Jul 11, 2023

‘Metal box heated from the inside’: food truck workers’ battle against heat

Hotter summers are making it increasingly difficult to keep cool in what are ‘basically like little ovens’ as staff battle discomfort

As tortillas warm on the grill at Los Pookies – an Albuquerque, New Mexico-based food truck best known for its birria tacos – a swamp cooler blasts cool air and extractor fans try their best to suck the heat out of the metal trailer.

But when temperatures in New Mexico hit the 100s in early July, owner Luis Dominguez says, the fans didn’t feel like enough: so he completely removed the food truck’s front window. Unlike air conditioning, swamp coolers, which use fans and water to create chilly air, actually perform better with increased circulation. Dominguez hoped taking out the window and opening the trailer’s back door would let in more fresh air and improve ventilation for his staff.

“We’ve done everything we can,” said Dominguez. When his employees have a moment between customers, they step out of the food truck and gulp down bottles of water and Pedialyte. But, “it is very hot in the food truck. We have the grill going, the fryers going and it is metal walls all the way around. So it’s basically like a little oven.”

In the three-and-a-half years that Los Pookies has been open, Dominguez says, all of the summers have been hot. But he can’t remember one this bad.

As this July came to an end, the World Meteorological Association declared it the hottest month ever recorded on Earth. In the American south-west, the city of Phoenix, Arizona, recorded a 31-day stretch of temperatures over 110F and temperatures in Death Valley peaked at 128F, just shy of the national park’s 1913 record. In New Mexico, the extreme heat was compounded by the delayed arrival of the state’s typical summer monsoon season – without the afternoon rains, there was nothing to cut the midday heat.

For food truck owners in the desert south-west, beating the record temperatures has required creativity and persistence. Like other industries facing a reckoning over the heat, New Mexico’s food truck fans and customers are wondering what the future holds. But staff and employees are more resolute – despite the discomfort, they’re convinced the industry will persevere.

“Food trucks are going to be food trucks,” said Jae Stulock, owner of the Asian fusion food truck Umami Moto.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy: outside, “it might be 105 degrees”, he said, but “inside, the truck is about 115 to, I think we’ve recorded 122 degrees”.

Those temperatures are extreme for one hour and even worse on busy days when the truck is parked at breweries for 10 hours. But that’s just the nature of the industry.

“Food trucks are essentially a metal box,” said Basit Gauba, owner of two New Mexico-based food trucks: Tikka Spice, which specializes in South Asian street food, and Stackers, which is known for its green chile cheeseburgers. “A metal box that’s heated from the inside on a summer day. So it gets pretty hot.”

Tikka Spice is lucky to have air-conditioning, says Gauba, but with the exhaust vents running and the window open to take customers’ orders, it doesn’t always help. Plus, operating the air-conditioning requires a certain amount of power that not all pop-up sites can offer. If the truck is parked at a brewery they might be able to turn it on, but few parks have adequate hook-ups. Instead, his staff has taken to wearing cooling towels around their necks and turning off any equipment that they can when they’re not cooking.

“The only thing we can’t turn off is our fryers,” said Gauba. “But as far as grills and charbroilers and stoves, if we’re not using it, we’ll have it off. That helps out a lot.”

When everything’s up and running, though, the heat can impact the function of that equipment. “If the sun is shining on the passenger side of the truck, that’s where our refrigeration is, so the refrigeration is fighting that heat. And that pulls more power from the generator. And the generator can only handle so much,” said Stulock. When it shuts off, there’s no way to keep anything cold anymore.

The breweries that Tikka Spice and other food trucks park outside of some days have taken to giving the staff pails of ice chips, which they ladle into a mobile swamp cooler to lower the temperature inside the truck even more than the A/C can. “It melts pretty quick,” says Gauba, “but then it gives you a cooler, fresher air.”

Those partnerships with breweries – and other pop-up sites – are essential, Dominguez said. Brewery employees made sure his staff were well-supplied with cold water when temperatures were at their highest and invited them into the air-conditioned spaces during their breaks. If temperatures get hotter in the coming years, Stulock says he’s considering asking his brewery partners to build shade covers for the trucks.

Those partners also keep customers coming out despite the heat: after they stand in line for their food, customers can retreat inside for a cold drink. But even then, Stulock says, the heat makes business hard: “Attendance goes down dramatically. People just don’t come out.” When they do, it’s usually at night, when the food truck has been outside for hours and staff are getting tired.

Gauba and his wife have recently opened two brick-and-mortar restaurants and they know staff prefer shifts at the air-conditioned spaces. So they’ve started offering higher rates to employees who work the food truck – that way they get paid more for what can be a more uncomfortable shift in the peak summer heat.

This summer, Gauba found himself looking to other parts of the world for inspiration. As immigrants from Pakistan, Gauba and his wife found themselves reflecting on the night markets popular across much of the Middle East and Asia where, he said, people do everything they can to avoid being outside in the middle of the day.

Even in the US, Gauba noticed other food trucks in cities like Phoenix and San Antonio, Texas, shifting their hours later and later in the day. “I think that’s going to be the future if it keeps going this way,” Gauba said. “If it does get hotter, we’ll have to really change how we operate.”

Although it’s been a more difficult summer, Dominguez doesn’t think the changing climate means the end of the industry. For many small business owners, especially immigrant and working class families, food trucks are a path toward opening their own restaurants and other ventures.

People who work in food trucks “have a really, really strong work ethic”, says Dominguez. “We don’t care if it’s 200 degrees outside or negative 30, we’ll be out selling, we have to, just because that’s how we make ends meet.”