This Whittier Taco Shop Sold More Than 1.2 Million Face Masks to First Responders in Three Days
12:35 PM PDT on April 6, 2020
[dropcap size=big]I[/dropcap]s it possible for a lone taquero in Whittier to do a better job at serving the community during a pandemic crisis than the local and federal governments combined?
According to Masataco’s customers who have recently grown to include the FBI, at least eight different police departments, and medical personnel, it is looking like it. Their excellent vegan tacos aren’t the only thing on this neighborhood taqueria’s menu these days. Recently, their menu has grown to include many of the increasingly scarce life necessities in the age of COVID-19, but the numbers he's selling are nothing short of staggering and impressive.
Upwards of 1.2 million face masks, 40,000 pounds of rice, 25,000 pounds of pinto beans, 10,000 pounds of lentils, and 25,000 pounds of Peruvian beans...in just three days.
In Los Angeles, where beans, rice, and tortillas are as essential and scarce as masks and toilet paper, this taco shop in Whittier is hustling to provide ridiculous volumes of them faster than stock dumped by politicians at the first sight of coronavirus. dFolks and first responders from all over southern California, even other states, are driving to Masataco for literal tons of affordable food and millions of masks sold at cost instead of waiting for the upper ranks of government to restock.
The smooth and contactless buying process
Showing up to Masataco in the morning, you may find a lane of cars lining up for at least a quarter-mile of near In-N-Out proportions. The taco shop has set up a curbside drive-thru shop for pick-up only with a cardboard sign instructing folks to “Stay in your car, drive up for service.”
A couple of tables are roped off against the window with bags of rice, beans, toilet paper, and masks organized on top of them. Two gentlemen stand outside tending to the cars pulling up one by one. Another one of them is handling money, a fourth person is in the kitchen preparing take-out orders while others are in the dining area breaking down supplies into small packages; all of them wearing masks and gloves while the front door remains closed to customers.
Inside the restaurant, where only employees are allowed, Chef David Fuerte, co-owner and founder of Masataco, tells L.A. Taco while pointing to some small boxes with a few masks in them, “These are for Puig’s lady, while these are for Kike.” Through his catering company Made For Chefs, Chef David has developed a network of relationships over the years that have helped him grow a robust arsenal of resources that enable him to do big things, like selling truckloads of supplies at a moments notice. Masataco also has the bragging rights of being L.A.’s first taquero to temporarily sell his tacos inside Dodger Stadium.
“The first run, honestly, I didn't think we were going to sell this shit. We emptied out a whole semi with 16 pallets of toilet paper, but then we sold it in four hours.” On their first day with this new setup, the small eleven hundred square foot restaurant sold 50 tons of rice and beans in three to four days. That's 40,000 pounds of rice, 25,000 pounds of pinto beans, 10,000 pounds of lentils, and 25,000 pounds of Peruvian beans.
For their second supply run, they doubled their order and have kept that pace for the last two weeks. “We had someone come down from Nevada and another from Arizona” recalls Chef David. “They each spent around six to seven grand because they were out back home.”
By Masataco’s estimates, about 35 percent of all masks they’ve sold have gone to police departments, 30 percent to federal agents, 25 percent to hospital personnel and the remaining 30 percent goes to the general public. Some of the police departments Masataco mentioned are Redondo PD, the Sheriffs, Vernon PD, CHP, Norwalk PD, Whittier PD, and as far as Ontario and Oceanside PD.
Last Thursday, just a day before the FDA reversed themselves and approved the sale of KN95 masks during this emergency, these taqueros foresaw the upcoming situation and moved towards purchasing a hundred thousand of these masks to sell at cost, three dollars a piece. According to Masataco, they went on to sell a total of 250,000 KN95 masks on Friday and another 250,000 on Saturday to mostly first responders. That’s not including the 600,000 in surgical masks they’ve rationed out to the general public as well.
That’s 1.2 million masks in the span of three days.
Everyone needs beans and face masks, the FBI and public alike
On Friday, Chef David tells L.A Taco, “I got hit up by eight FBI agents. They’re only giving them two masks for work, so they showed up in their government cars and FBI jackets and bought 400 today, they’re coming back for 300 more tomorrow.”
By Masataco’s estimates, about 35 percent of all masks they’ve sold have gone to police departments, 30 percent to federal agents, 25 percent to hospital personnel and the remaining 30 percent goes to the general public. Some of the police departments Masataco mentioned are Redondo PD, the Sheriffs, Vernon PD, CHP, Norwalk PD, Whittier PD, and as far as Ontario and Oceanside PD. Masataco is currently trying to reach out to hospitals but has not received a response.
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Police officers in L.A. have an immediate urgency for masks and gloves. According to officer.com, “Since the outbreak began, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has sent 209 employees home to quarantine.” 30 have tested positive and some officers have lost their lives to COVID-19. With a high exposure rate and squadrons of police being sent to break up birthday parties in south L.A. to enforce stay-at-home orders, it’s crucial that police officers get the protection they need for everyone's safety.
“Everyday prices are fluctuating and I’m not trying to nickel and dime the community on masks, we’re just trying to help out.”
Masataco’s prioritizing of first responders hasn’t gone without notice. “Sometimes I have up to half a million dollars in product ready to go in the morning,” Chef David says, “And I asked the captain of Whittier PD if he could help me by keeping an eye out at night. He’s been sending a police car, sometimes two, just to chill in the lot and do their paperwork from the cars. They’ve been super supportive.”
Haters gonna hate...and accuse them of price gouging
Of course, not everyone is a happy customer; Masataco has been reported to city officials and the county health department three times in the first week alone for alleged price gouging. “We’ve been reported so many times now, we’ve developed a relationship with the city and county,” Chef David tells L.A Taco. “It’s to the point where they call now just to let me know they got another complaint. I mean, the beans cost us $2.09 a pound right now and we’re selling them for $2.27. But they’ve come and not only told us we’re compliant, but that our set up is the most legit operation they’ve seen.”
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$27,450 in Mask 😷 for 🚨 Everyone 🚨 🙏🏻 the cost is $3.05 per mask (Look at invoice ) your cost will be $3 per mask 😷 (10 to a pack ) @masataco will take the Hit 👏🏼 $0.05 per mask to show our community that we stand behind them. (If you wish to donate extra money 💴 we are grateful but not needed 🙏🏻 Thank you all #whittierStrong #masataco #weloveourcity #togetherwestand #whittierPD #lasheriff #police #sheriff #nurses #doctors #hospitals
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Due to these complaints, Masataco has started posting the receipts in an effort to show transparency and to stop the internet trolls from making unfounded accusations. One of their most recent posts on Instagram was a receipt showing a purchase of $27,450 for 9,000 KN95 masks at 3.05 each. He sold these at $3 a piece while eating $450 in nickels. In fact, the last 50,000 masks he purchased that day to fill orders were at this higher price sacrificing $2,500 of their own money. “Everyday prices are fluctuating and I’m not trying to nickel and dime the community on masks, we’re just trying to help out.”
So how is Chef David able to obtain all this product while stores run dry? He tells us, “Cuz I’m paying in cash at the warehouses. If you got cash in hand you’re out bidding people. It’s a bidding war and it comes down to like, who’s got $500 more for this pallet. So what are you gonna do when no one else has it and you’re trying to make just a little bit of money to stay afloat, you’re going to buy it.”
As a restaurant, business owner, [and] as a taquero, we’re here to serve our community. I didn’t see it at all in my vision to close the restaurant down. So I’m hustling for myself, my community, and my staff. We want people to know we’re a part of the community so that they support us when this is all done.”
Instead of waiting to schedule delivery dates, he enlisted the help of his friend Christian Herrera whose company, Pool Icons, has a small fleet of trucks to help them pick up and deliver the products from the warehouses. It makes the quick turnaround possible to provide this amount of food and masks. “Shout out to the homie man, he’s really come through and helped us out at no charge.”
When taqueros become pandemic heroes
These taqueros-turned-heroes are working 15 to 16 hour days non-stop since the panic buying started. It’s helping keep the restaurant a float. They are now resting Mondays and taco sales are holding at 70 percent compared to pre-coronavirus days, “But most of it is through delivery Apps, and they’re taking 30 percent” according to Chef David.
“With all this work, are you concerned about contracting the coronavirus?” L.A. Taco asks. “Fuck yeah! I got a pregnant wife at home.” He fires back. He shows us the gallons of disinfectant gel and sprays they use to clean themselves after every transaction or entering and exiting the restaurant. “I’ve gone home with my sweater damp from so much spray” David recounts.
It’s an extraordinary display of hustle, determination, and a Mexi-CAN attitude that the 32-year-old chef credits his mom from Sinaloa for instilling in him.
“So why do you do this? Do you see yourself as a humanitarian taquero.” After a laugh Chef David responds, “Nah, I just see myself as a business person that’s very clear-minded of the situation that’s going on and making sure I’m supporting my community. As a restaurant, business owner, [and] as a taquero, we’re here to serve our community. I didn’t see it at all in my vision to close the restaurant down. So I’m hustling for myself, my community, and my staff. We want people to know we’re a part of the community so that they support us when this is all done.”
It’s an extraordinary display of hustle, determination, and a Mexi-CAN attitude that the 32-year-old chef credits his mom from Sinaloa for instilling in him. All this extraordinary humanitarian effort in a time when the chef is undergoing a tough time in his own personal life. He shares that his mother suffers from cancer, diabetes, and lost his stepdad two days ago.
“She tells me to keep going, who am I to not be doing what I can?”
His stepdad was a war veteran and was discovered to have cancer after being taken to the hospital after a fall where he gashed his head last week. Chef David continues, “He was gone” soon after that.
“We couldn’t see him, but my mom was allowed in briefly as he was passing. My mom has surgery scheduled on April 8th. My wife is pregnant. My business is on the line. The community needs important supplies and I have the resources. I don’t have a choice. I gotta make this work for everyone.”
Memo Torres is a multi-media taco journalist and Director of Partnerships for the James Beard award-winning L.A. Taco. He was a finalist for the Ruben Salazar Award for Latino Journalists. He has functioned as a taco scout for numerous shows and can be seen on Netflix's Taco Chronicles and Pressure Cooker. Memo is also currently hosting a food guide on all iPhones' Apple Maps.
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