Also affected by inflation? Your local taco truck

In 1974, Raul Martinez was credited with opening the nation’s first taco truck. Selling food from a converted ice cream truck he had parked outside a bar in East Los Angeles, he eventually turned his business into King Taco, a restaurant chain with 22 locations in Southern California.

Since then, food trucks — like the Hollywood Walk of Fame and water crunches — have become a hallmark of Southern California. The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, which oversees food trucks, told NPR the city currently has 5,568 food trucks and carts.

Yasmany Mendoza is the owner of Tacos y Birria La Unica, a family food truck based in the Mid-City area of ​​Los Angeles.

“We specialize in birria. We do beef birria, goat birria, steak, chicken, cabeza. Everything is made with handmade tortillas,” says Mendoza.



He spoke about his family’s five years of business: “We first started at the bottom. We started with a food truck and now we have two. I hope that in the future we can have a brick and mortar – thank goodness with all of our customers who have supported us since day one.”

With over 164,000 Instagram followers, hundreds of positive reviews online, and a state-of-the-art, off-duty FedEx truck, Tacos y Birria La Unica is what the American Dream looks like in practice.

Struggling with higher costs

And like all business owners chasing that dream, the Mendozas are feeling the pressure of 8.6% inflation — but most of all they’re feeling California gas prices, which are currently above $6 a gallon. .

Of all the many conveniences offered by food trucks compared to traditional brick-and-mortar restaurants – lower start-up costs, reduced overhead – transportation costs are not one of them. Mendoza estimates that over the past year it has gone from $125 to fill up to around $200.

Matthew Geller is CEO of the National Food Truck Association and he says “everything is more expensive. It’s 75 to 85 cents a mile to drive anywhere. [Food truck owners] are very careful how they waste that gas because every dollar that goes into your tank doesn’t go into your pocket.”

Geller runs a company that helps connect food trucks to catering events. “Every day I talk to someone who decides whether or not to sell based on distance,” he says.

Business owners are also feeling the broader effects of inflation in general. The cost of food and essentials has gone up, Mendoza says.

“The vegetables, the meat, everything. For example, the oil we used for the food truck was $20, now it’s $40. A can of lemons was $20-25 and now it’s about $80. Avocados used to be $30 a box, now it’s like $60.”

In some ways, the solution could be simple: to cope with rising costs, business owners can raise prices to maintain their margins. But in the world of food trucks, there’s another, perhaps equally important, economic factor at play: expectations.

Food trucks are known for their convenience and affordability. Consumers are forgoing the frills of a traditional restaurant in exchange for lower prices.

Yasmany Mendoza and A Martinez in front of Tacos y Birria La Unica on Venice Boulevard.

(Sean Saldana

/

Courtesy of NPR)

Morgan Grain, a foodie who lives in downtown Los Angeles, says, “Sometimes if I know I want something cheap, I go to [my local] taco truck. I can get a good amount of tacos, nachos and a pineapple soda for like $20 – and that’s like two meals.”

A balancing act

This confluence of factors – rising gasoline prices, inflation and the overall shock to the pandemic economy – has created a delicate balance for Mendoza. He must be sensitive to the expectations of his clients, but he must also care about the bottom line. Data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics shows consumers are paying 7.4% more for food in restaurants compared to a year ago.

“If you don’t raise your prices, you’re not going to make any money. But at the same time, you can’t raise them too high because some customers are going to complain,” Mendoza said.

One thing that Tacos y Birria La Unica will not compromise on is quality. Mendoza still plans to produce its birria tacos with handmade tortillas, freshly cut limes, and the recipe passed down from generation to generation.

“It’s the recipe my mom cooks for birthday parties and stuff,” he says.

Fortunately for Mendoza, some customers accept the price increases and sympathize with the business owners’ position.

While waiting for his food, Grain clarifies his priorities.

“If the food is good, I’ll definitely pay. I understand my grocery bills are going up. Theirs probably are too,” Grain says.

It’s still unclear when and if inflation and gas prices will come down, but for Mendoza the way forward is relatively simple: “We have to work with what we have.

What questions do you have about Southern California?

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