Los Angeles, CA: Food trucks swing into action to help California fire victims

First responders at the Jackie Robinson Stadium in Los Angeles receive a free meal served by the Mariscos Jalisco food truck, courtesy of LeBron James. Photo courtesy of Mariscos Jalisco.

By Elliot Maras  |  Food Truck Operator

Once again, Halloween did not bring much to celebrate for Californians as fires throughout the state destroyed hundreds of acres of property, drove tens of thousands from their homes and caused millions to lose electricity for several days.

Food trucks, true to form, played an important role providing food to evacuees, residents temporarily unable to work and first responders striving to contain the fires.

Bi Rite Creamery employees prepare meals for evacuees in the Sonoma Family Meals kitchen. Photo courtesy of Bi Rite Creamery.

By week’s end, the worst of the fires in the northern part of the state was over while much of greater Los Angeles, which was struck later in the week, was still under siege. Governor Gavin Newsom declared a statewide emergency.

Raul Ortega, who operates Mariscos Jalisco, a Los Angeles food truck specializing in Mexican food and seafood, got a call at 8:30 p.m. last Monday from one of the producers of Ugly Delicious, a Netflix TV series, advising him that L.A. Lakers Star LeBron James wanted to provide tacos to first responders the next morning at the Jackie Robinson Stadium, where the firefighters were based. The TV producer told Ortega — who is well known in the community for his tacos, being a multiple time winner of the city’s Taco Madness festival competition — to expect a call later that night from the L.A. Lakers.

“It was a very, very late call, but we managed to make it happen,” Ortega told Food Truck Operator. Ortega was able to assemble his crew and serve more than 200 first responders in a two-hour period. “We are able to do over 40 tacos every seven minutes,” he said. “Everybody was happy.”

James, a taco lover, had been evacuated from his home two days earlier because of one of the fires. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti tweeted his thanks to James for treating the first responders.

Food trucks help feed evacuees

Meanwhile, other food trucks were also involved helping evacuees as well as first responders.

Evacuees at the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds evacuation center in Petaluma were grateful to Elroy’s Express Mex, which served tacos, burritos and sandwiches for the week. By Sunday the previous week, the evacuation center was full. By Thursday, many were able to return to their homes.

“We were trying to do as much as we could,” said Yvette Vega, operating manager for the three Elroy’s Express Mex food trucks, all of which were involved in the relief effort. Meeting the demand was complicated by the fact that some of her employees were evacuees themselves and needed to stay with relatives.

“We try to do as much as we can for the evacuees,” said Allison Keaney, CEO of the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds & Event Center in Petaluma.

Bi-Rite Creamery, which operates a solar-powered ice cream truck, a catering operation, a café and a Sonoma farm, prepared lunches for several days for those who were evacuated to the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption in San Francisco, according to Sarah Holt, the company’s director of marketing and community.

Founding partner Sam Mogannam and several the staff spent a couple days cooking and serving more than 3,000 meals a day, alongside relief organizations World Central Kitchen and Sonoma Family Meal in Petaluma and Santa Rosa, Holt told Food Truck Operator. Mogannam also reached out to dozens of San Francisco chefs to join the effort. The first day, there were only nine volunteers, but word spread and there were 40 to 50 volunteers the next day.

Curry Up Now served first responders at the Petaluma fire department. Photo courtesy of Curry Up Now.

Food trucks were ready to help

Some California food truck operators had contingency plans in place to serve people in shelters in anticipation of the fires which occur fairly regularly in the fall.

Curry Up Now, a restaurant and food truck chain based in San Francisco, once again provided lunch to first responders, including firefighters, police officers and operation center staff, said Jennifer Prichard, the police department’s community liaison coordinator.

“They’re very, very generous with the whole community,” Prichard said for Curry Up Now.

The SAJJ Mediterranean restaurant and food truck operation delivered food to affected areas and donated food supplies to food banks that were assisting people, said founder Zaid Ayoub. While Ayoub’s home was without power for two days, the restaurants fortunately were not.

Some food trucks did what they could to help people on an individual basis.

“We’re going through a bad time here,” said Antonio Pelayo, who operates the Tacos El Muchacho Alegre food truck in Napa. While his home was without power during the week, he was able to work since his commissary still had power. Pelayo said he discounted food to people who were less fortunate than himself. Many could not go to work because of the power outage.

“Many of my clients are struggling,” Pelayo told Food Truck Operator last week. “I’ve got to stay with them in the good times and the bad times.”

Even people in areas not directly affected by fire were staying indoors because of the pervasive smoke, said Rich Mainzer, who operates The Boneyard food truck in San Francisco. Mainzer was fortunate in that both his home or his business escaped danger.

Several trucks, such as Koggi BBQ in Los Angeles, SAJJ Mediterranean in San Ramon and Crepes Bonaparte in Fullerton, reported having catering events canceled. Besides the fires, some events were canceled due to air quality.

Authorities have contained 70% of the wildfire northwest of Los Angeles known as the Maria fire, according to The Associated Press, while In Northern California, a 121-square-mile fire in Sonoma County wine country is 76% contained.

“We’re just running on a generator in our RV right now,” said Vicki Marquardt, who lost her home in Paradise in last year’s Northern California fire. Marquardt has been seeking a new permanent residence after escaping the flames in her food truck last year.