Food truck rip-off? Supplier denies claims he exploited ‘campesinos’

Guitars flutter, an accordion wheezes and a singer unwinds the triumphant tale of Fernando Ochoa Jauregui, a Modesto-area builder of food trucks and trailers.

“He still parties just because he feels like it,” the lyrics go. “But what he enjoys the most is partying with a banda at festivals in his town with a beautiful lady by his side.”

In a video accompanying the Spanish-language corrido, images flash of Ochoa beaming in front of shiny cars and atop jet skis. In some, he wears hats with the logo of his company: 8A Food Trucks. It ends with footage of stacks of cash and a money-counting machine.

The narrative ballad, titled “El del 8A” on YouTube, gives the impression that Ochoa is a kingpin at the helm of a burgeoning empire — one who “gives thanks to his father for making him a good kid.”

But unhappy 8A Food Trucks customers across California — from Sacramento to Salinas and San Bernardino — tell their own stories. They describe toiling as cooks, custodians and construction workers, saving for years to get a chance at starting their own business, only to have their dreams dashed. In a rough and tumble industry, largely secluded in poor, immigrant neighborhoods and farming communities, they allege Ochoa stands out for his callousness.

In lawsuits and interviews, former clients accused Ochoa and his company of not delivering trucks or trailers they ordered and refusing to return their partial or full payments. Others alleged that they received vehicles so poorly built that they couldn’t be used. And some have accused Ochoa of taking back trailers they’d purchased from him.

All told, 15 alleged victims claimed more than $475,000 in losses, according to a Times analysis.

In an interview, Ochoa, 28, disputed several of the allegations and acknowledged some mistakes, chalking them up in part to his inexperience in business, which he said led to delays in completing projects for customers. “I’m trying to deal with this scandal so I can make my business better again — I had a real company,” he said. “I’m not a business expert. I just know how to build trucks.”

Ochoa has become a symbol in Spanish media of the perils that lurk in the mobile food industry. In a 2023 report on him, a Univision news anchor warned those entering the business to exercise extreme caution. The controversy comes at a fraught moment for vendors in Southern California. Several in the L.A. area were robbed by gunmen last summer in brazen attacks that highlight the risks of selling food on Southland streets.

Alejandro Gonzalez was in a dispute over payment for a trailer when an old Toyota Camry pulled up to the drive-through window of Mi Casita Purepecha, his San Bernardino restaurant, on Feb. 1.

“Are you Alejandro?” the front-seat passenger asked Gonzalez, who was standing at the window.

The restaurateur said he was — and the man pulled out a gun and pointed it at him.

In the confusion of the moment, Gonzalez said, he turned to help customers inside the Mexican restaurant and the Camry sped away. Gonzalez, 44, didn’t recognize the men. But he said he fears that they are connected to Ochoa. Asked about the incident, Ochoa said he did not send armed men to Mi Casita Purepecha.

Gonzalez and his wife, Paulina Quintal, had contacted 8A Food Trucks in early January about building them two trailers so they could start a mobile food business. Ochoa delivered a trailer to their home two weeks later. Gonzalez said that he and his wife paid for it in full, and gave the builder a check for the down payment on a second one.

A mobile food trailer that Alejandro Gonzalez purchased from 8A Food Trucks

San Bernardino resident Alejandro Gonzalez said that this mobile food trailer, which he purchased from 8A Food Trucks, was stolen from his driveway in January.

(Alejandro Gonzalez)

Soon, however, men working for Ochoa appeared at Mi Casita Purepecha to dispute Gonzalez’s ownership of the trailer he’d bought days earlier, he said. Then, after the couple’s check for the second trailer didn’t clear, a third party passed along what Gonzalez said was a threatening voicemail from Ochoa.

On Jan. 21, Gonzalez said he returned from an errand to find his trailer had been stolen from his driveway. Seeking answers, he said he traveled to 8A Food Trucks’ headquarters in Ceres, Calif., but found the site deserted. The next day, Gonzalez said, the men with the gun visited him.

Gonzalez filed reports with the San Bernardino Police Department over the theft and the run-in at his restaurant. Regarding Ochoa, Gonzalez said, “I don’t know how he sleeps.”

Ochoa denied stealing the trailer from Gonzalez and Quintal’s home — “I would never do that,” he said — and alleged that they had not fully paid for it, saying that the check that bounced was meant to go toward the money they owed on it. Ochoa said he had sent two people to Mi Casita Purepecha to address those matters — and not to intimidate the couple.

“None of my people are armed,” he said. “We are businessmen; we dedicate ourselves to working and building trailers.”

Though the dollar amounts in most of the cases involving Ochoa are not large, for fledgling operators trying to break into the mobile food industry — many of them working-class immigrants — it’s enough to sidetrack their business dreams. And their predicaments highlight the vulnerability of California’s food industry workers, many of whom lack a financial safety net or the time and experience required to navigate the legal system. Some are undocumented and fear speaking to authorities.

“There were nights that we would cry, my husband and I,” said Adriana Nicanor, a San Joaquin resident. She and her husband filed a lawsuit against Ochoa and 8A Food Trucks last year that asserted he never delivered a trailer and claimed he refused to return their $20,000 deposit. They secured a default judgment, court records show, but have been unable to collect on it.

“It’s very frustrating,” Nicanor said. “My brother lent me that money. There were times we would struggle. Who asks for this?”

For many of Ochoa’s clients, making a down payment on a truck or trailer — both of which typically include kitchens — was an important first step in fulfilling a long-held entrepreneurial ambition. Some said that the alleged losses were especially painful because they came at the hands of one of their own: a Mexican immigrant who lived in the Central Valley and previously worked at an industrial shop before founding 8A Food Trucks in 2019.

He’s taking advantage of “the campesinos — the farmworkers,” said activist Alicia Espinoza, a Moreno Valley resident who has helped organize some of Ochoa’s accusers. “My dad, when he came to this country, he was a strawberry picker. It just hurts me that this guy could take advantage of people like him.”

Ochoa said he has many happy customers and has gone out of his way to help them achieve their aspirations, noting, for example, that he has sometimes accepted payment in installments. “Not many businesses do that,” he said. “You know, we’re not a bank.” As for the Nicanors, Ochoa denied that he failed to meet an agreed-upon deadline for delivery, and said he plans to pay them back.

Mi Casita Purepecha restaurant's drive-through area

Mi Casita Purepecha owner Alejandro Gonzalez said a car pulled up to the restaurant’s drive-through window and a passenger pulled a gun on him Feb. 1.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Several of those making allegations against Ochoa reside in Stanislaus County, an agricultural hub whose biggest city is Modesto. Wendell Emerson, a deputy district attorney for the county, confirmed that his office is conducting “an active criminal investigation” of Ochoa. He declined to comment further.

After the incident at Mi Casita Purepecha, Gonzalez closed the restaurant and left San Bernardino, relocating his family — he and his wife have three children — to a place they feel safe.

“I don’t know how long it is going to be,” Gonzalez said. “I feel like I lost everything.”

Lawsuits reveal a pattern

Ochoa is an entrepreneur of the internet age.

Food industry workers who’ve done business with the Colima, Mexico, native said that they found him via social media, where his posts depict a professional at the helm of a prosperous company.

The Instagram account for 8A Food Trucks includes several images of gleaming vehicles, their stainless steel kitchens spotless under bright lights. The “8A” in the company’s name is a play on words: pronounced in Spanish, it sounds like “Ochoa.”

A recently divorced father of two young girls, Ochoa has positioned 8A as a brand beyond the world of food services: There are Instagram pages for a hat company with 8A in the name, and another for a jet-ski rental service. It’s all part of a slick image that Ochoa has cultivated online, where it’s easy to find his self-aggrandizing corridos and photographs of him posing in front of his black Chevrolet Corvette.

“Now they see me living well,” the lyrics of one song go, “driving around in a Corvette, buzzing.”

Ochoa’s flaunting of his success has infuriated customers with whom he’s tussled.

For Norma Estevez and her husband, Sebastian Delgado, entering the mobile food trade was a step toward realizing an important goal: owning a business they could pass onto their three children. But Estevez and Delgado, both Mexican American, believe they lost more money than any of Ochoa’s other alleged victims.

The Salinas couple contacted Ochoa in 2021 to build a pair of trailers, selecting him, Estevez said, because he was Latino. “He didn’t have many clients,” she said, “and you could tell he has this aspiration to succeed.”

Estevez needed the trailers for a big opportunity: She had signed a contract with a produce company in nearby Watsonville to feed 70 field workers for 10 months beginning in February 2022. The owner had predicated the deal on her securing a trailer and having proper permits.

Ochoa told her that each trailer would cost $41,000, and promised to complete construction by the end of January, according to Estevez, who showed The Times invoices that documented the deal.

She and her husband sent Ochoa $60,000 over the course of several months, and as the deadline approached, they scheduled a day to pick up the trailers from 8A Food Trucks’ shop, Estevez said. But Ochoa canceled on them, she said, explaining that “his mother had arrived from Mexico and that he needed to pick her up from the airport.” They rescheduled, but he again put them off.

By then, Estevez’s contract with the Watsonville company had begun, and she scrambled to honor it. She was forced to buy meals for the workers, spending about $37 per person a day for the next week and a half — an all-in cost of nearly $26,000. Eventually, she rented a kitchen for $800 a week, and did so until the contract concluded, turning only a small profit on the deal.

And without the trailers, Estevez wasn’t able to renew the contract. “I felt embarrassed … like we had lost a great opportunity,” she said.

Ochoa acknowledged that he didn’t meet the agreed-upon deadline — and that the situation was similar to that of other clients who didn’t receive their vehicles on time. But, he said, others were willing to wait. “Norma’s situation was that if she didn’t get the trailers by a certain date, then she wasn’t going to need them,” he said.

Estevez and Delgado filed a lawsuit against Ochoa for breach of contract and other claims in July 2022. Months later, the parties agreed to a settlement that called for Ochoa to pay Estevez and Delgado about $70,000, including attorney’s fees, according to court documents. Estevez said that Ochoa has only paid $30,000, leaving her deeply disillusioned.

“We were like him, we came to this country to better our lives,” she said. “He knew our dream and ambitions — we told him how hard we worked for it.”

Gonzalez, meanwhile, isn’t the only person who alleged that a trailer purchased from Ochoa was later taken back by him.

Shelly Lopez and her husband, Jesus Avalos, said they paid Ochoa $37,000, and after nine months of delays — and their appearance in a Univision 19 Sacramento segment to discuss them — the Sacramento couple received a trailer in January 2023.

A man attaches a mobile food trailer to a truck

A man Shelly Lopez identified as Fernando Ochoa Jauregui came to her Sacramento home, she said, in February 2023 to take the trailer that 8A Food Trucks had recently sold her.

(Courtesy of Shelly Lopez)

After just a week, though, Ochoa told Lopez that he needed to take it back to his shop to make some adjustments, she said. A video that Lopez provided to The Times shows a man she identified as Ochoa connecting the trailer to the back of a pickup truck in February 2023.

“I didn’t want to let him take it,” Lopez said. “But my husband said, ‘It’s OK, he’ll make the repairs and bring it back to us.’”

It was the last time Lopez and Avalos saw the trailer.

“We had so many fights after that,” she said. “It would come up whenever we were driving and saw people running their businesses, selling food. I would blame him for it.”

Ochoa said that Lopez hadn’t paid for the trailer in full, and that she was making payments in installments. He said that he only retrieved the trailer after she told him it needed repairs. After seeing her negative public comments about him, Ochoa said that he decided to void the payment plan, and resolved to return her funds.

Lopez said she has not gotten the money back.

‘He’s been laughing at us’

In recent days, Ochoa has come under attack online by disgruntled customers — and his former mother-in-law.

Gisela Macias, 48, said that strangers began showing up at her Modesto home over the summer in search of Ochoa. They came, she said, to demand he pay them back for vehicles they’d purchased but never received. The visits were so frequent that she began recording interviews with some of the people to post on TikTok.

Ochoa said that the internet activism and local TV news stories have led to an exodus of clients, which has imperiled his ability to pay back customers like Estevez. He said that he can only make payments in $1,000 increments. “I know it’s not much,” he said, “but I have no business due to everything that’s being said about my company.”

He said he had to close 8A Food Trucks’ headquarters in Ceres because angry clients kept going there to confront him. But his braggadocio is still easy to find on the internet. A 2023 corrido about Ochoa titled “Por 8A Me Conocen” includes the boast that “business is steady and we’re never going to stop.”

“I fought hard and little by little grew the empire that I founded,” the singer trills.

It incenses Estevez. “He’s been laughing at us — the people who had dreams, who worked hard to save money to make those dreams a reality,” she said.

These days, the equipment that Estevez and her husband bought for their two trailers — ovens, cooking wares and more — is mothballed in their garage. It’s hard for her to enter the space without crying.

“That’s our dream right there, collecting dust,” she said.

Times researcher Scott Wilson and columnist Gustavo Arellano contributed to this report.

Original News Source Link – LA Times

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