California food trucks brave the smoke to serve firefighters and evacuees

Oct. 16, 2017 | by Elliot Maras

Photo courtesy of iStock.

California food trucks have joined the effort to feed firefighters and evacuees as a massive fire, now in its second week, ravages the northern part of the state. While winds were dying down today, fires have already claimed at least 40 lives and destroyed some 5,700 homes and other structures across an estimated 180,000 acres.

Petaluma police volunteers Mary Brusco and Katherein Wells appreciate the burritos provided by Curry Up Now. 

Approximately 100 food trucks responded to a call for help last Tuesday from the city of Santa Rosa for licensed and available mobile food vendors, Food Truck Operator reported last week. But unfortunately, the first trucks that arrived were told by city officials that they were focused on getting people water, fuel and generators, and were not ready for food trucks.

Caribbean Spices, a Petaluma, California truck specializing in Haitian food, was one of the trucks that made the trip that day to Santa Rosa, which is about 12 miles north of Petaluma. 

“When I got there, it seemed the coordination wasn’t well,” Frantz Felix, owner of the truck, told Food Truck Operator. “There was nobody to open the gate for me.” 

He was, however, able to feed Santa Rosa evacuees at the Petaluma fairgrounds and a recreation center, where kitchens were set up. 

Coordination proves difficult

Other operators shared Felix's experience with establishing operations in areas that needed assistance.

Josh Yazzie, general manager of Curry Up Now, an operation with three food trucks and six restaurants in the San Francisco area, had trouble getting ahold of someone at the Santa Rosa emergency response center, a hub for safety forces and volunteers.

Jose Giron, left, and Josh Yazzie of Curry Up Now feed safety officers in Petaluma, California.

"The problem has been trying to find a contact up there," Yazzie told Food Truck Operator. "They were just super busy." 

Yazzie did manage to get ahold of the Petaluma police department, which encouraged him to send a truck. Curry Up Now ended up serving 90 burritos to first responders at the site. 

"They were happy to have us," Yazzie said of his reception in Petaluma. On the way back from the police department, the truck stopped at the Petaluma fairgrounds where evacuees were receiving support services.

Yazzie spent a few hours organizing boxes of donated food and other goods needed by the displaced residents.

"We don't want to get in the way," Yazzie said. "They don't want all these people that aren't there for emergency services. I totally get that." 

Curry Up Now emailed other food trucks Tuesday morning, asking for help in the relief effort. Between 20 and 30 responded they were willing to help, including one from San Jose, which is at least two hours from Santa Rosa.

"This is going to be an ongoing effort," Yazzie said. "They're still fighting the fires."

"We know that these guys (firefighters) are working all night, fighting these fires," Yazzie said. "They're the ones doing all the work. We're just trying to keep their bellies full. We're mobile restaurants. We can more easily than others get up there and serve hot food."

Off The Grid steps forward

Off The Grid, a San Francisco food truck event organizer, has been coordinating food trucks and raising money to support the relief effort. The group has raised close to $30,000 on its gofundme.com page.

"We really felt an urgent need to connect and be able to help people that have lost their homes and their livelihood," said Matthew Runeare, Off The Grid senior brand director. 

Off The Grid has partnered with LifeSTEPS, an organization that provides social services to residents of low income housing, to serve over 800 meals to residential complexes throughout Santa Rosa and Healdsburg that are without gas, power and cell reception.

Off The Grid does not operate in the affected areas, Runeare said, but a lot of its food truck members live in those areas.

"It's a critical area for the food industry in general," he said. "All the restaurants in the Bay area rely on that area for support for things that they do and make."

Off The Grid also wants to work with government leaders on a long-term solution to address similar situations in the future, Runeare said. The company is developing a supply chain with reefer trucks that can keep food cold so that it is not spoiled by the time it is served.

Meanwhile, Off The Grid is scheduling trucks to reach destinations in northern California in a staggered fashion.

"We're continually updating based on the requests we are getting from the city of San Rosa, from different municipalities," he said. "It is an ongoing call list that we have."

Off The Grid has posted a form online for people to fill out if they are interested in donating food or volunteering to help.

"Through that process, we've gotten more visibility," Runeare said.

Google reaches out

As early as last Monday, Google's Crisis Response team launched an SOS Alert—a set of features in Google Search and Maps that helps people understand what's going on and decide what to do during a crisis. The team created a map with shelter locations, vacancy status, pet accommodations and shelter needs. 

On Friday, Google announced plans to partner with Off the Grid to provide more than 25,000 meals via food trucks to Napa and Sonoma County shelters over the next month.

"You can see and smell the smoke because of the wind," said Carlos Seguca, owner of Sajj Street Eats, a truck in Menlo Park, California that has joined the food relief effort. "I just can't imagine how bad it is being actually there."

Seguca's truck is scheduled to serve meals this Thursday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Petaluma police department. He said he will be donating between 150 and 180 meals. He will have three of his employees with him on the truck.

"The community treats us so good that we want to give back," Seguca said. "The firefighters and the police department have been doing an incredible job trying to contain and control the fires."

Seguca estimated he will have contributed $1,200 to $1,300 in supplies, fuel and labor in addition to missing his regular work.

Sajj Street Eats parent company, Sajj Mediterranean, has five brick-and-mortar restaurants in addition to the food truck. The company, which has been involved in charity work since its founding in 2013, is taking donations from its restaurant customers for Santa Rosa relief.

While the Off The Grid's gofundme.com campaign will offset some of the costs for the food trucks, California food truck operators are not thinking about money as they take on the challenge of helping firefighters and displaced residents.


Topics: Food & Beverage, Independent Operators, Safety, Social Responsibility



Elliot Maras
Elliot Maras is the editor of KioskMarketplace.com and FoodTruckOperator.com.

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