'Hot Trucks': They Keep It Clean and Feed a Need

Times Staff Writer

Once, while searching a "hot truck" for Blattella germanica and other vermin, roving sanitarian Bessie Gallanis heard a plaintive and distinctly ungermanic, unverminous sound.

"Meow!"

Gallanis thought she had seen and heard just about everything while performing her duties for the Los Angeles Department of Health Services, but this was something new and perplexing.

"Meow" is not the cry of Blattella germanicus , the scientific name of the common German cockroach, the occasional appearance of which on hot trucks inspired some wit to pin the tag "roach coach" on the rolling restaurants.

"Meow," Gallanis decided, was the cry of Felis catus. And while the common house cat is not considered vermin, neither is it supposed to be on board a food-vending truck.

"I go: 'Do you have a cat on board?' " Gallanis recalled. "And he goes: 'No!' I happen to look up at that point to inspect the ceiling air vents--and there was this cat between the plastic louver bubble and the ceiling vent screen."

The embarrassed operator explained that the cat belonged to a neighbor and sometimes it lounged on top of his truck. "And so," Gallanis continued, "this guy takes the cat down from the ceiling vent and he's letting it run around in the truck, and I go: 'Look you can't do that! Take that cat back to your neighbors--they're probably missing it.' " He did. Thus ended the only known infestation of a hot truck by Felis catus.

Bessie Gallanis and her co-workers in the Los Angeles Department of Health Services' environmental management vehicle inspection program are responsible for (among other things) enforcing a stringent and detailed set of health and sanitation rules governing the operations of hot and cold trucks.

Cold trucks and, increasingly in the last few years, hot trucks, have become an important part of the Southern California life style. More and more blue-collar and white-collar workers depend on hot trucks for breakfasts, coffee breaks and lunches.

Hot trucks, defined by law as "mobile food preparation units," are virtually restaurants on wheels. Extensively modified by local manufacturers from standard, boxy looking step vans, hot trucks cost from $34,000 for a standard new model to $60,000 for a luxury model.

A hot truck crew is made up of a driver-operator and one or more cooks. Meals are cooked to customers' orders. Typically, a hot truck is equipped with a propane gas grill, a deep fryer, a hot holding oven, a steam table, a refrigerator and hot and cold running water and sinks. Fold-out stainless steel side panels provide an awning for customers. There are no tables or seating.

Cold trucks are much less elaborate, much less expensive and are permitted to sell only prepackaged and dated foods and snacks, plus hot and cold drinks.

Hot trucks definitely are in the ascendancy, according to Bob Saleh, until recently the senior sanitarian in the Los Angeles program. Saleh, who has just moved into a new position in the department, joined the vehicle inspection program in 1979, a year after formation of the unit. In 1979, he said, there were 2,000 hot trucks and 1,000 cold trucks operating within the department's jurisdiction, which then included 79 incorporated cities and all unincorporated areas of the county. Then, as now, the cities of Long Beach, Pasadena and Vernon had their own health departments.

Today there are 3,362 hot trucks and 787 cold trucks in the county and the 81 incorporated cities. A small, industrial city such as Vernon has 150 hot trucks and 16 cold trucks.

Riverside and San Bernardino counties ban hot trucks. But in the five other Southern California counties, there are 794 hot trucks and 368 cold trucks, bringing the Southland total to 4,461 hot trucks and 1,276 cold trucks.

No national statistics are available, but clearly there are more hot trucks in Southern California than anywhere else in the country, or the world for that matter.

Owen Amrine, general manager of Standard Catering Inc. of Paramount, estimated that on an average working day, a hot truck operator sells food and drink to about 500 customers, some of them repeaters. George Loya, an operator who leases a hot truck from Standard's small fleet, said 300 is a more likely number.

So, depending on whose figures one accepts, between 1.3 million and 2.2 million meals or snacks are served in the region each day. Menus include such standard fast-food items as hamburgers and french fries, and there is a heavy emphasis on Mexican specialties such as burritos and tacos.

Doris Schofield, chief of the Los Angeles vehicle inspection program, said the mission of her unit is to ensure that the food served by the rolling restaurants is as healthful and clean as possible. And, she noted, the vast majority are safe, sanitary and undeserving of the "roach coach" label.

In fact, according to Saleh, Los Angeles food trucks have an excellent record, with only three or four cases of food poisoning reported annually.

John Williams, chief sanitarian of the department's food and milk division, which investigates suspected food poisoning incidents from all sources, said there was a total of 1,859 confirmed cases in Los Angeles County last year.

Williams noted that food poisoning is more likely to occur in a fancy restaurant with a wide-range of foods and sauces than in a hot truck with a comparatively small variety of offerings. "Hollandaise sauce, for example, is dynamite," Williams said. "To be effectively served it must be at room temperature." And he explained that if kept at room temperature too long, bacteria that can cause food poisoning can develop.

Schofield said she believes that her staff's strict enforcement of the state health codes has played a large role in the industry's generally good record. The basic codes require operators to keep hot food hot (at least 140 degrees); cold food cold (45 degrees or lower), and to keep their trucks free of "gross unsanitary conditions," including vermin such as cockroaches, flies and rodents.

Hot trucks also must have hot and cold running water. Home-prepared food cannot be offered and all potentially hazardous foods must be dated. In addition, all food held in self-service warming ovens must be properly covered or packaged. Waste water must be dumped only in specified tanks at catering company yards. And operators must have annually renewable California state public health permits.

Any violations of these requirements are immediately referred to the city or district attorney for prosecution. Health permits are suspended until all such conditions are corrected.

Operators must observe a host of other regulations. But sanitarians are given considerable discretion in deciding whether to suspend the permits of operators with less serious violations. Often, operators are let off with a warning and a follow-up inspection.

Some operators believe that the sanitarians are nit-pickers. Amrine, the catering company executive, said occasionally some sanitarians are too strict. "They're like a cop who gives you a ticket for going 36 in a 35 m.p.h. zone," he said. "But overall they do a good job and in fact I think they are understaffed."

When the special unit was established in 1978, Saleh said, it was authorized about nine field sanitarians. But in practice the unit has never had more than about four field sanitarians.

Mainly because of the unit's limited manpower, the inspections are seldom conducted at night or on weekends, when so-called "loncheria wagons" hit the streets. Saleh said many of these are "mom-and-pop" operations, which often violate health laws, mainly the prohibition against serving home-prepared food.

But even with its small staff, the unit conducts about 5,000 inspections annually.

In 1979, they filed 537 complaints that went to court. Last year, the number was a little more than 300--final figures are not yet available. The decline does not reflect less strict enforcement, but greater compliance, according to Saleh. He said that 99 times out of 100, the accused violators plead guilty.

Alfonso Medina, newly appointed senior sanitarian, said the usual recommendation for a first offense is a $150 fine plus one year summary probation. The second time, it's a $300 fine plus two years probation; the third time, $500 fine and three years probation.

But sometimes a tough judge goes beyond the sanitarian's recommendation: Recently a woman operator who twice violated the hot and cold running water requirement was sent to jail for two days.

Operators said one of their hardest tasks is keeping cockroaches off their trucks. The bugs, which spread filth wherever they go, can smuggle themselves on board by hiding in the tiniest of spaces, such as the corrugation openings in cardboard boxes. Once on board they hide in minuscule nooks and crannies.

"Where there's one cockroach," sanitarian Federico Galvan said, "there's a hundred."

It is this unpleasant truth that has earned the food trucks (both hot and cold) their often unjust street jargon appellation.

Nearly everyone in the industry--the several large fleet operators as well as the thousands of independent operators--deplores the "roach coach" tag, as do the sanitarians. The fact is that considering the persistence and sneaky ways of Blattella germanica, they are not as common as the catchy "roach coach" epithet would seem to indicate. A review of 700 field inspection reports by sanitarians last year showed only 55 infestations of cockroaches, or less than 8%.

Even so, some hot truckers try to exploit the nickname. One labels his truck "Ye Olde Roach Coach." And a number of trucks are equipped with musical horns programmed to tootle "La Cucaracha."

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