The rising sun fights off billowy clouds on an unusually brisk July morning in Paramount.
Louis Falla pulls his car into the parking lot and turns off its headlights. It is 5 a.m., but most of the people scurrying around the lot at Standard Catering on East Alondra Boulevard have been there for a couple of hours. Some own their own catering trucks. Others work for companies with names like Super Snack, Deals on Wheels and Grill Thrill.
The air is thick with the smells of bacon and chorizo sizzling on propane grills from inside the trucks. Engines idle as workers slosh over asphalt littered with fruit rinds, empty soda cartons and melting ice. Soon they'll be off on another 12-hour day, serving hot and cold meals, drinks and snacks to workers at offices and construction sites in the Southeast area. Many repeat this scene six days a week.
Street vernacular dubs the rolling grills "roach coaches" and "meat wagons," but their proliferation in Southern California demonstrates their utility.
"The hot truck is indicative of our life style," said manager Terry Newton of Standard. "This is a very small business nationwide. Our (population) density here makes it very conducive to this business."
Falla, a native of Costa Rica, says he meets "nice people, different people, terrible people" on his route, which includes 30 stops at businesses in Paramount and Cerritos.
As a group he likes office workers the best. "They have the money and don't mind paying the price," he says. "Construction workers are hard people. They sometimes say very bad things to my cook."
An average gross income, he said, is about $900 a day. He figures he'll keep about a third of it after expenses.
"This is not an easy business to get into," Newton said. "A truck costs $40,000 a year and the insurance alone on one of these vehicles is $4,000 a year."
By 6 a.m., as it begins to drizzle, most of the hot trucks are on the road. Falla fires up the engine of his modified Chevrolet Step Van and pulls onto Alondra in the direction of mounting lightning and heads for a bakery on Paramount Boulevard.
"A bad day for me, eh?" he says. "On hot days we sell more." It's 6:15 a.m., and he's 15 minutes away from his first stop, a plastics factory in Paramount.
Falla pulls his van up to the bakery and leaps out of the open door into the street. He returns five minutes later with pan dulce (Mexican sweet bread), which he says he buys each day ' 'para los Mexicanos ."
Coffee is also popular. It knows no barriers between offices and construction sites, white collar or blue collar, hard hat or suit and tie.
And it is profitable. A 100-cup pot of coffee uses about a pound of beans. At 25 cents or more a cup, a vendor's minimum profit on coffee is about eight times the cost to produce it.
Developing a rapport with customers ensures repeat business. Falla prefers a personal approach. He has many Latino customers and his knowledge of Spanish is helpful.
As he silently arrives at the plastics factory there are a few cars with bleary-eyed workers waiting for him. More arrive on foot, and each passes the truck, eyeing the staples. Falla encourages them with a smile and calls of "Hola, amigo " or "Buenas dias , senor." Later he joked with three Latinas in Spanish about the sweet bread. Another woman dawdled at the counter after taking some food and a cup of coffee. She didn't have enough money to pay for it all, she says in Spanish. Motioning with his hand, Falla tells her to take it. She can pay for it tomorrow.
Most customers who give their word are good for the money, Falla said, so it's worth the risk.
"It's a lot of competition," he says. "If I don't do my route right, I may lose (to another truck)."
Competition for new stops is fierce among the drivers. A good recommendation from a customer can mean new business. Drivers sometimes negotiate with managers to win a stop at their business, while at other places they may undercut the prices of a competitor and "steal" a stop.
Prices also vary from stop to stop and sometimes from customer to customer. At an office building a woman chides Falla gently as she buys a soda, "you chargin' (me) a different price. You charge different prices for everything."
"Ah," says Falla, flashing the woman a big grin without responding to her complaint.
At the Price Club warehouse store in Cerritos, Falla faces an onslaught of about three dozen employees. They flood out a side door into the rain and swarm the truck. A handful of truckers from the loading docks join in, forming lines at the food counter that are four-deep.
Falla sets up a table a distance from the truck to make change while cook Lola Meibas takes orders for hot food from inside the van. Falla is quickly surrounded and soon some customers complain that the service is too slow. A handful of strong, young men talk about bolting with their food. But after a few steps away from the truck, they return. They have sheepish looks on their faces.
The majority of the crowd mills around the van. Some sit on the curb and eat. Others contemplate another snack. Still others wait for co-workers.
But Falla can't wait. He packs up his truck and minutes later is sounding his horn at the next stop.