Officially, the population of Lost Hills, California, is 2,412 people. But five days a week, that number doubles as oilfield workers converge on the rural flatlands surrounding this hardscrabble town along State Route 46 west of Interstate 5.
The crews are part of the economic engine that pulls oil from the enormous underground reserves of the area’s Belridge Producing Complex, one of the nation’s largest oil-producing fields. Most Aera employees and contractors who work its wells, pumps and pipelines arrive here early each morning from Bakersfield, 40 miles away.
And come lunchtime, they’re hungry.
Fortunately, they don’t have to drive too far to eat. For decades, the Soto family of Lost Hills has provided freshly cooked meals for Belridge’s oilfield workforce.
For most of that time, the Sotos have served their tacos, enchiladas, chile verde, rice, beans and other Mexican food favorites from a truck parked at key crossroads in the Belridge oilfield. They still do, operating their mobile unit now at Pole Line Road, about 2 miles from Aera’s Belridge center known as the Oasis.
“Their food truck is the only one approved for business on the Aera lease,” says John O’Connor, manager of operations at Aera-Belridge.
The Sotos’ food truck not only serves Aera’s workforce but many others too. Its central oilfield location saves them all the 20-mile drive to the nearest quick-serve restaurants at the Interstate 5-Highway 46 junction.
Aera’s compliance help
Gabriel Soto launched the family business when he bought his first food truck in 1988. He named it “Gabby’s” after Gabriela Soto, his oldest daughter. In 2000, the Sotos were notified that their food truck lacked the proper food-handling certification as well as permission to operate on Aera property. But that would soon change.
“Aera played a huge role in getting them into compliance,” recalls O’Connor, who’s worked at Aera’s Belridge lease for 30 years. “If we hadn’t stepped in, they could have been shut down.”
He remembers a teenage Angelica Soto, one of Gabriel’s four daughters, appearing at the Oasis during that time, pleading for her family’s business. “She told us the food truck was all they had,” O’Connor says. “We saw a beautiful, wonderful family just trying to make a living. People loved their food. So Aera put forth a big effort to help them.”
With Aera’s guidance, the Sotos brought their truck into compliance. They also signed a formal contract to operate on Aera’s site.
“Gabriel and his family were so grateful,” O’Connor says. “To this day, whenever I see him, he will come out of the truck to thank me personally.”
From food truck to restaurant
Today, the Sotos’ business has grown beyond its food-truck origins. In 2015, the family opened Gabby’s Restaurant in Lost Hills, on Highway 46. Angelica owns and manages it. Open Mondays through Saturdays, Gabby’s is especially popular with motorists traveling on I-5 or to the Central Coast via Highway 46.
Last year, the restaurant also began providing lunch at the Oasis four times a week. For Aera employees, the meal isn’t only convenient. “Gabby’s has the best tacos by far in this part of California,” O’Connor says.
The Oasis lunch is an important part of the Sotos’ food business. Most Lost Hills residents work for nearby almond and pistachio operations. Predominantly Hispanic and low-income, they rarely spend their dollars at a local Mexican restaurant, says Angelica. That means the local oil industry is critical to her family’s means.
“We ride the up and down cycles of oil too,” she says. “When oil prices fell to $23, we all felt it. But the industry keeps our business going. Aera has been very good to us, our consistent customer since the beginning.”
Surviving back-to-back tragedies
Running a restaurant is tough enough without fluctuating oil prices. But Angelica has faced two life-changing events in the past year that have threatened to derail her both emotionally and physically.
In June 2017, her beloved older sister Gabriela was killed when a 22-year-old male driving under the influence of alcohol and marijuana crashed into her car as she headed to a dentist’s appointment in Bakersfield. Gabriela, a teacher at Wasco’s Independence High School, was eight months pregnant. Her unborn daughter did not survive.
Just four months later, on Oct. 1, a still grieving Angelica was among those wounded in the Las Vegas shooting that left 58 people dead and more than 850 wounded. She is still recovering from the bullet that tore into her left shoulder – and trying to come to terms with the two tragedies.
“It still seems surreal to me,” she says. “Aera was super supportive through all that.”
With the help of her two remaining sisters, her parents, their five employees and Aera’s business support, Angelica is surviving. A former social worker, she holds a four-year degree in criminal justice. She also serves on the board of the Lost Hills Union School District. She is considering pursuing a master’s degree in business.
“My goal,” she says, “is to make it to the 5-year mark for our restaurant and keep our family legacy going.”