Richmond, AU: Tacos at 10 Paces? A Fare Approach to Truck Wars

Going mobile: Will and Mick Balleau’s copper-coloured Chingon taco van. Photo: Luis Enrique Ascui

By John Elder | The Age Victoria

Going mobile: Will and Mick Balleau’s copper-coloured Chingon taco van. Photo: Luis Enrique Ascui
Going mobile: Will and Mick Balleau’s copper-coloured Chingon taco van. Photo: Luis Enrique Ascui

Like Mark Twain’s death, rumours of a turf war among Melbourne’s taco trucks have either been greatly exaggerated – or the truck owners are politely downplaying the palaver through gritted teeth.

Facebook, however, never lies. A couple of weeks ago, Will and Mick Balleau, who run the copper-coloured Chingon taco van, posted a photo of their truck parked next to the original Taco Truck in High Street, Northcote, where Chignon is regularly based. There was no comment.

Raph Rashid, who started the original Taco Truck three years ago, wouldn’t bite. He responded to an email query with a terse: ”Turf war? Didn’t know there was one.”

Raph Rashid with his trucks. Photo: Arsineh Houspian
Raph Rashid with his trucks. Photo: Arsineh Houspian

Will Balleau laughed it off. No problem here, senor. If there’s a war going on, he says, it’s between operators and local councils. It would be a ”relief” if more trading spots were opened up for food trucks, he says.

Despite denials of truck-to-truck hostilities, a peace treaty of sorts is being brokered. Food truck owners met just over a week ago to thrash out a code of conduct and discuss how they should respond to regulatory matters. ”We talked about where we stand as an industry,” Mr Rashid said. ”We are starting to formalise an unwritten code … including etiquette and how to relate to one another”.

Having had the taco truck scene to himself for a couple of years, Mr Rashid – who also runs a truck called Beatbox – said he knew the competition was coming. ”But you’ll never have the onslaught of the turf wars they’d had in America, where you’ve got eight or nine trucks turning up on the one spot. Our country is too legislated.” While he admits to checking out the competition’s tortillas, he isn’t worried. ”They’ll slowly discover that running a truck is difficult. It’s not something to be entered into lightly,” he said.

Tensions with local councils refusing to allow food vans have played out on Facebook. Yarra Council faced a social media backlash against strict regulations that kept food vans away from residential areas and local businesses. The council is now drafting new softer guidelines for a trial period.

Unlike the hot chip and souvlaki vans that take root at sporting events and outside nightclubs, the taco truck, perhaps more than any of the new gourmet food trucks popping up at festivals, has become a scene unto itself. And social media is driving it: the truck owners post where they’ll be setting up business through the day, and the customers pass it along. Will Balleau is originally from New Mexico, where the taco truck has long been a social fixture. ”I’m pretty confident that Melbourne is big enough to support the … taco trucks it presently hosts. When two of us end up side by side, I’ve found that the customers generally react with excitement and I enjoy the festive atmosphere that unfolds,” he says.

Ellie Marin, who opened her Cornutopia truck in January last year, says 80 per cent of her customers are regulars. ”It’s all about the chase … finding out where we’re going to be, and following us there,” she says.

Chingon is the fifth truck open for business in Melbourne, and Ms Marin is about to open another. Of the turf war, she says: ”Personally, I think the more, the merrier. But I think there has to be an etiquette … If you’ve been parking in the same spot for a while, and someone wants to park next to you … I think they should come and say hello and ask if that’s OK. And the answer would be yes.”

She also notes, though, that if there are any tensions, people keep it to themselves. ”We work 90 hours a week … There’s not a lot of energy left over for conflict.”