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Food truck workers struggle to keep cool amid rising summer temperatures

A man standing inside his food truck is pouring sauced-covered buffalo wings from a metal bowl into a to-go container.
Kaleb Roedel
Mountain West News Bureau
Jay Slater pours an order of chicken wings into a serving container inside his food truck, Slater’s Ding-a-Wing, on a 93-degree day in downtown Reno, Nev., on Aug. 16, 2023.

Hotter summers across the region are making it difficult for some workers to stay cool and comfortable. That’s especially true for food truck owners who cook over hot stoves and fryers in small spaces.

On a cloudy afternoon in Reno, Nev., Jay Slater drops baskets of chicken wings into deep fryers bubbling with cooking oil.

“These will be down for 10 minutes,” Slater says. He’s serving wings out of his food truck – Slater’s Ding-a-Wing – at a community event downtown.

Outside, the afternoon temperature is 93 degrees. Inside Slater’s truck, it’s much hotter. It feels like going into a walk-in oven. The smell of fried food hits your nose and the hot, thick air grabs your sweaty skin. And the fans trying to blow out the heat are like hair dryers set on high.

A man standing and smiling in front of his food truck. The truck has “Slater’s Ding-a-Wing” written on the side of it with an illustrated chicken.
Kaleb Roedel
Mountain West News Bureau
Jay Slater stands in front of his food truck in downtown Reno, Nev., on Aug. 16, 2023.

“I have three deep fryers that are cooking at 375-400 degrees each,” Slater says. “And I'm constantly putting chicken wings down all the time. So, it does get really, really hot in there – I would probably say you're looking at least 130 degrees on a really hot day.”

Reno’s had a lot of those this summer. In July, temperatures hit triple digits on eight days – peaking at 108 – and were in the 90s the rest of the month.

Slater keeps plenty of water on the truck for his staff to stay hydrated, and he encourages them to take breaks. He also increased spending on fans this summer, installing a large extractor fan on top of his truck to help pull out heat.

“I have about one, two, three … I have six fans going right now,” he says. “So, we are doing our best to keep it as cool as possible.”

That’s difficult in Reno and beyond. The effects of climate change have become even more apparent this summer – worldwide temperatures rose to the highest levels in recorded history in July.

In Reno, average summer temps have increased 11 degrees over the past 50 years. And that’s made Reno – known as the Biggest Little City – also the nation’s fastest-warming city.

“Summertime is just terrible,” says Martin Gomez, co-owner of Daddy’s Tacos, a local food truck known for its authentic Mexican dishes.

Gomez says some days are so hot, it’s a challenge to keep the fridges cool. That’s when they add dry ice “to help the fridges to keep the temperature that we need so we can keep all the food safe for our customers.”

Co-owner Valentine Lovelace says Daddy’s Tacos also has hired more staff so workers can take more breaks and cool off.

A woman and man are standing and smiling in front of a food truck that has “Daddy’s Tacos” written across it. The logo includes an illustrated skeleton wearing a chef’s hat and eating a taco.
Kaleb Roedel
Mountain West News Bureau
Valentine Lovelace (left) and Martin Gomez pose in front of their food truck, Daddy’s Tacos, in Reno, Nev., on Aug. 16, 2023.

“Usually in the summertime, I try to book the food truck more in the evenings rather than the peak of the day when it’s most hot,” she says.

The Daddy’s Tacos owners say they also watch for signs of heat-related illnesses, such as heat rash and heat stroke. Gomez, who used to work in construction, saw firsthand how serious the risks can be for people working in the heat.

“I’ve seen many, many cases of people having heat strokes and they never go back to normal,” Gomez says. “So, it is a very important thing that we keep up to keep our employees as safe as possible, so they can go back home the same way they came to work for us.”

Back at the Ding-a-Wing food truck, fans blow heat out of the truck as Slater prepares an order of “Carolina Gold” wings, which have a honey mustard base he created.

The only way to really cool off is to step outside. It’s 93 degrees outside but almost feels like walking into an air-conditioned grocery store after just 15 minutes inside the oven-like truck.

Despite the summer heatwaves, Slater expects the food truck scene in Reno and across the country to continue growing. It just might take extra effort – and fans – to keep cool.

Last year, the nation’s food trucks were a $1.5 billion market. And it grew an average of 8% per year between 2017 and 2022.

“People love coming to support food trucks,” Slater says. “They love to support the local business owners – and you get great food from food trucks.”

He adds that both owners and customers will be glad when the temperatures start to dip as summer simmers down.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.
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