They’re mobile food units, of course — sometimes called “taco trucks” but they certainly don’t have any restrictions on what they serve. An informal survey of units in Chico shows that many of them serve Mexican food.
Jose Quintero, who owns Tacos Super Tonaya with his wife, Ana, have been in the same location at 1456 Mangrove Ave. since June 24, 2014. The Quinteros rent space on the north side of the building at California Check Cashing, which provides them with enough room for their truck as well as a table with four chairs.
Jose Quintero speaks mostly Spanish and requested that his son, Sergio, serve as his spokesman. Sergio Quintero said he, his two brothers and two sisters work in the unit along with their parents — making it a completely a family operation. He said his family owning a mobile food unit has its advantages.
“We don’t have to pay for electricity,” Sergio Quintero said. “If you get lucky, you can find a spot outside a store and come to terms with the owner. There’s nothing extra to pay.”
That’s in contrast to what a “brick and mortar” restaurant operator faces — ranging from insurance on the premises, utilities, maintenance … and on and on. In addition, stationary restaurants have many tables, plus plates, utensils, large refrigeration units, and much more. “Taco trucks,” as a rule, serve their food on disposable plates, with plastic utensils and paper napkins.
The downsides are considerable. Foremost is the fact the truck is the restaurant — and if the truck breaks down, it’s difficult to conduct business. The Quinteros’ unit was built in 1982 and while the family maintains it well, keeping it attractive and clean inside and out, it still needs attention as any vehicle does.
“Engine, transmission, smog check, oil change … we have to do all of these things,” Sergio Quintero said. And when the unit breaks down? “It has happened to us before,” he said.
Quintero also said weather can make things uncomfortable inside the truck.
“The summer heat can get pretty bad,” he said. “It’s not too bad during the rain, but you’re still outside when the weather is cold. Also, customers can’t be outside waiting too long. They get impatient.”
Quintero also said many customers appreciate the convenience of getting their food quickly and being on their way. However, some folks believe the service speed should be like a fast-food establishment, where food is waiting and ready to serve immediately.
“We cook everything and sometimes people also expect us to be a lot faster than a restaurant,” he said. “We try to be fast. Sometimes it takes a little longer.”
Perhaps the toughest part of the business, Quintero said, is that when the family goes on vacation, the business closes and there’s no revenue.
Boris Breckinridge operates Mockingbyrd Coffee Co. in a restored 1960s travel trailer. Unlike the Quinteros’ establishment, Breckinridge moves his unit each day — a big advantage to the business, he said.
“It’s a change of scenery every day,” explained Breckinridge, who’s a transplant from the Bay Area along with his wife, Lory. “We set up at the Farmers Market and that’s the only place where we pay rent.
“It’s a win-win for everyone because we support other Chico businesses.”
Mockingbyrd has all the equipment required by State of California health regulations — a triple-basin sink, a hand-washing sink, special cooling and storage units, and much more.
Breckinridge said his shop is purposely small-scale. He compares it favorably to drive-through coffee establishments and said, “Our place is the antithesis to Dutch Bros.,” a high-volume outlet that, according to Breckinridge, places a higher value on speed than on serving a high-quality beverage .
“We don’t want to just get people jolted on caffeine,” he said. “People make a conscious choice to seek me out. I’m offering a product above and beyond stationary establishments.”
The Mockingbyrd trailer isn’t big enough to have very many people inside, but Breckinridge said he likes what he does without employees. “I put my money toward the product, not rent or employees,” he said. “I will fail or succeed by my hand.”
He agreed with the Quinteros’ assertion that vacations can be tough. “I’m a momentum guy,” Breckinridge said. “I hate to break up consistency.”
Elaine McSpadden, Butte County Public Health’s Environmental Health Division director, said standards are generally the same for mobile food and beverage units as they are for brick-and-mortar ones — with some differences based on structural requirements.
“It’s the same California Retail Food Code, with different sections within the code,” McSpadden explained. “Hot and cold holding temperatures, cooking temperatures, hand washing” — they’re the same as for stationary restaurants, she said. However, requirements for drinking water, wastewater storage tanks, etc., all are taken into account due to structural differences. For example, carrying away wastewater is just a matter of sending something down the drain in a stationary establishment, but code requires a special tank for mobile units.
“Food-safety risks the same, on a smaller scale,” for mobile units, McSpadden said. “It depends on types of foods, equipment and food served.
“They (the operators of mobile units) definitely have unique challenges. I can’t speak to whether they’re cleaner or less clean” than stationary places, she said, though “some facilities definitely need more education on regulations than others.”