Behind the Idaho State Capitol, the Azteca Taco Truck takes up a couple of metered parking spaces it pays for daily, blowing the enchanting smell of Mexican food into the cold air.
“I have occupied this spot for 20 years,” said Owner Miguel Hurtado. “Back then, there was nothing around here. No food trucks, nowhere you could find good Mexican food. So I set up my business. But about three years ago, other food trucks started coming in. They started parking in my spot. When they do, I just park behind them, but I get fewer customers. Sometimes they beat me to the spot, and sometimes I can come here and park alone. That just started about three years ago. Before that, I was always here by myself.”
Just a few blocks down, on Fifth Street, two large food trucks have an impressive setup. Chef Gee is a large, sleek tour bus with an impressive paint job and enticingly curtained windows. Inside, the seating is modern and spacious, especially for a mobile venue. The menu can be described as fine dining, with sushi and cooked entrees ranging from just over $5 to over $20 a plate.
Next to that was parked Stellar Sliders, with an impossible-to-miss decal of a galaxy surrounding all sides and information about the business incorporated into the design. It’s a large trailer, pulled by a heavy truck. The menu also resembles that of a fine dining establishment, with carefully crafted burger sliders that boast different kinds of breads and elaborate toppings. Several people stood outside in the cold, chatting and enjoying the music playing from a speaker the trucks set up on the ground outside their parking spots.
By contrast, Azteca Tacos, like nearly every single taco truck in the Treasure Valley, has a large part of its menu hand-written on colored pieces of paper on the windows. On the menu next to the window, the prices are set by scratching out parts of the pre-set $8.88 so the numbers create what the owner wants them to actually display—ranging from $1 to $5.50. The decals on taco trucks are unsophisticated next to the likes of Stellar Sliders and Chef Gee, and usually communicate only the name of the truck and the nationality of its food. Rarely is there a phone number, and seldom is there a website customers can visit, or even a social media presence.
This unsophisticated display usually belies the fact that many taco trucks are born of operators from immigrant backgrounds with comparatively little means. These Mexican-American owners get started with little in the way of money, an unestablished credit score for a business loan, and little knowledge of how to navigate language barriers or the business systems of the U.S.
Adela Roman, who owns Adelita’s Mexican Food alongside her husband, said she was able to get a small loan to start her business two years ago, but doesn’t want to take out any other loans to support her plans to expand.
“The place I got my loan from doesn’t give out loans anymore,” Roman, who was unwilling to give the name of the business she was referring to, said. “Too many people took out loans to build their businesses, probably [selling Mexican food], and couldn’t pay them back. So they stopped giving out loans shortly after I got mine.”
Roman said to get the loan, she had to give over her car title as collateral. She said she has already paid the loan back in full, but will not get another, from any place. In March 2019, she opened a second Adelita’s Mexican Food truck, but used the money she’d saved up on her own to do so. In November 2019, she joined the original Adelita’s truck with the building next to its location—a move she also paid for with the money she saved.
“Little by little, I saved up every penny,” she said, adding that she’s saving up for her next big purchase. “I’m going to buy a fridge next—a big one to store desserts.”
Despite her firm grasp on her bootstraps, Roman admitted that getting started was difficult.
“I was lost,” she said about where to go when she first started her business. “I didn’t know where to go or who to talk to first.”
Luis Ganboa, owner of El Habanero, shared her sentiment. Ganboa started El Habanero seven years ago, and even though he had a significant history of management in various restaurants in the Treasure Valley for several years before opening his own, he admitted he was still lost at first.
“I wish there was an easy way to find out how to do this right,” he said. “I was paying for permits I didn’t need for years, and I didn’t know. It took me three or four years to figure out how to do it all right. I was paying permits for two health departments, one in Nampa and one in Boise, and I didn’t have to be doing that. I’d only needed one.”
A search online shows that there are many resources provided by the State of Idaho for wannabe entrepreneurs, including a Business Wizard, which asks users questions and leads them to a list of applicable resources they will need. But the tool is only available in English, and the resources it directs them to are also largely only available in English. Additionally, instead of telling users what to do with the information, it only directs them to entities like the Idaho Tax Commission, Internal Revenue Service, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, with little explanation as to how those services might help.
In addition to a large, daunting list of looming institutions, nearly all resources still expect users to have a basic knowledge of business and business terms in English. Things like the difference between retail sales and service for purposes of permits or what a Limited Liability Corporation versus a Sole Proprietorship are not explained by the state’s website. The Contact Us page is in English and explicitly disallows phone calls, instead directing users to email forms and FAQ pages.
Ganboa said his daughter helped him navigate setting up his business seven years ago. She is now a college student majoring in nursing.
“She’s smart, of course,” Ganboa said about his daughter. “But I asked her why she signed me up for all these permits I didn’t need, and she said she thought they were necessary. Is there a place you can go where they show you how to do it? I wish I had known all this before so I could have done it right to begin with.”
Ganboa was no stranger to many parts of the process, having been kitchen manager of a Costa Vida for years, and several other restaurants before that. In his line of work before starting his business, he learned how to run a kitchen properly and interacted with health inspectors, so such inspections were no surprise to him when he opened his taco truck.
“That part is easy,” he said. “At Costa Vida, they were very strict about food safety. That’s how I learned.”
In this, Ganboa had a head start over many other taco truck owners, who reported learning through health inspectors, and sometimes through violations, what the rules are.
In a survey of health violations in Ada County, taco trucks faired around average in the number of violations compared to other food trucks, and often performed better than restaurants. However, one notable difference in taco trucks is that failure to complete manager training is a frequent violation that is not typically found in other establishments.
This training is a requirement that began being seriously enforced a couple of years ago, according to representatives of Southwest District Health, which oversees food establishments in Adams, Washington, Payette, Gem, Owyhee and Canyon counties; and Central District Health, which oversees Ada, Boise, Elmore, and Valley counties. Southwest District Health is the only health district in the Treasure Valley and surrounding area that offers the required classes, which cost businesses $125, in Spanish. The most popular course to take is called ServSafe, but five other course training options also satisfy the requirement.
“We get people attending the [Spanish-language] class from all over,” said Ellen Miller, office supervisor for Southwest District Health. “They come from Ada County, Valley County, even all the way from Twin Falls to attend the classes.”
Although all the taco truck owners interviewed by Boise Weekly had only good things to say about the environmental health specialists—colloquially referred to as health inspectors—they worked with, none of them were aware that the required trainings are available in Spanish. They also all reported that conversations with the environmental health specialists were always conducted in English.
“The health inspector is very nice,” Adela Roman, whose inspector is from Central District Health, said in Spanish. “He speaks a little bit of Spanish, but we always have to have someone like my husband or my daughter translate for me because I don’t speak English and he only speaks a little Spanish.”
Resources in Spanish seem to be scattered around the valley in chunks. Christine Myron, public information officer for Central District Health, said of the 10 Environmental Health Specialists in the district, two of them have “some Spanish-speaking ability.” Although the Central District Health’s website is available in Spanish, it does so using the notoriously wonky Google Translate widget, while Southwest District Health’s website is, for now, only available in English. Health districts often refer people to the state for more resources (Idaho’s Food Code is only available in English) or the Food and Drug Administration’s website, which does provide some information in Spanish, but it is scattered and does not replace the necessary state-specific information.
However, there are other in-person resources locally, as well. Jannus, formerly known as Mountain States Group, is a Boise-based nonprofit organization that through its Economic Opportunity program, helps socially and economically disadvantaged people establish their own businesses through knowledge and support through asset development, credit building, financing and business planning. Jannus has a strong relationship with refugee and resettlement organizations, and has successfully helped many of the participants, who are refugees from around the world, start their own businesses. Taco truck owners largely move to Idaho from California and don’t consider themselves refugees, therefore not getting involved with refugee organizations.
Similarly, the Small Business Development Center of Idaho, one of the entities responsible for the Business Wizard on the Idaho.gov website, offers free unlimited consultations for business owners and business-starters, who can get everything from individualized consultations to QuickBooks training and marketing tips for free, or at a nominal fee. It has an office in Nampa and another in Boise, and is also willing to lend a hand to taco truck owners who are looking for more information.
“We won’t ever say, ‘Sorry, we can’t help with that,’ ” said Erin Johansen, the center’s marketing manager. “If we can’t offer something in-house, we will connect you with the resources you need. Everyone here is knowledgeable and they truly want to see people succeed.”
Although it currently has one bilingual staff member to help Spanish-speakers, the Small Business Development Center does not currently market its services in Spanish. None of the taco truck owners interviewed knew about the center, Jannus, other resources such as the Zions Bank Business Resource Center, or any chambers of commerce.
Despite all this, taco truck owners continue to make their businesses their passion, even if it means a slow, painful start of their own volition.
Michael Toro Mereaux, whose father Juan Toro owns Toro’s Tacos in Nampa, recalled its start on Industrial Road, several blocks away from its current location on the corner of Garrity and Franklin boulevards.
“The first two days were miserable,” he said. “No one came. We were so bored, and the food was just sitting there but nobody was buying it. So we immediately moved here.”
Now, Toro’s Tacos taco truck/stand hybrid, often has a line of people waiting for arguably the best tacos al pastor in the valley. Mereaux, who just turned 18, has been working there with his family since he was 15.
“The thing about this place is you have to put in the work, and not everyone is willing to do that,” Mereaux said. “It’s something I’ve learned to appreciate, working with family. I’ve been working here since I was 15, and now I’m at the point where I think it’s starting to look like my future.”
Ganboa of El Habanero, who also didn’t take out a loan to start his business, knew the feeling of stressful starts, as well.
“It was tough. It was real tough at the beginning. It started slow, and it was hard, buying the food and then not getting customers. When I started, I only sold $30 a day. It was a really slow start,” he said. Ganboa still works another job in addition to running El Habanero.
“I’ve been fighting to keep this place open,” Hurtado of Azteca Tacos said, looking in the direction of the larger food trucks just a couple of blocks from his. “It’s not just the other trucks. I’ve been fighting for 20 years. I’ve been fighting all those years, and I’m still fighting.”
Johansen said the Small Business Development Center is open to current business owners who want resources and tips on improving any aspect of their business, free of charge.