Late on Friday, March 20, the impassioned cry that popped up on Instagram stories for followers of Los Originales Tacos Árabes de Puebla was palpable because the popular Pueblan food truck would likely be forced to shut down. “Our business is really down, and if it doesn’t pick up by this weekend, we will have to close,” read the post by Arely Villegas, daughter of owners Merced and Alfredo Villegas. Then she decided to do something she’d never done.
Quickly, Arely began a flurry of social media posts to alert supporters that they could use some help. Soon, phone orders came and Zelle payments started to arrive.” I never thought it would work, but it [posting on social media] actually did. I was tired after all that work,” laughed Villegas said with a laugh. In LA’s various Latino communities, minimal access to resources has left many beloved taco, pupusa, and mariscos (seafood) vendors trying to survive as the novel coronavirus pandemic has besieged the Los Angeles restaurant industry.
Big name restaurants have chef and restaurateur networks, leadership teams, PR firms, and institutions like the James Beard Foundation in their corner. Almost immediately, restaurants like Tesse, Republique, Night & Market, and Porridge & Puffs pivoted to markets, takeout, and delivery to generate business.
For family-owned Latino restaurants, the leadership team is family. “I’ve been talking to my wife about delivery models, because we’d never done deliveries,” said Jose Pérez of East LA’s Asadero Chikali truck. As soon as the City and County of Los Angeles announced that restaurants were to be closed, allowing for only takeaway and delivery to continue, Pérez, like many Latino-owned food trucks, saw nearly a 60% drop in business. While food trucks don’t have the overhead of restaurants, they still have to pay rent at their respective commissaries, where they must park the trucks at night.
During last weekend, Asadero Chikali turned it around as Pérez was seen on social media delivering to neighborhoods like Mid-City, Sherman Oaks, and Long Beach. “The problem with the delivery apps is that they are limited in their range, and my customers come from all over, plus, I can’t trust them to deliver my food the way I want, plus they take 30%,” said Pérez, who eventually made the difficult decision with his wife to close down the operation temporarily due to health and safety concerns.
Raul Ortega, owner of Mariscos Jalisco, who is doing takeout only, agrees that delivery services take too much of a cut: “Our profit margin is only around 25% sometimes, and we’d be working for them,” he said of delivery services like Grubhub and Doordash. Ortega is trying to figure out a delivery model for Mariscos Jalisco, but he finds the restaurant offerings on the popular platforms are almost entirely devoid of traditional Latino cuisine. The exception might be Oaxacan restaurants, many of which have listings on mainstream delivery services.
Guelaguetza, Gish Bac, Sabores Oaxaqueños, and many others can be found on Doordash, Grubhub, Postmates, and Uber Eats. Most Latino restaurants have heard of Grubhub and Uber Eats, yet only restaurants like Sonoratown, La Casita Mexicana, Tacos 1986, Guisados, Loqui, and Burritos La Palma have joined Caviar or Postmates. “Those restaurants have websites, and lots of experience,” said Villegas of Tacos Arabes, who has been trying to find the time to check out other restaurants’ social media to get ideas. Other vendors that usually move locations all across the city have had difficulty getting onto delivery platforms.
Poncho’s Tlayudas, which operates at a South LA home and normally at Smorgasburg on Sundays, has begun taking orders for pick-up, adding tamales to compensate for all the lost sales from indigenous community events that had been cancelled. But Poncho’s wasn’t sure if they could sign up for Uber Eats. “We are waiting in line to get approved because they are overwhelmed with the number of applications,” said Odilia Romero, Poncho Martinez’s wife and partner.
Donny Morales and Wendy Centeno of Vcho’s, a traditional Salvadoran pupusa truck with some non-traditional items on their menu, lost all of their lunch service, and had been doing about 15 events a month before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the restaurants and bars across the city. They are surviving though loyal customers, who have been calling in orders, or showing up to their regular stops to order takeout, and then wait in their cars for their orders to maintain social distancing.
“We’ve been talking to delivery app services, but some won’t work with us because we move around,” said Centeno. They’ve also considered doing their own delivery but for now they’re week-to-week on whether they can even stay open. Teddy’s Red Tacos truck has also counted on regulars to order takeout during this unprecedented health and economic crisis.
“The only thing is we don’t know how tacos will work on delivery, because I heard lots of people say you have to eat them at the truck, “ said Villegas. Guerrilla Tacos, Sonoratown, and Madre have offered taco kits, which is actually a trusted tradition in Mexico, and in LA Mexican culture. Customers at Birrieria Nochistlán, Carnitas El Momo, and Barba Kush buy their meat by the pound, which comes with the tortillas and condiments to assemble at home.
While many unlicensed vendors are out on the streets still gathering crowds, endangering the health of customers and vendors alike, holding your own taquiza (taco party) at home with family, in quarantine, is a wonderful way to eat and stay safe. Send them direct messages, call in orders, find them on delivery apps to help LA’s Latino vendors. An LA without street food, without tacos, is unimaginable.