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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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Every day beginning at 3:30 a.m., luncheros flock to Rainbow, filling up and moving out, cramming its parking lot with up to 60 vehicles. Lopez's road to success, however, is more difficult to navigate today, in an area saturated with lunch-truck drivers. "When I got started," he recalls, "there were 200, maybe 300 trucks. Now there are over 1000 drivers." With newly arriving immigrants searching for a job that offers if not instant riches, then at least a measure of independence, more and more people are willing to vie for a place in this competitive market. The result is conflict and increased danger.
Whether it's drivers buying from warehouses or clients buying from luncheros, cash fuels the business, making it a natural target for robbers. Rainbow suffered three burglaries in 1998. In that same year, 29-year-old Ivan Edgar and 16-year-old William Lleo went on a robbery binge, logging seven lunchero holdups and one jewelry-store heist in a two-month period before skipping to Mexico. A 1992 robbery attempt at Rainbow was thwarted when Victor "Hugo" M. Candelario, a partner in the business, shot and wounded one of four bandits who snatched a briefcase full of money from Lopez. Candelario got the briefcase back, and the robbers fled the scene. "Life is always dangerous," Lopez shrugs. "You can be assaulted in whatever kind of work you do; it's all the same."
And then there are the internecine dangers. Miguel Angel, a Cuban-American driver who stocks up at Rainbow, says the two groups that typically attempt to cut into his business are Anglo, Italian, and Colombian drivers who stock up in Broward; and pesky young Cuban drivers. Angel says they do so by either showing up at one of his stops or attempting to court the owners of a business he has a history of servicing: "You think they are your partner, then you find out they're trying to find out where your route is." Weeks ago, Angel recounts, he got into a dispute with a rival lunch-truck operator regarding a sprawling Lennar Corp. housing development in Broward. "That's 1500 houses going up," he says, "a six-year project, a lot of money." According to Angel the rival lunchero learned of the site and showed up, ignoring Angel's relationship with the construction company overseeing the development. The matter nearly came to blows before the other lunchero backed off. How would Angel have responded had the offending driver not blinked first? "With everything I have," he growls. "That's the way it is out here."
Like many independent luncheros, Angel complains that bigger players, operators who own several trucks, often go after established routes by buying off management.
"What is a route?" asks Alain De La Torre. "It is nothing firm, nothing sure. It is an artificial thing." One of the dominant players on the roach-coach circuit, 48-year-old De La Torre has blue eyes and black hair combed neatly back. He wears spotless white running shoes, jeans, and a polo shirt. With his son, Guido, De La Torre owns and operates La Caridad Catering, a stable of California lunch trucks they rent out to willing drivers. The elder De La Torre first took the wheel of a truck thirteen years ago. By all accounts he and his son have had a meteoric rise in the business. They are a frequent presence at Rainbow, keeping an eye on their investments.
Ask any of the 250 luncheros who load up at Rainbow how many trucks De La Torre owns and you'll likely hear a figure of about twenty. During a recent telephone interview, De La Torre himself claimed to own nineteen trucks. A day later he claimed the number was closer to a half-dozen. His caginess may have something to do with claims of his aggressive tactics. Among luncheros he is often accused of stepping on the little guy and encouraging the men who work for him to usurp the stops of other drivers.
State records indicate that La Caridad presently owns seven lunch trucks, five or six more than most drivers who work out of Miami-Dade County. De La Torre says he is selling his trucks in order to invest in other business ventures, though he declines to elaborate. So how does he manage to be so successful? "I am a santero," he says, revealing a necklace of blue, green, and white beads. "My religion forbids me to talk about my personal life...." He hesitates almost imperceptibly then adds, "and my, uh, business affairs."
How did he start in the business? "I wasn't happy with the work I was doing [delivering furniture]. A lunchero where I was working told me: 'I think you have the blood for this kind of work. You have to have a way with the people.'" What does it take to survive in this fiercely competitive environment? Everyone survives on the roach-coach circuit, he insists, adding, "This is not a business you're going to get rich in."
How, then, to explain Victor Candelario, Jr., son of Candelario Sr. and godson of Luis Lopez? According to state records, the 39-year-old Cuban American, doing business under the name Victor Catering, is the only operator in Miami-Dade who owns more trucks than De La Torre. Looking like an improbable cross between Dom DeLuise and Don Johnson, the mustachioed Candelario cuts a larger-than-life figure in dress pants and polo shirt. He arrives at San Francisco Motors -- an auto shop that also rents, repairs, and sells lunch trucks -- driving an immaculate black 300SD Mercedes-Benz, not exactly the stereotypical image of a sandwich-peddling immigrant. Two associates accompany him. All three men wear sunglasses.