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Maria’s Mexican Tacos fueled by community support to keep driving

City Council to hold hearing on new food-truck rules Monday
By: Jon Schultz, Journal Staff Writer
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Editor's note: This is the final story of a three-part series that has appeared in the Journal in the days leading up to Monday’s Auburn City Council meeting, where a new set of food truck regulations is slated to be up for adoption. Part 1, “Food truck debate in Auburn beckons question of fairness,” and Part 2, “Mobile food fight wages beyond Auburn in cites statewide,” can be read at auburnjournal.com. Maria Moreno has been rising around the same time as the sun to go to work, but not because she’s serving breakfast. She’s just trying to keep up with her burgeoning business. On Wednesday, Moreno spent a few hours in the morning prepping at her restaurant, Maria’s Mexican Tacos in Bowman, before setting out in her food truck around 10 a.m. That day, she would cook a bit more than the day before, when the truck set its single-day record of $250 – more than double her average take. “That’s a good day,” Moreno said. She said she hopes it’s an indicator of future success, but if the Auburn City Council approves a set of new mobile food vendor regulations at its meeting Monday, it will limit Moreno – and any future food trucks – from setting up shop in Old Town and Downtown Auburn, the latter a place she frequents. The Auburn Planning Commission voted in favor of recommending the ordinance by a 2-1 vote of members attending its Sept. 4 meeting, citing mainly narrow streets and safety concerns as well as a desire to retain a fair environment for brick-and-mortar restaurants in the districts. Moreno said the proposed rules wouldn’t hurt her business much since she still has her restaurant and catering, not to mention hungry employees at a handful of car dealerships off Highway 49 that solicit her truck’s services. She said she never intended to cause controversy and if the rules are approved after the public hearing, she said she’ll respect that. Moreno said she doesn’t care what happens. The tears in her eyes showed something different. “Sometimes I feel like I want to quit,” Moreno said. The reason she hasn’t is the people, she said. She said customers constantly tell her, “Don’t give it up, Maria. Keep it up,” and many told her they will be there to support her at Monday’s public hearing. “I want to keep it up because the people love me and they love my food. That’s my point. That’s why I keep going,” Moreno said. “It makes you strong. “I don’t mean to go and make $1,000. No, it’s going to see the people. And pay your bills, that’s all.” She said that as the only mobile food vendor in town, she can’t help but feel singled out by the proposed rules. Asked why she thinks the city is considering these regulations, Moreno responded: “I don’t know, maybe because I’m Mexican?” “That’s my feeling,” she said when asked why she felt that way. “That’s what I feel, and, like I said, sometimes I just want to let go of everything, and the people say, ‘Don’t give it up, don’t give it up, keep it up. We’re going to support you.’” Auburn Planning Commission Chairman Matt Spokely said learning of Moreno’s comments was “a little disheartening.” “I’m saddened by that, because this has nothing to do with Maria’s Tacos. This is the city trying to establish basic ground rules on a move-forward basis,” said Spokely, who along with Commissioner Alan Young voted in favor of the proposed ordinance at the commission’s Sept. 4 meeting. He said he tried on numerous occasions to stop fellow commissioners or the audience at that meeting from centering the discussion specifically on a vendor. “By all accounts, she makes wonderful food, and she has been a great contribution to our community,” Spokely said. “She is a great asset to our community. It is kind of sad that that comment is made.” Opinions from local businesses on the proposed ordinance are mixed. Moreno frequently sets up shop Downtown in the lot at Best American Tires & Wheels on High Street. Across the street at Pioneer Mining Supplies, Assistant Manager John Willis said he watches the daily scramble as customers line up outside Moreno’s truck for 30 minutes, the current time limit for a mobile food vendor on private property. “Obviously, they’re doing something right,” he said. Willis eats at Maria’s at least once a week and said he’s opposed to the proposed ban. “I don’t eat Mexican food every day, you know? Because you’d get sick of it. So it doesn’t affect the other restaurants,” he said. “I don’t know what they’re complaining about.” Down the road at Edelweiss, William Haddad took a break from a busy brunch-hour kitchen to voice his support for more limitations on food trucks. Haddad, a partner at the 32-year-old restaurant, recommended a half-mile buffer zone between the trucks and restaurants. “We pay an arm and a leg to be here between taxes and rent and everything else,” he said. “Somebody shouldn’t be able to just drive up in front of your restaurant and start serving food.” Moreno, who parks only on private lots, said she has been mindful of where she takes her truck so as to not upset restaurant owners. That’s why she stays away from Old Town because of the Mexican restaurants already serving that area, she said. Regardless of what happens at Monday’s meeting, Moreno said she’s looking to retire from operating both her restaurant and truck in a couple years. Until then, it’s the people that fuel her to keep driving. “We’re going to the next stop and people are walking behind the truck (to go to the next stop) and I think it’s beautiful,” Moreno said. “This is the first truck in Auburn and maybe in the future there is going to be more.”