Cooking from scratch: an immigrant’s journey in the food truck industry

Díaz, left, poses with his employees after wrapping up his lunch shift at Occidental Square Park. Díaz sometimes begins at 4:30 a.m. to prepare the ingredients for the day’s business. (Photo by Jayna Milan)

The hop shop’s signage illuminates the parking lot, showing several cars, a lone customer, and the lifework of Artemio Coria Díaz.

Behind a narrow opening where customers order, Díaz automates a sliver of what he’s learned from two decades in the industry — stuffing burritos, relaying orders and assembling ingredients prepared in advance into Oaxacan cuisine.

Every Saturday night he vends outside Chuck’s Hop Shop, a beer store in Seattle’s Central District. His truck, El Cabrito Oaxaca, tempts the store’s customers with his mole, braised lamb, grilled veggies, rice, beans and the occasional chapulines (fried grasshopper).

This job is different from picking tomatoes. That’s how Díaz started after immigrating to the United States from Mexico. He was 13.

“People don’t know how much I’ve worked and suffered. When you don’t have any money or family it’s hard, you have to start nuevo,” Díaz said.

When Díaz came to the United States he was looking for opportunities that weren’t available at home. He grew up poor in the southern state of Guerrero where his family worked on a communal farm for food. When his father made plans to move to the United States he jumped at the chance.

The United States offered hope for a better life, but that life would not be realized immediately.

Díaz landed in Florida, where he picked tomatoes, before moving to Seattle to scrub dishes in downtown restaurants. Díaz had been at this for several years when, through the sheen of a clean dish, he dreamt of owning his own restaurant.

Díaz made good on the goal over the next decade. He enrolled in community college, paid his way through culinary school and began work as a chef, all with the intention of saving money to start his own business.

He met Leticia, who is now his wife, along the way. She fueled the inspiration for a restaurant based on the cuisine of her native Oaxaca, and together they hatched the idea for a food truck.

“I knew it was going to be very hard but I wanted to try,” she said. “We had no credit, no connections, so we bought the truck and started from there.”

El Cabrito Oaxaca, like its food, started from scratch. One cutting board, a tray to hold change, and $80 was all he and Leticia had after purchasing their first truck — an aging 25-foot van — or as Díaz called it, a nightmare.

Oversized. Faulty brakes. A generator too weak to properly cool food. The truck attracted the attention of health inspectors and scornful customers.

Once, while covering for a truck in South Lake Union, an inspector closed Díaz for the day and had him throw away his food. The incident was not recorded on King County’s health records page.

He doesn’t deny his food temperatures were in violation of health code, but he thought it was more emblematic of the discrimination he feels as a Hispanic vendor. That feeling was cemented for him two years ago when, at a West Seattle vending event, a firefighter made comments about Díaz being “in his territory.”

“We’ve never had any issues like that,” Díaz said. “Those people don’t want us to succeed, people like me who are Mexican. They always want us to be under.”

Díaz has had fewer problems since buying a new truck a year ago. The truck, a smaller white van, has propelled his business into Seattle’s burgeoning food truck scene. Díaz vends at Occidental Square, Westlake Park, and is in the process of applying for a South Lake Union permit — one of the most coveted vending slots in Seattle thanks to area employers like Amazon.

Stories like Díaz’s are common in the industry. Street-vending has helped generations of immigrants up the economic ladder, from Ellis Island newcomers peddling wares in New York City to the brandable and easily digestible food trucks of today. The data tells a similar story: according to a nationwide survey of the street-vending industry, more than half of all vendors are immigrants.

Why food trucks? They’re cheap.

Food trucks are a less expensive and more manageable investment than a brick and mortar restaurant for cash-strapped upstarts like Díaz. They also require fewer permits and are more mobile than permanent locations. It’s like the pick-and-choose your adventure of the restaurant world: vendors can experiment with their brand in the neat confines of their truck.

But hours are less open to interpretation. Most vendors work upwards of 11 hours a day, and sometimes seven days a week. The profits, like the food trucks they’re generated in, are also small: the average vendor makes less than $15,000 a year, according to Street Vending and the American Dream, a nationwide survey of the vending industry.

“When you look at the numbers and how little they’re making in terms of profit it really is a microbusiness,” said Dick Carpenter, the study’s author. “Food trucks are not one of those [industries] where people go into to get rich and they still work enormously hard.”

Díaz’s knows this well. He wakes up at 4:30 a.m. during the week to prepare ingredients in the kitchen he shares with other street-vendors. The food is required by Seattle law to be prepared in an offsite kitchen so that only the final touches are required in the food truck. Add vending, clean-up, and the drive home, and his shift can stretch on for more than 12 hours.

Weekends are slightly better: the night I saw Diaz outside Chuck’s Hop Shop he started prep around 5 p.m. and didn’t get home until early the next morning.

“Artemio always shows up, he’s always on time, and he’s always ready to serve food,” said Jonathan Amato, owner of Curbside Provisions, a company that manages venues for food trucks throughout the city.

Food trucks often gather close to each other in venues known as “pods,” and are hosted in parks, outside corporate offices and in public plazas such as Occidental Square park where Diaz caters to the lunchtime rush alongside brick and mortar restaurants in Pioneer Square.

Díaz, a quiet, industrious man, wouldn’t gloat about his work ethic. You’d be hard-pressed to get a description beyond “very hard” of his never-ending schedule, let alone the financial woes, marital problems and brief homeless that arose from starting his truck three years ago.

What kept Díaz afloat then, and now, was the refuge of past experience. Scrubbing dishes. Picking crops. Leaving behind his family, to whom he still sends money to for the promise of a better life. The hardships and discrimination were worth enduring.

And he has reason to endure it: his 18-month-old daughter. He wants her to be un jefe — a boss — and not an employee. Through his struggles, Díaz aims to make that happen.

No quiere repita la historia,” Díaz said. He does not want to repeat history.

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