A Portable Feast

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

Although his next stop is a forklift warehouse, Aguada's route is chiefly construction. Sixteen of the eighteen sites he visits twice daily are run by contractor José Fano. "I worked this site when they were building [the Citgo station]," says Aguada, stopping for gas on West 60th Street. "The attendant inside used to drive a lunch truck. I know him." He points across the street to a pair of six-story apartment buildings and an office complex. "I worked those too," he says. "I've worked the entirety of Hialeah." But Aguada's route has flourished with the growth of Fano's business, which has moved beyond Hialeah projects. Now that Fano is working bigger projects in Broward County, so is Aguada.

At Melrose Homes, a new project in Miramar, Aguada makes fifteen stops, zigzagging a trail of dust through a development that stretches over several square miles. Aguada spends a little more than five minutes at each, making small talk, keeping tabs on his accounts, and smiling, always smiling.

At a stop on the fringes of the site, a truckload of workers calls out to Aguada, who is already on his way to the next stop: "Where're you going? Don't let us starve!" Aguada, ever courteous, stops along the road, and opens his truck for five more quick sales. The bills he holds in his left hand have grown an inch thick, yet he shuffles them deftly and rapidly in and out of the wad while greeting workers, holding several light conversations at once and monitoring the hands rapidly despoiling the contents of his truck.

Steve Satterwhite
Steve Satterwhite

For all the smiling, the anxiety of reaching his next stop is never far from his mind. And there are other, darker concerns as well. Two months ago, he says, a foreman working this site invited another lunchero. Aguada did not take kindly to this. He personally asked the driver to leave, but that didn't work. The new guy said he had received permission. So Aguada turned to his old friend Fano. The errant vendor was sent packing, as was the foreman not long afterward. "I haven't had too many problems in my work, just a few instances," he says.

But turning to Fano was not the last alternative. Aguada had at least one more option for dealing with this stubborn interloper: " A piñasos!" he declares. With blows!

Luis Lopez is a man of slight build and enormous perseverance. He has graying hair and brown eyes that manage to be penetrating despite his tinted bifocals. A strain of humility and patience leavens his voice, lending him something of the common touch. But beneath his generous nature -- legendary among luncheros -- there is tremendous drive.

Lopez is the founder of Rainbow Catering, one of the most prominent suppliers on the roach-coach circuit. Some 250 trucks are registered to pick up food at the commissary. A former lunchero himself, the 62-year-old Lopez has come to represent the pinnacle of this particular career path: prosperous business owner. Purchased in 1984 with $35,500 apiece anted up by Lopez and two partners (as well as four lunch trucks thrown in to meet the asking price), Rainbow is a booming concern today. About a dozen employees work there, serving clients $18,000 to $20,000 worth of merchandise per day in a business that is still growing.

Before arriving in the United States in 1968, Lopez lost his left arm in a traffic accident in Cuba. This did nothing to quell his entrepreneurial spirit. He sold jewelry on the sidewalks of Los Angeles until an earthquake scared him into moving to Miami. He then moved to Chicago for a brief time, but the Windy City winter sent him scurrying back to South Florida with a newly purchased $400 ice cream truck. In that very vehicle, he loaded his wife, nine-year-old son, and his furniture, and headed south. What better place to sell frozen sweets, he figured, than Miami? "I hit the road not knowing anything about selling ice cream," says Lopez. "After having the truck painted and filling it with supplies, I had $50 left in my pocket."

Lopez bought his first lunch truck in 1975, along with a route that has since been demolished by the construction of I-95. He would rise at 2:00 a.m. and work till 2:00 p.m., then head back on the ice cream truck in the afternoon. This routine he kept up for nine months before selling the ice cream truck and devoting himself exclusively to operating a roach coach. Soon he bought another lunch truck for $9000 and began renting the first truck. Then he sold both trucks and tried a brief stint in the landscaping business. But the 1980 Mariel boatlift, along with a construction boom, lured Lopez back to mobile vending. He saw an increase in those willing to drive the trucks and a growing market as well. Lopez began buying battered trucks, repairing them, forging routes for them, and selling the trucks along with the routes. By 1984 he was ready to try his hand at the wholesale end of the business.

Rainbow offers almost everything you need for a lunch truck except hot foods and fresh-baked pastry items: propane gas tanks for refueling the rear warmers, packaged sweets, drinks. But the most impressive feature of Rainbow is its gargantuan ice plant. Installed a year ago, the gray-steel structure rises four stories high, adjacent to the eastern façade of the Rainbow building. A fat plastic tube winds down from the roof of the bin, delivering thousands of pounds of ice per day to luncheros. At peak production the plant produces 200,000 pounds per day of the white gold, which literally makes the business possible. It is cold items -- cans of soda beaded with condensation, apple juice so frigid it lowers your body temperature -- that make the lunchero an oasis in a desert of possibility.

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