The message, posted on La Santa Torta’s Instagram account last week, was short and sweet: “We’re still offering to cover the cost for anyone who can’t afford a warm meal,” wrote Victor Guzman, who owns the popular Oakland-based birria truck. “If you know anyone hungry and can’t afford food, send them this way.”
The last two weeks since the Bay Area’s coronavirus-spurred shelter-in-place orders went into effect have been a time of anxiety and soul searching for Guzman and chef Leo Oblea. Over the past two years, as local interest in beef birria tacos surged, the two had built their business up to the point that it became one of the most popular street food vendors in the Bay — known, in particular, for its red birria tacos, which are dipped in consomé and griddled until they’re crisp. Now, like so many local food businesses, they’ve had to adapt to the new reality, rethink their business model, and deal with a precipitous drop in sales: “Right now we’re pretty much in survival mode,” Oblea says.
And yet, La Santa Torta is still out there slinging its Jalisco-style birria tacos and tortas six days a week out of a parking lot in Oakland’s Jack London District. And, more than that, it’s still giving food away to anyone who asks for it — dozens of meals since the start of the COVID-19 shutdown, many of them to the area’s large homeless population.
In truth, Guzman says, it’s always been their unofficial policy to never turn anyone away because of lack of funds; they’ve just been more proactive about publicizing it now that so many people are out of work. “I’ve been on that side,” he says. “If you’re having a bad day or a bad time and someone just throws you under one more time, it’s not a good feeling.”
A little over two weeks ago, Guzman and Oblea were manning the La Santa Torta food truck at a brewery in San Francisco when they got a call from one of their employees telling them about the region-wide shelter-in-place order that had just been announced. “What the hell is going on?” Guzman remembers thinking. He says he was caught off guard — he’d been so busy running his business that he hadn’t paid much attention to looming coronavirus crisis.
That first night, Guzman says he stayed up all night rethinking the entire business and essentially building it up again from scratch. He set up a bare-bones website so that customers could order online ahead of time in a streamlined way. Before, Guzman says, La Santa Torta’s two trucks used to generate as much as 80 percent of their revenue at breweries and tap rooms, where they’d have a nonstop stream of customers during each three- or four-hour stint. Since that’s no longer an option, the one truck they’re still running now posts up at its permanent location — a parking lot at 333 Broadway — all day, Tuesday through Sunday, from noon to around 8 p.m. It’s longer hours and less stability — not exactly the ideal model, but the only realistic option right now.
Food trucks, as it turns out, have been disproportionately impacted by the region-wide shelter-in-place order, and in ways specific to their own particular subset of the local food economy. Oblea explains that many of the trucks that operate out of same the Alameda commissary kitchen that La Santa Torta uses have been forced to essentially put their business on pause because of their dependence on bars, breweries, and big events like Off the Grid. By and large the breweries and tap rooms that used to host food trucks are all closed. All but one of Off the Grid’s weekly food truck markets are currently closed. For a lot of the trucks, there just isn’t anyplace to go.
Guzman and Oblea say they recognize how lucky they are that they still have a place where they can sell at all, and enough of a following that customers will still seek them out. Business is down by at least 50 percent, Guzman says, but for now they’re still making enough money to cover payroll — to at least give their six or seven full-time employees an adequate number of hours. “This has given us a second chance,” Oblea says. “It’s opened our eyes to how easy we can lose everything — to how fragile this industry is.”
And yes, they’ve been giving away free food — usually five to 10 meals a day, Oblea says. Many of them have been to the homeless community, but also, increasingly, to people who tell them they’ve lost their jobs since the coronavirus crisis hit. They’ve had mothers asking for food for their kids. If someone wants a taco and some churros, they give it to them; they don’t try to police what people get.
Giving a hot meal to someone who needs it is just a matter of good karma, La Santa Torta’s proprietors say. Guzman says he drew on the notion of café pendiente, or “pending coffee,” a phrase he remembers seeing on signs at coffee shops when he was growing up in Aguascalientes, Mexico. The idea, he explains, was that customers could pay for a cup of coffee for someone else — a random person who’d show up at the coffee shop later only to be surprised by a stranger’s generosity. It’s another way of saying that you should pay it forward, essentially. La Santa Torta customers can pay it forward, too, by making a donation — either in person or via the website — to help subsidize the free meals, though Guzman stresses that the policy isn’t contingent on how many donations he receives.
“Let’s say no one donates,” Guzman says. “That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop giving free food.”