They Keep on Food Truckin’

I stood at the food-truck window in the early December dark, my breath coming in white puffs. Inside the truck, a smiling, dark-haired woman scooped a generous helping of freshly griddled egg, spiced potato and chorizo into a warm tortilla, whipping it together into a hand-held meal with satisfying heft. “It’s hot,” she warned.

This wasn’t one of the trendy trucks that shook up the Vegas culinary scene over the past two years. There was no hip graffiti art on the truck’s white flanks, no winking innuendos in the truck’s name—just simple lettering: A.1. MOBILE CATERING.

“Yeah, people still call them roach coaches,” laughs John Margaretis, who started A.1. with his wife, Chila, in 1995 after moving from Orange County, Calif., where Chila ran a food truck and John owned a small textile business. They began with one truck, then bought Chila’s sister’s route and did so well they picked up another truck in 1996. “We added a truck about every six months to a year,” Chila says. “We were running 30 to 35 trucks out of here every day at our peak.” The client base was workmen rather than hipsters—carpenters, clerks, Nellis airmen. The food had to be good, but it also had to be fast. “You’re servicing a business,” John says. “The gourmet truck guys have all night; they can have you wait in line for 45 minutes. We do that and [the businesses] will kick us out.”

John and Chila were good at what they did, and A.1. boomed along with the Valley.

“We hit it just right,” John says. ”We just didn’t know it then. We were here almost since the beginning of catering trucks in Vegas. There were like maybe one or two trucks in Vegas when we got here: my sister-in-law and one guy in the airport.”

Everything was cooking along nicely until late 2005, when industrial and commercial businesses, especially those that served the construction industry, began going dark. For most mobile food trucks, it was a death sentence. “The majority of independent operators, those guys with just one truck or anybody who had a truck payment, went out of business,” John says.

On the surface, it might seem like an easy gig: Pick up a truck, whip up some tacos and head over to a construction site. Explains John, “Insurance is a very big expense. We have multimillion-dollar liability on our product, the driver and our truck on their premises.” To make it more difficult, they can’t push the price points of the “gourmet” trucks. “We have to keep our prices down. Most of our customers aren’t able to spend a lot.”

Today, A.1. is “just making it”—hanging on with only 15 to 20 trucks heading out on any given day. But the husband-and-wife team remains hopeful. “We’ve seen a little bit of an increase in business since 2006, but not as much as we would like. If the economy ever recoups, mobile catering should be stable,” John says. “The gourmet food truck side is already oversaturated, but there will always be a need for what we do.”