. But for the sake of bettering the community, their time has passed.”

The legions of thriving taco truck businesses, and the customers that sustain them, speak to the contrary. Their presence suggests that the taco trucks are simply providing a needed service. Customers say they patronize the taco trucks for their good food, cheap prices, and convenient business hours. Grassroots support for the taco trucks spawned the web site, which offers up an online petition to repeal the new law. The site claims to have collected over 8,000 signatures already. Opposition to the government crackdown has even led to the creation of t-shirt designs with slogans like “Carne Asada Is Not a Crime.”

Yet, because a particular business does not fit Ms. Cerdas’s or Mr. Mukai’s vision of what an ideal community should look like, tens of thousands of businesses and customers should suffer and be deprived of the taco trucks’ services. Rather than focusing on centralized government planning, L.A. County should welcome the entrepreneurial spirit of so many of its residents and proprietors, and simply allow the supply and demand forces of the free market to reveal what people in the community want and which business models best serve them.