Getting Busted By the Cops Made My Taco Truck Take Off

Everything was going fine until two cops rolled up and asked, “Do you have your permits?” I answered yes, but I didn’t have the permits. I thought it was all over but little did I know that run-in with the law was just what my business needed.

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Jan 6 2016, 12:00am

Photo courtesy of Guerilla Tacos

I'll never forget the day that I made enough money to pay my half of the rent—strictly by selling tacos on the side of the street.

It wasn't enough money to pay my bills or for anything else, but that was a life-changing moment for me. Something that I started was helping me live. As a line cook who used to live paycheck to paycheck and barely got by up until that day, the moment made me reassess everything.

I started Guerrilla Tacos—then a two-person grill cart in 2012—purely out of necessity, not to experiment with different taco fillings and not because I was bored as a cook. I was drowning in debt from culinary school and practically lived off my girlfriend for a while. I had deferred my student loans until I couldn't do it any longer and things started to become a fucking nightmare. My hours as a line cook kept getting cut and I was trying to live on three days' worth of pay plus tips in Los Angeles. I was working under the table then, too, because I didn't want my unemployment from an older job to end.

Before I found cooking, I did everything from growing my own weed and selling it, DJing house parties for money, and even working as a Teamster with my dad in a cardboard box factory. But I was never really happy with any of those gigs on the inside. I found myself living in my car and taking showers in the gym, and it was then that I knew that something had to change in my life. Fortunately, this was around the time when I met my soon-to-be wife who was on her way to become a doctor, and she was the one who showed me that I had to look for my passion and pursue it.

Photo via Flickr user  T.Tseng

Mako shark taco at Guerrilla Tacos. Photo via Flickr user T.Tseng

Then I found my inspiration in the most unlikely of places: while driving and seeing LA's thriving street food vendors hustling in the street. My thought process was something like, If they are doing it, why can't I? So I bought the grill cart for $300 and got myself a gig catering a Mexican-themed party, and the rest is history.

I knew that selling food in the streets of LA was illegal and I knew that these vendors probably got tickets and got their food confiscated, but they didn't seem to give a shit about any of that, so I didn't give a shit either. I started selling tacos in the Arts District in front of a coffee shop on a weekly basis.

READ: My Time as a Mexican Cop Made Me a Better Street Vendor in Los Angeles

For my first service, I remember I spent approximately $167 that I was saving for rent on beef, chicken, produce, and tortillas at a local grocery store. It was a scary moment, but I said, "Fuck it, let's do this." I came blindly to sell on the street the next day. I didn't bring change for people, hadn't set up Square yet, I didn't have a tent, no to-go containers. I didn't have an Instagram or Facebook account. I literally just sent out group texts to every single family, friend, and person I've ever met in my contacts.

We didn't have a name yet and I remember jokingly kicking around the name 'Chef Wes's Kickin' Chicken.'

It turned out to be the hottest day of the year, and while I was fit and in pretty good shape, I found cooking in the street to be the hardest thing that I have ever done. I remember getting weird muscle cramps because of the heat. Nonetheless, I doubled my money and thought that amount was pretty fucking awesome at the time.

I came back the next week, now with change for my customers and with a canopy to protect me from the sun, and more people started to show up. A friend of mine started helping me for free. We did this for a month, calling people on our phones, one-by-one, to invite them to come out and buy our food. We didn't have a name yet and I remember jokingly kicking around the name "Chef Wes's Kickin' Chicken." My wife arrived at the name Guerrilla Tacos after one time we hid from the cops and because my tacos were unconventional.

I thought I had it made in life until August of 2013, when my world came crashing down. It was a normal Wednesday service and everything was going fine until two cops rolled up and asked us, "What are you doing out here? Do you have your permits?" I answered yes, but I didn't have the permits. They told me that someone nearby had called the cops on me and complained about the clouds of smoke and the crowd of people. I continued to ask the cops, "Why don't you shut down the other street vendors a few blocks away?" They told me, "Well, we didn't get a complaint about them, we got a complaint about you."

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Tamales by Wesley Avila

I started to freak the fuck out in front of them. I told them that this was my bread and butter, and that I had no other way of making money, but they couldn't care less and ordered me to shut down my operation immediately. I still took my sweet-ass time, though, and asked them if I could give away the food since they had insisted on throwing it away. They told me I could for about 20 minutes, so I started yelling "free tacos" and gave all my food away. However, not before my loyal customers, many of whom I knew by first name, started leaving me fat tips in exchange for my tacos. I'm talking $20s and $50s. This only angered the police even more because they saw all of the money I was making.

After this incident, I couldn't sleep at night. I got a fever, the shingles, and had to go to the hospital because of the stress that I was going through. I had exactly five days until my next service to figure this situation out, because I didn't want to lose the customers that I had worked so hard for. Should I move to another location? Should I be a roving vendor and always move around? I knew that was only a temporary solution until the cops came looking for me again.

I applied and picked up every single permit and application that I needed to be 100-percent legit in a single day.

Of course, someone had tipped off my dramatic closure to the local gossipy food publication and they reached out for comment, but I denied that anything happened. I wasn't about to feed that "Guerrilla Tacos Got Shut Down By Cops" headline bullshit.

I realized then that the only realistic option we had was to buy a fucking food truck, but I had only heard nightmares about that process. I hated the notion of that, since I was anti-food truck, but convinced myself after vowing to only use it as a stepping stone until I opened up a brick-and-mortar, and to never be part of that gimmicky culture where I do food truck events. I made a couple of phone calls and texted Alvin from Eggslut; he referred me to his guy, who then connected me to a food truck dealer who had trucks that were way out of my budget.

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Wesley Avila in his kitchen
As told to Javier Cabral

By sheer luck, I finally found a guy who gave me a good rate for a lease on a food truck that was Dodger blue, baby. I borrowed a thousand bucks each from my mother-in-law and my friend Jack, drained my savings account, and leased it. I applied and picked up every single permit and application that I needed to be 100-percent legit in a single day—all in time for my next service.

During that pivotal first service out of my food truck, the same cops came again to try to bust us, but this time I was ready for them and completely legit. "Hello, officers. Are you here to try some of my tacos now?" I asked them. They said, yes, actually, and bought some of my tacos. They drove off and never bothered me again.

Whoever called the cops on me could suck it. It was a blessing in disguise and Guerrilla Tacos is where it's at now because of you, so thank you.

Wesley Avila's Guerrilla Tacos cookbook will be out in 2017.