Transient vendor takes stand on private property

A Civic Project story

Food vendor Walter F. Aguirre, right, sells tacos to customer Derek Grove, of Indiana, Pa., in a parking lot behind the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at 220 S. Seventh Street, Indiana, Nov. 9, 2012. Photo by Colleen O'Laughlin.

Food vendor Walter F. Aguirre, right, sells tacos to customer Derek Grove, of Indiana, Pa., in a parking lot behind the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at 220 S. Seventh Street, Indiana, Nov. 9, 2012. Photo by Colleen O’Laughlin.

By Colleen O’Laughlin

INDIANA  −  Late one night early in the spring semester of 2012, Walter F. Aguirre, 28, a senior marketing major at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, was hanging out with his Phi Kappa Psi fraternity brothers when he got a craving for tacos.

He didn’t want pizza. He didn’t want convenience-store carry-out. He wanted the food he grew up eating in the Hispanic neighborhoods of Los Angeles, where street vendors are plentiful and popular.

His friends didn’t understand his specific hunger. At first.

“None of them really understood what I meant by that,” said Aguirre in a November interview. “Then one night, I made some at home for my wife and kids.  This idea just kept coming back to me.”

Aguirre said he nurtured the idea in a spring 2012 business-communications class in the Eberly College of Business and Information Technology. Students were assigned to come up with a product and market it. That’s when Aguirre started to think about starting his own business.

“That’s a good way to get this out there,” said Aguirre.  “We used the ideas I had to build the presentation.  People began to ask if this was something that is really coming to IUP.”

Aguirre researched food trucks, trailers, locations and the law. He developed his business plan with the help of the Small Business Development Center at IUP, where Aguirre works as a small-business consultant.

Aguirre incorporated his company — Gordos Food Service (L.A. Taco) — in March. He opened for business at Phi Kappa Psi on April 29. L.A. Taco passed the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture health inspection on July 23.

Indiana borough council approved Aguirre’s transient vendor license on Sept.18, Aguirre said. L.A. Taco was permitted to operate in the borough-owned parking lot at South Eighth and Church streets, 5-8 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday. If Aguirre operated past 8 p.m., his permit would be pulled. The borough set his license fee at $220.

Aguirre studied the local market and discovered a problem: At the times and on the days he was permitted to operate, he said, local bars offered taco and wing specials.

“So I decided that’s not in my best interest to do it,” said Aguirre. “I decided to go the private property route.”

His decision put his business beyond the reach of a controversial rewrite of a borough ordinance that regulates transient vendors who operate on public property. The revised ordinance, adopted by the borough’s elected council on Dec. 10, imposes no restrictions on vendors operating on private property.

Aguirre has an agreement with his Phi Kappa Psi fraternity to park his L.A. Taco food trailer on its property in its rear parking lot on Friday nights. The fraternity owns the property at 220 South Seventh St. and pays the property taxes.

Aguirre said he is aware that owners of established brick-and-mortar restaurants and some members of the borough council have criticized transient vendors. During a Sept. 18 council meeting, for example, Levent Akbay, co-owner of Romeo’s Pizza, said transient vendors do not support the community.

“I pay rent,” Akbay said. “I pay tax…. I invested in this community…. I don’t know what purpose those businesses serve other than to serve themselves.”

Aguirre disagreed. He said food vendors are good for the community and provide food choices to IUP students.

“Students should have an option of the food they want,” said Aguirre. “Why not give them something local?”

Aguirre said he is involved in the community by supporting local businesses. He orders meat from Cunningham Meats in Indiana, he said. His produce is supplied by Dentici Produce in Kittanning. Silk-screened shirts are provided by True Image Tattoo in New Kensington. And other items come from FastTimes in Indiana.

“I’m part of Indiana,” said Aguirre.  “I serve in Indiana in the National Guard.  I am a student at IUP.  I’m closely connected to this borough. Why not let me operate and do what I want to do? ”

Colleen O’Laughlin, a senior majoring in political science and journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is from Pittsburgh. 

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