Vanessa Mirabal holding one of her handcrafted vegan smoothies. (Photo courtesy of Vanessa Mirabal)

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Women in the food truck industry: Turning adversity into empowerment

Food trucks in Los Angeles have connected our community culturally and socially. As the food truck industry grows, female food truck owners are determined to empower more female leaders to enter the space.
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/frankiiiesmiiith/" target="_self">Frankie Smith</a>

Frankie Smith

August 3, 2022

Vanessa Mirabal holding one of her handcrafted vegan smoothies (Photo courtesy of Vanessa Mirabal)

As you walk up to the Coffee a GoGo truck, Vanessa Mirabal immediately starts racing. She’s giddily gathering all of the ingredients for one of her new creations: A mango-dragon fruit smoothie to make your skin glow. As she eagerly awaits her customer’s reaction to the smoothie, her enthusiasm was contagious.

She is one of many female entrepreneurs present in the food truck industry, offering fresh ideas and creating a more gender inclusive atmosphere. 

Although they consistently face sexist mistreatment, a little bit of persistence and passion has pushed three women leaders to create successful businesses.

Connecting the Community 

By nature, food trucks drive around Los Angeles serving customers from all different walks of life, creating unexpected gathering places which promote community building and serve a wide audience. 

“Every cup of coffee that I serve to someone, my personal mission is just to make them happy,” Mirabal said. “In a world where there is so much conflict and struggle, by giving them a latte or a smoothie or something, some small thing can make a difference in their lives.” 

Although underrepresented in the industry, female food truck owners intend to make an impact on their broader community.

Natasha Case, founder of CoolHaus, has partnered with numerous nonprofits to create unique ice cream flavors in order to raise money and awareness. 

Coolhaus collaborated with Black Girl Ventures, an organization dedicated to supporting Black women leaders. Case created a carrot cake flavored ice cream to raise money for a grant for  Black women business owners intended for marketing, IP, and design needs

They also created a flavor with the Okra Foundation, which raised money for nutritious meals for the Black trans community in New York. 

“That’s one of my favorite ways to really do something special because it’s so authentic and it’s a way to create a joyful, exciting product but do something meaningful for someone and kind of help make a change,” Case said. 

Centric Eats, a vegan soul food business started by Maya Donaldson, with the help of her mother, Candace Donaldson, strives to extend the reach of different communities and cultures. 

“Even in the black community, it’s tough,”  Donaldson, who is Black and a vegan, said, “In our community, we think we either don’t know what true health is or how to get there and we think that it’s really nasty or it’s not fun,” she said. 

Maya Donaldson combines her culture and identities to create something unique. Food trucks make different cultures accessible to a wide audience, allowing people to explore a variety of ethnic foods. After going vegan, Maya Donaldson crafted Centric Eats’ signature dish: vegan fried “chicken” made out of oyster mushrooms. 

“Bringing the access and awareness to our community whether its people who aren’t vegan or are vegan, showing this as an option,” Maya Donaldson said. “You can have some really good food, ethnic food, american food and different foods that are really good.”

Struggles 

Through their success, female food truck owners still face harassment from male consumers, which derives from the stereotypes within the industry. After opening a mere three months ago, Mirabal can already recount numerous strange interactions. 

“These older men mainly come up and they seem to want to give you advice and tell you the way you should be running your business,” she said. “One guy was telling us we need to offer meat options. I’m like, well, that’s not what I’m about. I’m not about serving meat.” 

Founder and owner of Coolhaus, Natasha Case and Freya Estreller posing at their food truck (Photo courtesy of Natasha Case)

Case has also experienced pushback, describing an interaction with an Uber driver while she was on a business trip.

She revealed that she owned a large ice cream company, leaving the driver in disbelief. 

“I think they’re trying to be charming by acting surprised. But it just shows again how people aren’t expecting you. It shows their prejudices. It shows their assumptions about who leaders aren’t and who leaders should be,” Case said.  

More recently, Maya Donaldson said that she and her mother experienced the brunt of sexist mistreatment and disrespect. 

The Centric Eat’s truck was leased from a highly regarded food truck company, which included the maintenance and insurance of the truck. Donaldson said she had difficulties getting the truck serviced, causing them to temporarily close their doors in early July. 

“I feel like we are getting treated wrong, maybe because we are a woman-owned business, because I’ve never seen [them] treat any of [their] other clients like that,” Donaldson said. “Now our business is shut down. Taken and it’s shut down. That was our kitchen. That was everything.” 

Women in the food truck industry

Natasha Case and Freya Estreller outside of their first Coolhaus store at Coachella in 2009, which was a $2500 postal van disguised as an ice cream truck. (Photo courtesy of Natasha Case)

Female owned food trucks are steadily growing, even through adversity. A study by Off the Grid, an organization that brings together food creators and hosts events, found that 30% of food trucks are female-owned. Additionally, 8% are LGBTQ owned.

“When you think of a food truck, you don’t necessarily think of maybe two women owning one, because it’s traditionally a male-dominated field,” Mirabal said. 

Amid the continual push for gender equality across industries, women are determined to change this stereotype. 

Case hopes to empower women to work hard and achieve their dreams. She explained how your differences can serve as an advantage. 

“I think something that can seem like it’s working against you can actually be your greatest gift, especially if you know how to own the story,” Case said. “If you think of it that way, it’s more of an opportunity.” 

Vanessa Mirabal posing with a latte outside the Coffee a GoGo truck (Photo courtesy of Vanessa Mirabal)

Mirabal wants to inspire women to do what makes them happy, even if it means stepping outside of their comfort zone.

On the side of her truck, Mirabal is illustrated on roller skates holding a coffee. This may just seem like an attention-grabbing visual at first, but it holds a deeper meaning for her.

“I wanted to try something new, something out of my comfort zone,” she said.  “I wanted to empower myself by getting on skates, and just feeling confident again and doing something that made me happy.”

Donaldson hopes to empower women to stand up for themselves, even in the face of mistreatment. 

“I’ve noticed that when you’re good at what you do, you stand up for what you know, you can demand respect and I feel like as women, that’s what we’re doing,” she said. “We are literally having to demand our respect and hold our ground because it gets pretty wild.” 

Even with her food truck now gone, Donaldson remains optimistic about the future. She wants to encourage young female leaders to follow their dreams or even create their own truck.

“Take the steps to really pinpoint what you want to do and do it, get out there and do it because you can. Because this right here, regardless of all these crazy things that I’ve said… this is actually me living my dream,” Donaldson said.  

These three women leaders have undoubtedly made an impact on their communities. As the food truck industry continues to evolve, new female leaders are emerging.

“I would say I’m just excited to see what comes next. We’re in another cycle where I think innovation and creative ideas, as the dust settles, are really important,” Case said. “And the ones that take off now will be the defining brands and visions of this generation.”

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