Veteran bites on Air Force idea and comes up with a spicy offer
By KENT HARRIS | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 8, 2013
AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy — Martin Lopez was familiar with the concept of getting restaurant-quality food from a vehicle while growing up in San Jose, Calif. They’re not hard to find on the West Coast, where many residents refer to the ubiquitous enterprises as taco trucks.
But Lopez didn’t see any during his eight-year Air Force career, which included tours overseas in Europe and the Pacific. So he decided to fill the void.
“I’d always wanted to open my own restaurant,” he said. And he did, about four years ago after he and his wife, Emy Della Pietra, decided to make Italy their home when he left the service. They opened Yucatan, a Mexican bar-restaurant in the village of Praturlone, about 30 minutes from Aviano Air Base.
When the 31st Force Support Squadron decided to experiment with a new way of delivering food to airmen and civilians on base, Lopez was interested. He’d never been stationed at Aviano, though his wife grew up nearby.
They didn’t have building space available and were looking for a way “to satisfy the needs of those who didn’t have easy access to the dining places,” Lopez said.
The result is Yucatan, the food truck, which visits six locations around base during the week, serving breakfast and lunch -– with a Mexican twist.
Hard to find
A survey in 2012 asked airmen what types of food they’d like to see served on base. Chinese was the No. 1 response, according to Lin Hollingsworth, food and beverage supervisor for the 31st FSS. Mexican was No. 2.
There are three Chinese restaurants outside the fences within a 5-minute drive. But restaurants serving Mexican food –- beyond Taco Bell in the food court -- are much harder to find. In fact, Italians aren’t really used to authentic Mexican food, Lopez said.
“I still see Italians eating a hard taco with a fork and a knife,” in his restaurant, Lopez said.
Some base personnel had visited Lopez’s restaurant and he was invited to enter a bid. When an agreement was reached, the venture became the first of its kind on base.
The couple bought a truck in Vicenza and used July 4 as a trial run.
“We served more than 300 people,” Della Pietra said.
Yucatan debuted on base a few weeks later, with somewhat confusing results. The initial schedule had the truck parked in one location for only an hour before it moved on. Some places weren’t accessible to the public. As a result, customers sometimes had to chase the truck around base or spend considerable time looking for it.
The truck will now rotate less frequently between established locations, which Lopez and Hollingsworth hope will attract a steady stream of customers.
Time, space constraints
Yucatan has some challenges to overcome, including a small menu, high prices and hard-to-please palates.
“It’s pretty good,” said Army Sgt. Andrew Barraza, though not as good as the food he grew up eating. “You can’t beat my mom’s.”
Lopez understands concerns about pricing and the limited menu, but said the nature of the enterprise makes it hard to tackle either one.
Because he’s considered an Italian business, he pays Italian taxes. That amounts to more than 20 percent of the sales. The two employees who work in the truck earn Italian wages and benefits and that drives up the cost even more, he said.
“We get complaints about price no matter where people eat,” Hollingsworth said. “Customers sometimes don’t realize all the costs behind an operation. We expect him to make a certain amount of money to be able to stay in business.”
Lopez said he hopes to vary the menu -- tacos, burritos, enchiladas and taco salads -- but has to focus on what’s possible with space and time constraints.
“I can’t make fajitas,” he said. “I can do a lot more in my restaurant, but we are limited in the truck.”
Hollingsworth said base officials are hopeful the venture will fill a need. And he said another mobile truck could call Aviano home.
“We’re not opposed to the idea,” he said.
“You can’t eat Subway every day; you can’t eat at the club every day; you can’t eat at Taco Bell every day. People want options and we hope we’re giving them that.”