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Taco trucks are feeling the crunch across the U.S.

The demand for food from mobile vendors grows as the Latino population increases. But officials in some places see the vehicles as nuisances and create laws to curb their operation.

May 20, 2009|Jeff Gottlieb

"The growth of the Latino population has been sudden and explosive, and Iowa has been homogeneous since European immigration to the state -- and these, I guess are growing pains," he said. "It's just going to take time for folks to get used to living with each other."

In Charlotte, which has a fast-growing Latino population, residents complained last year that taco trucks were camping out in office parking lots past midnight, bringing crowds and crime to nearby neighborhoods.

"They were transitioning from a place for food to a place for folks to congregate," said John Lassiter, an at-large city councilman. "A lot of these neighborhoods are older, struggling with the changing demographic, so they perceive the taco truck and the related use as negatively impacting their quality of life and potentially impacting the value of their primary asset, which is their house."

The City Council responded by passing an ordinance forcing taco trucks to shut down at 9 p.m. and ensuring that several of them could not gather in the same parking lot.

One of the broadest bans on taco trucks was enacted in California in 2000 -- in Red Bluff, a town of about 15,000 between Chico and Redding. Last year, the city held off on cracking down on a taco truck that had begun operating, City Manager Martin Nichols said. The district attorney asked the city to go slow because it was investigating the owner's suspected involvement in a drug and money laundering ring.

Meanwhile, another entrepreneur bought a couple of taco trucks and was ready to begin operations. Then he discovered that the taco trucks themselves were illegal in Red Bluff.

"When he found out he had a worthless investment, the City Council listened to him," Nichols said.

A new ordinance to allow taco trucks -- but require minimum standards and design review before they can operate -- passed this month.

Buying a taco truck is not cheap. Merida said his truck cost $150,000. His mother-in-law, Sonia Avila, has been driving a lonchera around Palos Verdes Estates for years, and the family is well known in the area. Construction workers starting a job will sometimes call them to let them know where to bring the truck.

Merida said he doesn't believe taco trucks ever caused problems in the city. Between the recession and the new ordinance, Merida says business is down by half. Now Sonia Avila is working on her daughter's truck.

"The city was quiet until they saw the problems in L.A. with lunch trucks," Merida said. "Then everything started popping up."

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jeff.gottlieb@latimes.com

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