Tacos with a side of civil disobedience? Little Penguin Tacos in Caddo Valley has you covered.
The white, unassuming food truck owned and operated by Arkadelphia locals- Jonathan and Claya Gonzales, has been serving up freshly-made breakfast and lunch tacos since 2014. If the name sounds familiar, that might be because on April 20th Little Penguin made headlines across the state when they found themselves in a taco-tango with the Arkadelphia City Council.
The idea for Little Penguin Tacos started as a joke between Jonathan Gonzales and his college roommates. “We lived in a basement apartment and it was always kind of cold in there, we called it the penguin den,” says Gonzales fondly. He and his roommates had decided they were tired of eating the cheap junk that most college students survive on.
In an effort to eat healthier, and tastier food on a budget, they started scrambling up some eggs and peppers, adding in the occasional donation of meat from Gonzales’ mother’s freezer and some tortillas, the coeds had discovered a way to solve their problem.
“That’s where my roommates and I found out we could literally live on breakfast tacos,” Gonzalez says. “We just really learned to cook out of that- wanting something a little better, a little healthier but being broke.”
As time passed, friends started popping by to grab a taco or two, always offering praise for the meal. Gonzales had an inkling that he was on to something, “we started feeding our friends and everybody liked it. We joked around about starting a food truck and selling tacos.” Flash forward to 2014 and Gonzales decided to make it a reality. “The timing got right and I got a deal on this thing,” he says patting the wall of the mobile kitchen.
When the Gonzales’ started taking steps toward opening they contacted the City of Arkadelphia to find out how to go about doing everything by the book. The city noted that there was an ordinance about mobile vending within the city limits and the rules were very specific.
“I bought the trailer while I was still in Texas. Found a piece of land I wanted to put it on [ in arkadelphia ], contacted the owner- he was cool with it- and contacted the city and they immediately were like ‘you can’t do that. There is an ordinance against that,’’’ says Gonzales.
So he requested a copy of the code for himself to clarify. After reading it Gonzales was convinced he qualified for one of the many “exceptions” listed in the city code. When he pursued it further by trying to get his Arkadelphia business permits the city wouldn’t budge. After that Gonzales called Caddo Valley, just 10 minutes outside of Arkadelphia, and asked what he would need to do to set up.
“They just said, ‘let us know when you are open so we can put it in the newsletter… We LIKE business in our town,’’ says Gonzales, noting how welcoming and easy to work with the small township has been.
Little Penguin set up in Caddo Valley but the Gonzales didn’t give up on the idea of Arkadelphia. They went to city board meetings and lobbied with some other local business to update and expand Arkadelphia’s arcane municipal food service and mobile vending codes. Some headway was made when the city adopted an ordinance to allow for a food truck park, but they put so many parameters on it, as to make it nearly impossible barring a venture capitalist intervening.
Exhausted with the intractability of Arkadelphia’s municipal workings, after about a year Gonzales stopped going to city board meetings. When asked why they stay in Arkadelphia at all, Gonzales explains that he and Claya feel Arkadelphia has great potential and that they want to be a part of bringing “good energy” to the town they call home. “When we bought our house here, we made this part of the 5-year plan.” says Gonzales, sincerely.
After another year or so, Little Penguin is still serving up breakfast and lunch tacos in Caddo Valley to much praise and many happy customers. Then one day a few months back, Gonzales says, a representative of Baptist Medical Center, (one of the Arkadelphia’s largest employers) called Little Penguin, looking to provide alternative dining options for their employees, patients and visitors. They asked the food truck to come set up outside the hospital and Jonathan agreed.
The service went off without a hitch and everyone left happy. The trouble started when they were asked back a 2nd time. Gonzales once again, accepted the invitation without hesitating but when he posted the truck’s schedule on facebook, including plans to set up at Baptist on April 20, someone commented, asking if they were going to be serving the public. Gonzales replied in the affirmative, saying something along the lines of “whoever wants a taco is going to get a taco…I’m not going to turn anyone away.” Gonzales says he was aware of the risk.
“I knew as soon as I posted that we would likely catch a little flack.”
The next day, Little Penguin set up as promised at Baptist. When they got through breakfast with no issue, Gonzales thought maybe the city was easing up. But at 11:30 a.m. just before lunch rush, Officer Free of the Arkadelphia Police Department arrived and told Gonzales that he had to shut it down due to violation of City Ordinances. Gonzales says he has no hard feelings about the cop who was just doing his job. “Really, really nice guy. He didn’t want to shut us down at all…but it was all good, we were in violation of a city ordinance so there wasn’t really much of anything we could do about it.”
Officer Free mentioned to Gonzalez that if he had been catering then it would not be against the ordinance. So Gonzales offered to cater the rest of lunch for Baptist for $1. After the work-around was agreed upon, Little Penguin put out a bucket and a sign that said “we can’t take your money but suggested tip amounts are listed on the menu.”
That was that,” says Gonzales. “We were catering.” Half an hour later, the Hospital asked Gonzales to leave, saying that an unknown person had called to complain about the food truck still being on the property. “At this point, social media is going crazy!” says Gonzales who had been posting updates as the drama was unfolding. “People were pissed,” he says, echoing several comments about how Arkadelphia’s city policies stifle growth and make it too hard on small businesses to succeed.
“So we packed up, we had customers walking up as all of this is happening and we had a lot of food already cooked up so we just said, ‘Hey we are heading back to Caddo Valley so if you want food, just follow us out there.’ We had a lot of people do it. There was a line of cars behind us on the interstate. It was so fun! We already had hot food in the box so we just pull up here and never even unhooked from the truck. We just pulled in and opened the window.”
For now, Little Penguin is happy to be in Caddo Valley but Gonzales doesn’t think the issue is resolved and he seems to be right. Already the showdown has generated actual grassroots movement, with citizens calling board members and with the recent media attention Gonzales has brought to the issue. Mobile vending was a hot topic of discussion when the Board met Tuesday, May 3. The City Manager heard every member of the board who all agreed the current ordinance is too restrictive.
Julie Winfrey, Director at Large for the Board of Directors was adamant that the rules should be loosened in favor of more mobile commerce. “It’s way too restrictive,” she said of the current code. “I know some of the restaurants in the area aren’t too happy about it…Competition is good. I’d love to see 10 all over town.”
The entire board shared anecdotes of civic engagement. Arkadelphia citizens reached out in higher-than-usual numbers through social media, calls, and emails to tell board members that they were in favor of food trucks, many of them citing other cities nearby (like Gurdon) where it has been successful and lead to more economic growth. Mayor James Calhoun, brought up possible long term effects of allowing the changes. “A lot of these food trucks turn into brick and mortars,” he pointed out.
The interactions with the people of Arkadelphia played a key role in shaping the directors opinions, indicating that the firestorm of online outrage sparked on Little Penguin’s facebook actually ignited real action.
Jason Jones, Director of Ward 1, said he was “raked over the coals,” by angry citizens who don’t agree with keeping the food trucks out of the town.
Currently, it appears as though there could be enough pressure to start the process of changing or repealing Arkadelphia’s food truck restrictions, but the Board of Directors has to meet about the matter 3 times before a vote can be taken to adopt new policies. Since the Board sits for meetings only once a month, that means it would be August before Mobile vending is allowed in Arkadelphia and that is only IF the community continues to pressure their wards’ directors, Mayor and City Manager for change.
As for Jonathan Gonzales and what he thinks of all the buzz, he seems pleased but surprised that his actions started a small but seemingly effective movement. When asked if he had intended to shake up the conversation he say’s it was just a bonus. “I was trying to serve the 150+ employees, patients & families at Baptist. I had pretty much given up on getting into Arkadelphia just to serve the public at that point.”
Gonzales may had given up, but it seems the hungry citizens of Arkadelphia haven’t.
Further reading: Here is the City of Arkadelphia code, refer to chapter 4.24 on Transient merchants.