Tacos El Chavito, a longtime lonchera in Huntington Beach, left little grounds for complaints with its decades-long reputation for speedy service, great taco deals and tortillas hechas a mano. Rodolfo Renteria, better known as “Chavito” by his loyal customers, worked hard for his business to become successful. Despite an early blip in the 1990s, when he had to go to court against the city to win the right to park his lonchera in the mostly Mexican Oak View neighborhood without moving during business hours, the tacos did all the talking.
Chavito worked to find a better, more secure place to park until he found his lonchera’s long-standing location along Morgan Lane, not far from the Oak View community. The voluntary move proved wise, even for his brick-and-mortar business neighbors. “Everything was working great,” he says. “The storage manager [at Security Public Storage] told me that he wanted me there to bring people to their business, too.”
And with a two-tacos-for-a-buck deal and all-you-can-drink jugo de piña, Tacos El Chavito’s popularity even allowed him to upgrade to a new-and-improved truck.
So it came as a shock when Tacos El Chavito bid farewell on Facebook to its faithful customers in April 2018. “As some of you already know, Chavito hasn’t been at the food truck lately,” the post read. “After 20-plus dedicated years, Chavito has decided to sell his business; therefore Tacos El Chavito is under new ownership. He was forced to sell his hard-earn [sic] business of 20-plus years due to the discrimination, harassment, intimidation and extortion that he was subjected to by individuals and a business located near the food truck.”
Chavito had already taken allegations of such problems to court. In June 2016, he filed an unfair-business-practices lawsuit against Joshua and Jessica Caudill, who became on-site managers of Security Public Storage and allegedly began a campaign against Tacos El Chavito. According to the complaint, the taco troubles began in 2015, when the Caudills are alleged to have harassed the lonchera to put it out of business. “They began to call the police and the city,” says Chavito. “They had two dogs and took them to relieve themselves close to where I parked my truck. That’s how everything started.”
The Caudills lived above their business and didn’t want Tacos El Chavito or its patrons in front of their home. The suit also accused them of having hostilely demanded to see licenses and permits from Chavito’s workers, filed false ordinance-violation reports to the city inspector, and even yelled, “Get out of here—nobody wants you here!” at the taco truck’s workers and customers. A former Security Public Storage worker signed a declaration stating that Joshua Caudill’s “distaste for Tacos El Chavito stems from the ethnic origins of its owner and its most frequented customers.” Chavito is Mexican.
An email from the Caudills to their supervisor, which was entered into the court record, spelled out the disdain in their own words. “For the third time this week, the taco truck has had customers smoking weed right outside our apartment,” states the email dated Nov. 7, 2015. “I’m tired of it, especially when I have kids with me. They attract nothing but the bottom rung of society and trash up our property. What can I do to get them out of here?”
On Feb. 29, 2016, Chavito received an eviction notice from the office he had rented at Security Public Storage since 2006; the lease allowed him and his workers access to a bathroom within 200 feet of Tacos El Chavito, as required by law. By that April, Joshua Caudill had already hounded county health inspectors to follow up. “Just to clarify again, there is nowhere for this taco truck company to wash their hands or use the restroom within 200 feet,” he wrote.
But Caudill didn’t get the answer he expected from an agent who investigated the complaint.
“The owner of El Chavito stated that he has permission to use the restroom at Imperial Auto at the corner of Slater and Morgan,” wrote Kevin Dugan. “Currently, the truck parks roughly 300 feet from Imperial Auto. If El Chavito starts parking about another 100 feet closer to the corner, they will be within 200 feet of Imperial Auto, and thus in compliance with the restroom requirement. While I empathize with your situation concerning the parking and crime, please keep in mind that if El Chavito is in compliance with the restroom requirement, that there is nothing in my power that I can enforce to make them move.”
Chavito hired attorney Jorge Ledezma soon after he learned that the owner of Imperial Auto began to feel pressured by the Caudills for working with him.
Both parties began settlement discussions in 2018, when the alleged harassment took a new turn. According to a broader lawsuit filed in August of this year, Vivian Ulrich, who is described as “an actual or ostensible agent” of Security Public Storage tenant, allegedly extorted Chavito for $400-per-month payments in exchange for not calling the police on the grounds that he sold drugs out of his taco truck, a charge he denies. “I didn’t know what to do,” says Chavito. “I paid for two or three months, but after that, I began talking with my lawyer about what was happening. I told her I would no longer be paying.”
Chavito held to his word. Problems with the city started anew in regards to many calls of complaints about trash from a nearby mobile-home community. “I looked at all of that and decided I couldn’t continue my business this way,” says Chavito. “Every day, I was being harassed.”
He’s now suing for defamation. Even though the complaint details what was negatively alleged about him and his business, it doesn’t fully spell out the community pillar Tacos El Chavito became.
When children participated in a monthly cleanup of the nearby Oak View neighborhood in 2017, Tacos El Chavito rewarded the youth with the best incentive known to Mexicans: free tacos. “I’ve always had a good relationship with the police, too,” Chavito says.
The first lawsuit ended without a settlement, and the Caudills moved to another state. “For me, it didn’t resolve anything,” Chavito says. Both he and his attorney are hopeful the second suit may restore not only his reputation, but his business as well. “The goal is for him to [recoup] the last year and a half or two years of business that he lost,” says Ledezma. “If possible, he may even consider buying the truck back, if he’s allowed to do business again.”
In a statement to the Weekly, Security Public Storage says Chavito’s lease “was terminated with cause,” accuses him of relitigating a case that was dismissed and states Ulrich is a commercial tenant who isn’t affiliated with them in any way. “We take great and sincere pride in our nearly 40-year track record of community involvement,” the statement further reads, “and any allegations of racism by us are not only categorically false, but contrary to our core beliefs and our proven track record.”
On Nov. 1, the case was continued to April 6, 2020.