By Sonja Sharp Los Angeles Times
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Jennifer Ramirez "knows how to roll" through some of the swankiest neighborhoods of Los Angeles where her food truck does brisk business among the hundreds of workers busy building and rebuilding homes in Bel-Air, Holmby Hills and Beverly Hills.
Los Angeles Times
Twenty-thousand-dollar date palms fluttered in the breeze and cranes glinted against the sapphire sky as Jennifer Ramirez pulled her lunch truck to a stop outside the half-finished mansion on Bel Air Road.
It was her third stop on a balmy Friday, a bustling site packed with construction vehicles and hardhats laboring behind green privacy mesh. One moment, the 20-year-old from South Los Angeles stood alone on the glittering pavement, her 5-foot frame dwarfed by one of the most expensive homes ever built. The next, she was mobbed by a dozen hungry workers scrambling for their 9:45 a.m. lunch.
"It's cool [lunch trucks] come up here, because the streets are narrow and tight," said Joseph Trujillo, 26, who was installing aquarium-style acrylic windows in the bottom of the pool — his third such project in recent weeks — so future partygoers could watch beautiful people swim above them. "It's nice they come to us."
On Bel Air Road, grown men run out to meet Ramirez like kids chasing an ice cream truck. They call her "La Chaparrita," an affectionate diminutive for "shorty," the nickname of the infamous Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.
Her horn signals a 20-minute break in a 10-hour work day, a chance to trade gossip with gardeners at the compound next door or the carpenters at the site down the block. Los Angeles is in the midst of a development boom, one that operates here at imperial scale. La Chaparrita's Munch Truck makes 15 stops in four hours, selling hundreds of meals to men who build homes the size of strip malls.
"They're building all these mansions, and they're always remodeling them," Ramirez said. "They've built mansions and completed them and then they tore them apart because they didn't like the way they turned out."
Mohamed Hadid's unfinished mansion is among those Ramirez serves. Better known to most as the father of supermodels Bella and Gigi Hadid, the billionaire attained local infamy for his 30,000-square-foot Strada Vecchia citadel, an icon of palatial excess in a neighborhood increasingly antagonistic to new construction, and to those who attend it.
"I've got a community on the edge of revolt," said Shawn Bayliss, executive director of the Bel-Air Assn. "Imagine building a Target. Now imagine putting that on a 22-foot-wide street that dead-ends, and imagine putting three of those on the same street. We're overwhelmed." : : The so-called Platinum Triangle of Bel-Air, Holmby Hills and Beverly Hills is dotted with enormous new mansions, many of them built on speculation by developers banking on mammoth returns. But those going up in Bel-Air are of another order, experts say.
"They range from a low of 10,000–20,000 square feet in the Bird Streets [an enclave above the Sunset Strip] and Trousdale [a neighborhood in Beverly Hills] to 40,000–50,000 when you get into Bel-Air," said Stephen Shapiro, chairman and co-founder of Westside Estate Agency. "Some of the really big ones have aesthetician rooms for manicures and Botox. There's one house I saw not long ago that had nine bars in it."
Such modern fortresses of concrete and glass command armies of workers to build them, and a squadron of caterers like Ramirez to keep them fed. On any given weekday, 12 to 15 food trucks patrol the streets of Bel-Air alone, serving hundreds of men who may labor on the same site for months, even years.
"The super-rich keep dozens and dozens of households afloat on every job site," said Aaron Mead, a 25-year-old fireplace specialist who works regularly in the neighborhood.
To those who gild these streets with their sweat, the boom has been a blessing. But for those who live here, new development is a nightmare.
"You've got a developer who doesn't even live in the community building a house with people who also don't live in the community, and no one cares," Bayliss said. "We are awash in construction. Add the filming, add the lunch trucks, add the tour buses — and if it's Wednesday it's also trash day, so there is a competition of huge vehicles on the smallest of hillside streets."
Anger crackles in the air, looking for somewhere to ground. The developers are absent; the tourists, ephemeral. Workers spend their days veiled by mesh construction screens, and the film crews are shielded by location permits. Alone with no imprimatur, the lunch truck is a lightning rod.
"Thank you, nos vamos, bye!" Ramirez called some 10 minutes later, her black ponytail bouncing as she leaped to pull the service windows down.
She hopped into the driver's seat and started the engine, waiting for a cement mixer to pass before inching out onto the narrow strip of Bel Air Road. But before she could merge, another driver swerved ahead of her, arching out of his seat to scream invective from the window of his black Rolls-Royce.
"He's like, 'I'm the owner, I'm in charge, and I don't want you here,'" Ramirez said, still visibly shaken when she reached her next stop. Two months before, the same man had taken two bottles of water from her and refused to pay. "He said, 'I'm the owner of the house,' so I gave them to him for free."
For those who labor in the shadow of fortune, this is what a living costs. : : Mornings start before sunrise at the sprawling Slauson commissary in South Los Angeles.Some 300 food trucks rent space here, drawing hundreds of women and a handful of men to clean, prep and cook ahead of the day's service. By 5:30 am, crews were already on their way out, headed to the factories in Vernon to serve the morning shift.
Ramirez's cooks, Hilda Garcia and Yamileth Hernandez, were well into their prep for the day, cumbia superstar Aniceto Molina's "El Diario de un Borracho" ("The Diary of a Drunk") crooning from the speakers as the smell of grilled meat filled the air.
La Chaparrita's most popular product is carne asada — the truck sells about 20 pounds a day — but carnitas is a close second.
Other favorites include pupusas and breakfast burritos. On Fridays, the team serves shrimp cocktails and whole fish.
Ramirez arrived around 6:30, her waist-length hair wet and loose down her back. She is studying for her associate's degree in small business entrepreneurship, and homework had kept her up until midnight. At 6 a.m., her alarm rang for work.
"In my classes, one of the assignments was to think of a small business and how you would work hard to pursue it," she said with a nod to her scarlet truck. "I don't know how to cook much, but I've grown up next to my mother."
Ramirez was born in South L.A. and raised on this lot, watching her mother work her way from a lunch truck cook who sold hot dogs from a cart on the weekends up to the owner of her own Workhorse truck, and later to the boss of a small fleet of subcontractors across Brentwood and the Platinum Triangle.
"Yesterday we came across a woman selling food from her car — I know there was a child with her, and I know my mother was in that same place," Ramirez said. "As I grew up I saw her struggles. She's an idol for me."
Her mother's hard work helped change their fortunes, but struggle was never far away. Competition is fierce in the food truck business, and with significant operating expenses, a rainy day can put owners in the red. In 2016, Ramirez dropped out of Venice High School to help her mother keep the business afloat and support her three younger siblings.