A Portable Feast

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

"I've built 25 routes from the ground up," Candelario boasts. "The last one I just finished two weeks ago in Pompano." But he refuses to speak in anything but the vaguest terms about how exactly he builds routes. "There's a way to do everything," he says, "selling lunch-truck food or creating a route. It's not just a matter of showing up somewhere with your truck."

Unlike most luncheros Candelario speaks fluent English. He is one of those plump men so full of energy they seem to defy their weight and age. When he speaks his body and head have a way of turning in different directions, as if he suspects he is being followed. His routes are said to be some of the best in South Florida. Candelario won't reveal how much they are worth or precisely where they are located, but neither does he underplay their value. These routes are so valuable he is not interested in selling any of them. "Let's put it this way," he hints, "I got my degrees in business and computers, but I'm making more with my lunch trucks."

Growing up with a father and a godfather in the business didn't hurt his chances at developing those choice routes. He learned the trade when there was still room to create routes without getting into turf wars. The secret to his success, he says, is "keeping your eyes open."

While Candelario is cryptic about his strategies, independent operator Miguel Angel is not. Angel claims Candelario has been keeping his eyes on some of his own sites. For example he claims Candelario made a play for a lucrative construction site he services in Broward. According to Angel an operator like Candelario will pay up to $5000 per year or spend $100 per month to keep a particularly hot account. "He was out there hanging around with the owners, seeing what he could do," Angel recalls.

Candelario agrees he is always on the lookout for new routes, but maintains that his methods are honest. "It's those drivers out there that are paying general contractors $2000, $4000, up to $8000 to do business at their sites who are ruining the business," he protests.

At a construction site just south of the Dade-Broward county line, a roach coach arrives amid a cloud of dust. The horn screams, " La cucaracha! La cucaracha!" The red truck, with its gleaming silver rims, is the only thing that seems to resist the dust, which settles on everything, including the workers. Because of the vehicle's heavily tinted windows and the lunar feel of the site, when Roger Peraza exits his vehicle he looks something like an astronaut emerging from a spaceship. His mirrored sunglasses add to the impression, until the white dust begins to settle on him, too. Peraza the astronaut rapidly metamorphoses into Peraza the street-savvy hawker of grub in an open marketplace.

He wears black jeans, a black T-shirt with a Nike logo, and black hiking boots. At age 48 he's logged sixteen years on the roach-coach circuit. True, he is one of De La Torre's drivers, a storm trooper, so to speak. His boss may have the cash and muscle to secure a competitive site if he has to. But a little time with Peraza on the job and one can see the crucial ingredients to his success: hard work, tasty vittles, a little bit of style, and a .38 in the glove compartment -- just in case.

Peraza swings open the rear oven doors, revealing a bounty that includes hot dogs, hamburgers, five different chicken dishes, ground-beef taquitos, three kinds of rice, mashed potatoes, and yuca.

An entourage of cementlayers quickly clusters around. Other men abandon the rooftops on which they were working, or dismount from Pavex cement mixers. A hard-hatted man buys a fish sandwich, then haggles with Peraza over the price of a soda. "What, are you a communist?" retorts Peraza without missing a beat.

Deeper into the site, Peraza serves a group of men who build walls in the development, and with all the joking along his sales routine, it's easy to miss the fact that he is speaking Creole to a Haitian construction worker. "Yes, I know the words that matter most, food and money things," he says. A group of Guatemalans start toward the truck, then think better of it. The reason becomes apparent immediately. "I'll never give you credit again!" Peraza shouts. "That's $20, $30 lost!"

Finally the foreman of the site drives up in a forklift. If you doubt that the lunch-truck business is a little like the Wild West, one look at Carlos Perez will change that. The 48-year-old construction boss wears a ten-gallon cowboy hat as he rides the wide open spaces, aloft in his tractor. Peraza simply yells: " La pinga!" The man!

After twelve more hours of frantic salesmanship, Peraza arrives back at Rainbow to discard unsold food and restock ice and soft drinks for the next day. The father of six has been up since 3:00 a.m., a typical schedule.

At first there seems to be a carelessness about the way Peraza flings his unsold goods into a Dumpster. But then it becomes apparent these are subtle movements, a mixture of extreme fatigue and years of experience. "It's all about sacrifice," he notes. "There's no vacation. If you don't show up, nobody eats. You can't go running off to Cancún for two or three months."

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