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Taco truck economics: What happens when the cost of onions goes up?

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Elizabeth Garcia takes an order from a customer at her mobile restaurant "La Patrona" in Los Angeles. Benjamin Gottlieb for Marketplace

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Elizabeth Garcia runs a little breakfast and lunch stand in Los Angeles called La Patrona.

Garcia cooks tacos, quesadillas, burritos and guisados from a colorful trailer attached to a silver pickup truck.

“It’s a business that I love,” Garcia said speaking in Spanish, while standing on an industrial street shrouded by warehouses. “The recipes are my family’s recipes from central Mexico.”

Garcia said she makes anywhere from $350 to $500 a day. But these days, she’s making less money than just six months ago because food costs are rising.

A good example, she said, is the price of onions. She buys 50 pound bags at a time.

“Months ago, I was getting a bag of onions for $14 to $16, depending on the quality,” Garcia said, “Right now, it’s $24 to $27.”

To entirely offset this price hike, Garcia said, she’d have to raise her taco prices by 50 cents. She tried that for a bit – charging $2.50 – but it didn’t go over so well with her customers.

“They cut back on their orders or some stopped coming altogether,” Garcia said, adding that she settled on $2.25 for now. “I couldn’t raise [my prices] anymore because many of my customers make minimum wage and they can’t afford it.”

Garcia’s experience with rising food costs mirror what many other food vendors in LA are going through, said Karina Guzman who works with the community development organization Inclusive Action for the City, which supports LA’s street vendors with micro loans.

“Our clients are stuck in this tension that they feel of … like, ‘Can I increase my prices? I’m afraid of losing clients.’ And a lot of them are absorbing the cost… are absorbing it themselves,” Guzman said.

For Garcia, that strategy is working for now. But she’s unsure just how much longer she can keep this going and if food prices will keep rising.

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