A Portable Feast

In the world of the lunchero, the food is hot, the drinks are cold, and the turf wars are downright dangerous

Unless a lunchero obtains special (and expensive) permits, his vehicle is only supposed to serve foods prepackaged in "single-service containers," a rule most drivers break. Instead they go out of their way to buy trays filled with marinated chicken, Chinese fried rice, mashed potatoes, and more. When a truck shows up at an office park or a construction site, patrons are invited to serve themselves, buffet style. These meals generally are far tastier than the prepackaged versions. And because the lunchero's survival depends on the popularity of his fare, most drivers serve hot food buffet style -- never mind the law. (The food on these trucks, if not always the most savory, appears to be safely edible. Last year, for example, only two complaints were filed with state officials concerning food purchased from California trucks.)

So how does one become a lunchero? First you need a truck. You can buy a restored California truck for $17,000 (or rent one for $250 per week) from San Francisco Motors at 26th Street and West Second Avenue in Hialeah. Next you obtain the minimum required licenses: state, county, and occupational. Now you need a route. And here's the rub.

A route is a series of stops at which you can dependably sell your food. How does one build a route? Pretty simple. You can go to any office building, warehouse, farm, business center, or school and simply park outside and wait. As long as the owner or manager doesn't mind, you're fine.

At Rainbow Catering a lone lunchero finds a moment of rest after a grueling day on the road
Steve Satterwhite
At Rainbow Catering a lone lunchero finds a moment of rest after a grueling day on the road
With his truck's wings up, Selin Aguada is ready for action
Steve Satterwhite
With his truck's wings up, Selin Aguada is ready for action

But if you actually want to sell the food on your truck, you're going to have to figure out when the workers or students are on break. And in order to have a route that generates money, you're going to have to coordinate the workers' breaks at one stop with the rest of your stops. This means you have to develop a relationship with the owners or managers of all the businesses you intend to serve.

Only one problem. You might be hard-pressed to find a single virgin stop in Miami-Dade County. Most likely another lunchero has already laid claim to it. And if you are looking to create an entire route, you're really going to have to search hard. Your competition: second-generation luncheros with nearly 30 years of experience and contacts. And if you show up at a business where another fellow is peddling his taquitos, you're more than likely going to be asked -- or told in no uncertain terms -- to leave.

Just ask former lunchero Luis Lopez, owner of Rainbow Catering, a prominent Hialeah food supplier for the lunch trucks. Lopez says he has been in the business since 1975, when he bought his first route for $5000. That's right, bought his first route. In the mobile catering business, you don't just buy a truck, you buy the route that comes with it. That is, of course, if you are working within the established code of honor, which forbids challenging an already established relationship between a lunchero and his client.

According to Lopez entrepreneurs have been creating routes and developing contacts with businesses, farms, and contractors since the Seventies, when Cuban drivers began securing a foothold in the industry. Before then luncheros tended to be Anglo, and getting someone to drive a lunch truck was difficult. No one wanted to do it. The rapid growth of Hialeah and the influx of Cubans and other immigrants changed all of that, Lopez says. Now nearly all lunch truck operators in Miami-Dade are Hispanic. They hail from virtually every Latin-American and Caribbean country, though most are Cuban.

Rather than buying a truck and trying to start a route cold, most luncheros gain entry through someone already in the business. This usually means renting a truck, for up to $500 per week, with an already established route. After a month or two of training, a driver is ready to purchase the route and go out on his own, or continue renting it if the owner does not want to sell. A driver can always build his route by keeping an eye out for new and better stops, which open with time.

The cost of a route is usually comparable to a little less than what it grosses annually. A cheap route might run $20,000 and net between $21,000 and $24,000 per year. The best routes have market values as high as $100,000. With the possibility of reaching six figures selling sandwiches, it comes as little surprise that there are internal tensions in the mobile catering business. Independent drivers sometimes get into disputes with one another; others complain that bigger operators, who own several trucks, try to bully smaller players. With more money to spend, a larger operator can provide financial incentives to a foreman or a business owner or a contractor. Codes of honor have a funny way of bowing to cash.

Shortly after 8:00 in the morning, Selin Aguada heads northwest on Okeechobee Road, then north toward his first destination, a carpet outlet on West 64th Street in Hialeah, hard by the Palmetto Expressway. He bounces with the rhythm of the road and accelerates quickly at intersections. As a result of the photo-viewing session, he is running about ten minutes behind -- serious time when your schedule revolves around a chain of famished workers on fifteen-minute breaks. If Aguada arrives late to one of these locales, the workers do not eat, and he risks losing their business for good.

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