SAN DIEGO —
Community members are pledging money and offering encouragement after a popular vegan food truck was destroyed by fire early Sunday morning, leaving the 25-year-old business owner figuring out his next steps.
Firefighters found the Rollin Roots truck fully engulfed in flames in a parking lot off Amour Street in Kearny Mesa shortly before 1 a.m. Sunday. The cause of the fire is undetermined and police are investigating a reported burglary at the business as well.
Owner Avonte Hartsfield said the fire happened after several days of escalating incidents that left him feeling targeted, including someone leaving a noose hanging over his office door.
Hartsfield, who is Black, said he initially thought “it was random” when he found that power lines to his truck had been cut a few days before the fire. Later, when he found the makeshift noose, he felt he was being targeted with a hate crime.
Since word of his loss hit social media, Hartsfield has received an outpouring of support from the community. As of late Thursday, more than $100,000 had been pledged to help him.
“I have hundreds of messages to go through, just straight up support from everyone,” he said late Wednesday. “People are donating to the GoFundMe. It is hard to feel as bad as I want to feel — every time I open my phone it is another encouraging message.”
Hartsfield said he had poured his life savings into his business, which he initially launched as a pop-up food vendor selling at farmers’ markets in 2019. He pivoted to operating a food truck after the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions shut down outdoor markets in 2020.
By late 2020, he wrote in a GoFundMe appeal that he was “struggling to make ends meet.” The “Help our vegan food company continue after COVID-19″ campaign raised more than $18,500.
The cash infusion helped, Hartsfield said, and business picked up.
In 2021, he received a $25,000 grant from a non-profit partnership between celebrity chef Guy Fieri and the California Restaurant Foundation and accepted another $5,000 donation from a supporter.
With strong sales coming from the food truck, he pursued plans to expand. He began serving food in a space he shares with Lost Cause Meadery and Serpentine Cider in the Miramar area, and signed a lease for a restaurant downtown with part of the space to be operated as an incubator kitchen to help others seeking to start in the industry.
After the fire destroyed his truck, he launched another GoFundMe campaign this week. It has so far raised more than $83,000. On Thursday, Sycuan tribal officials surprised him with a check for $20,000.
The gift from the tribe and other donors came a week after a cascade of troubling hits for Hartsfield and his business.
Hartsfield said it began sometime late Thursday or early Friday — and initially he thought his power cords being cut was simply the act of a vandal.
“At that point I just thought it was vandalism, some crazy person came by and destroyed my cords… I fixed it — it took me 30 minutes — and moved on,” he said.
But when he returned Friday night, he found his office had been broken into and trashed — and a thin white rope tied to look like a noose was left hanging over the glass door. A small safe was taken, along with a laptop computer and some food-ordering electronic tablets, he said.
He had planned to file a police report online, but when he saw the noose he said he called to report he had been a victim of a hate crime. He waited for a couple hours, but no officers showed up.
On Saturday, he found sandwich wrappers and other papers had been set ablaze inside his food truck. “It looked like they tossed them in, but it didn’t actually start a fire” that damaged the truck, he said.
After cleaning up the mess, he drove to an event. That night he tried his best to secure the truck, putting a barrel inside the driver’s compartment and using a board and a wooden stick to jam the door handle so it couldn’t be easily pried open.
“At this point I knew I was targeted,” he said. “I didn’t know they were going to come back right then, but I knew they were coming back.”
When he arrived Sunday around 11 a.m., he found that his truck, with its distinctive artwork — paintings of a mother and several planets, which Hartsfield said is a depiction of Black culture, and a raised fist and colorful gay Pride flag — had been destroyed.
He said on Twitter: “Being a black/lgbtq business owner I would hate to have to look over my shoulder every day. That would mean that the hate for what I stand for is so strong that people are willing to destroy my business and I really don’t think I could deal with that.”
The Metro Arson Strike Force is investigating the fire as a possible arson although no witnesses have been found and officers are trying to find surveillance video of the property, said San Diego police Sgt. Rick Pechin.
Two investigators visited the Kearny Mesa business Thursday and interviewed Hartsfield. It is unclear if police will be investigating the incidents as a hate crime.
Hartsfield said he plans to use the money that’s been donated to open his new location, put a down payment on a new food truck and keep his Miramar venture afloat.