First published October 2, 2008
Benjamin Santana, owner of the El Tonayense taco truck at 19th and Harrison, finds himself smack in the middle of an American debate on fast food.
“I think about it all the time,” Santana said, referring to a 2007 ordinance that prohibits catering trucks to operate within 1500 feet of a public middle, junior or high school.
Santana’s truck is parked right outside John O’Connell High School of Technology, facing the school’s outdoor field. It matters not, to the members of the Student Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee, that Santana arrived in 1996–years before the school went up.
Dana Woldow, co-chair of the committee and mother of three San Francisco Unified School District students and graduates, thinks it’s fair to ask the business to comply with the law.
“I’m just tired of hearing that children’s health comes last,” Woldow said. “It should have been handled a year ago.“
Others disagree. The taco truck is a local favorite for young employees, construction workers, and business owners such as Art Wilinski, a cinematographer who owns a studio nearby.
“It’s not like they’re drug dealers,” he said.
On a good day, Santana sells approximately 500 tacos priced at $1.75 each. If asked to move, Santana would relocate, possibly to 17th and Harrison, where he holds another permit to sell. But he worries that moving would mean a loss in sales.
“I would have to start all over again,” Santana said. “I don’t know if it’s going to be the same but it would take about two years to get the same sales.”
Woldow said she has been working hard trying to improve cafeteria lunches. That is difficult, she says, when possible customers go to catering trucks instead of cafeterias.
“The taco truck is not regulated,” Woldow added, explaining that unlike school cafeterias, Santana can sell potato chips, cookies and sweetened drinks.
When asked if he thinks El Tonayense means less money for the school cafeteria, Wilinski laughed and took another big bite out of his burrito.
It doesn’t make sense to move the tack truck because other restaurants like El Faro, on 20th and Folsom Streets, sell similar food to students, he said.
John O’ Connell High School’s principal, Janet Schulze, said she is supportive of the nutrition committee, but added, “The taco truck is so a non-issue for us. It doesn’t take business from the cafeteria.”
The ordinance isn’t her business. “I’m not here to enforce the law, I don’t have that authority,” she said.
“They never try to entice our kids, however we do constantly chase away other food vendors, such as the ice cream guys.”
On a recent Wednesday, no students stopped to buy tacos, but Woldow said she had seen students buying food at the truck, and passing food to students through the fence.
“If they don’t sell to kids then why are they so insistent on staying in that location?” Woldow asked.
That day, Santana received a letter from the police telling him he has to leave. He now plans on appealing and is hopeful about the outcome. The police, he said, have been very nice to him. “They showed up here and gave me a letter from another case in Twin Peaks. They appealed it and they won,” he said.
“Let’s see what happens,” Santana said.
Just a few blocks away, right next to another El Tonayense truck owned by Santana’s brother, Esquivel Santana, students from George R. Moscone Elementary School ran out to meet their parents.
Ice cream sellers rang their bells tempting children with sweet snacks. The ordinance doesn’t include such vendors.
“That’s a separate battle someone else will have to fight,” Woldow said.
Watch what El Tonayense customers have to say about the possible move: