By Frier McCollister

Pasadena Weekly Contributing Writer

Anyone in the area who hasn’t discovered the Grocery Outlet on North Lake Avenue in Altadena has been missing out on deeply discounted fresh produce, meat, dairy, pantry and freezer items.

That’s not to mention other sundries like sweat socks, lounge pants and collagen supplements. The wine section is a trove of obscure labels from small vintners, sometimes with impressive vintages and bottles rarely priced above $15. As many of us discovered over the last year, it’s an ideal place to economically stockpile pandemic provisions.

There’s always something for everyone at the Grocery Outlet, and now there’s one more reason to go: the return of Food Truck Fridays.

North Lake Avenue in Altadena is already hosting a small fleet of food trucks regularly. The Funnel Birds truck has been a fixture outside of Aldi’s for over a year now, and the Birrieria el Patron 818 truck moved from its original perch on Mountain Street to a spot just south of East Calaveras Street on Lake. Others, like the Dina’s Dumplings truck, come and go from the strip. 

Food Truck Fridays at the Grocery Outlet parking lot is something different. The returning event effectively galvanizes the community’s interest and participation, while also giving back. From 3 to 9 p.m. Fridays, there are typically five to six trucks circled in the lot. The line-up changes weekly, and 10% of each truck’s nightly income is donated to a different local charity each week.

The event launched on Oct. 4, 2019, about six months before the pandemic’s onset, and featured a standup eating area made of shipping pallets, as well as an area for kids games.

The first iteration of the food truck roundup benefited the local charity School on Wheels. Since its recent relaunch in February, a different local beneficiary is featured each week. Local charities recently benefiting from the event include Altadena Children’s Center, Union Station Homeless Shelter and Five Acres. Donations have also been made to the feeding programs at First AME Church and the Altadena Community Church.

Proceeds from April 30 go toward new uniforms for the John Muir High School Marching Band. 

Food Truck Fridays is a collaborative effort between Michell and Mario Guajardo, the owners and operators of the Altadena Grocery Outlet, and Lauren Saravia, who owns and runs the Tropic Truck, a regular fixture at the lot on Fridays. 

“People love to eat, but they also love to help make a difference,” Michell said. “Food Truck Fridays has been a huge hit.”

On a recent Friday, Saravia’s truck, which specializes in what she calls “Cali-Caribbean” cuisine, was joined by Sugo truck’s menu of Italian specialties; Surfer Taco’s seafood tacos and ceviches; the Richeeze truck’s elaborate grilled cheese takes; and L.A. Donut run by Gabby Galvan, which is the most recent truck to join the rotation.

At her debut, two weeks before, Galvan attested, “We sold out in less than two hours.”

Savvy regulars were placing their donut dessert orders before moving to their main course selections at another truck.

“The gourmet truck scene is better than ever right now, Saravia said. “Honestly, the pandemic gave everyone time to step up with their menu options and show the world what they got.”

Saravia’s menu features lobster dishes. If a $20 lobster roll seems too much, the lobster taco at $4.50 is a perfect snack to sate a lobster craving. The crustacean appears on the menus of Surfer Taco and Richeeze, where truffles also feature prominently.

“Lobster is a big hit,” Saravia said. “During the pandemic, there are certain things that are easy to cook at home and there are things that are not. Lobster is one of those (dishes) not made as much at home. So, people really want things like that when they go out to the trucks nowadays, because they were cooking (at home) for a year straight almost.”

The atmosphere at the buzzing lot is irresistibly festive and friendly.

The Food Truck Fridays idea originated with Mario Guajardo. A stray conversation with a regular customer at the store served as the initial spark. That customer, Rene Amy, is an Altadena Rotary Club member.

“It’s my one great idea,” Guajardo said. “That’s how it all began with that conversation.”

Saravia is also an Altadena resident. In September 2019, Amy posted on the NextDoor app that he would like to see food trucks in the neighborhood again.

Saravia responded, saying many food trucks are available. The two started a conversation.

Amy worked with School on Wheels at the time and introduced the nonprofit as the first beneficiary. The Guajardos and Saravia also joined the Rotary Club.

“I’m so proud and honored with what the Rotary does in the community,” Michell said.

Saravia coordinates the truck rotation each week.

“We have a core group of around 15,” Saravia said. “How it works is the (trucks) who show up, that do a great job and are professional, they gain their spot at Food Truck Fridays. Within that group, we rotate everyone and do our best not to overlap any cuisine and we bring one dessert every time.”

To check any week’s upcoming food truck lineup, go to Saravia’s Instagram,
@thefoodtrucksquad.

The Guajardos opened the Altadena Grocery Outlet in December 2018. The couple met at Twentynine Palms High School and have been together 31 years. They have three grown daughters and seven grandchildren. The couple moved from Beaumont, California, near Palm Springs, when they took the Altadena store.

Sadly, the Guajardos are soon moving back to the Inland Empire to take over a store in French Valley. Michell became emotional as she looked back on her experience in Altadena.

“I would have to say it’s bittersweet,” she said. “They have showed us what community is about. They have taught me to become a better neighbor in the community. I’m going to miss it tremendously, and I was honored to be a part of it.”

Mario added, “The community embraced us, and together we’ve been able to do a lot of great things and help a lot of great organizations. We couldn’t have done it without the community. Our team will still be here. Things should continue. We just want to thank them for the support they gave us, while we’ve been here.”