The familiar three-tone jingle rings throughout the dusty construction site as a food truck rounds the corner of Cowper Street and Coleridge Avenue at noon. For many crew workers who are required to stay at the construction site — and whose lunch breaks are only 30 minutes — the chime is the sound of a reprieve, and more importantly, a signal that their lunch for the day has arrived.
Spouses Daniel Tran and Jennifer Phung have been running their Palo Alto- and East Palo Alto-based food truck, Lee Catering, since 1984. While most food trucks remain motionless during lunchtime waiting for their customers to come to them, Tran and Phung are constantly on the move driving from construction site to construction site in pursuit of hungry workers.
Lee’s Catering has a diverse menu consisting of everything from burgers to tacos to burritos, as well as a range of beverage and snack options.
Today, while it may be unorthodox for food trucks to chase down customers during the busiest time of their day, Tran believes that his new approach to running a food truck is what makes his mobile food service better than most, and why it is a more successful alternative than running his own restaurant.
“Restaurants stay in one place, and the customers need to go to your restaurant,” Tran said. “For this [food truck], you are looking around for construction sites, and this leads to more business.”
Tran and Phung’s food truck origins run much deeper than what meets the eye. At age 14, Tran immigrated with his family from Vietnam to Indonesia and then to the United States.
“In order to escape from the war, we moved from Vietnam by boat to Indonesia, not by airplane,” Tran said. “And we went there and they checked everything and they asked you how and why you left your country. After that, we were brought to the United States.”
Tran remembers how hard his parents worked in order to open the food truck after arriving in the U.S. with just the clothes on their backs.
“When they [his parents] came to America, their first job was the food truck,” Tran said.
That same work ethic carried over to Tran after he took over the truck at age 21 when his mom retired. Instead of working a typical nine-to-five, he starts his day early and ends late at night to have weekends off.
“We start preparing food at 4 a.m. so we need to wake up at 3:30 [a.m.],” Tran said.
Tran and Phung are diligent about planning and modifying their route so they can serve over 15 different construction sites throughout Palo Alto and East Palo Alto.
“I just know the boss and I get a text or call about new construction sites,” Tran said.
Not only is it flexible about its route and the sites it serves, but Lee’s Catering also has a lasting impact on many of the construction workers who benefit from its services. Casamiro Caballero, a Palo Alto construction worker, has been a customer for over 25 years.
“At first, I learned it [Spanish] to count money, to get orders, that’s all. But I like talking with my customers.”
— Daniel Tran, Lee’s Catering co-owner
“It’s been great,” Caballero said. “I’ve been buying from here since I was nine years old. He starts early too, that’s why I’ve known him for so long. When I would walk to school, he was already selling.”
One thing that separates Lee’s Catering from average food trucks is the special attention they give their clients.
“He always accommodates where you are,” Caballero said. “If he passed already and I call him, he’ll come back. He remembers what customers want, and he has it ready before we get there.”
Through interacting with his customers, Tran has picked up the basics of Spanish, which he uses when making casual conversation with customers.
“At first, I learned it [Spanish] to count money, to get orders, that’s all,” Tran said. “But I like talking with my customers.”
Tran and Phung’s most valuable amenities, however, are the basic services that the truck provides. The possibility of having a hot meal and cold drink on an often long and tiring job helps the construction crews who receive it.
“He always accommodates where you are. If he passed already and I call him, he’ll come back.”
— Casamiro Caballero, customer
“It’s very convenient because my job doesn’t allow me to leave the property and we only have half an hour [for] lunch,” Caballero said. “Just to go and come back takes the whole lunch.”
In the future, Tran hopes to expand his route to include a larger map of construction sites. In addition, he hopes to remodel his truck with newer cooking facilities. But for now, Tran and Phung are content serving their usual customers and performing their daily routine with special care for their regulars.
“He’s always aware,” Caballero said. “Whenever he can’t come he always calls me, ‘you know what, I’m going to be late’ or ‘I’m not going to be able to show up today.’ I like him, that’s why I keep coming back here.”