Rollin Roots Vegan Food Truck Owner Charged With Arson & Fraud Following October 2021 Fire

November 15, 2022

The owner of popular San Diego-based vegan food truck Rollin Roots, which was once destroyed in a fire last October, has been charged with arson and fraud in connection with the blaze.

Chef Avonte Hartsfield started his Rollin Roots concept in 2019 as The Source, a pop-up vegan food vendor at area farmers markets. Although he originally planned to open a full-scale restaurant, the pandemic and subsequent restrictions forced him to modify his business plan and he launched the Rollin Roots vegan food truck in August 2020, offering a menu of plant-based comfort foods. In late 2020, Hartsfield raised nearly $20,000 on GoFundMe, citing the perils of the pandemic as the reason he needed funds. By late 2020/early 2021, Hartsfield made news through alleged instances of donating meals to the needy and offering a "pay whatever you can" model. In March 2021, Demetrius "Meech" Harmon, Founder Of You Matter University, announced he would be giving Rollin Roots $5,000 as part of a Twitter campaign dubbed "You Matter BHM Grant" in honor of Black History Month. In June 2021, Hartsfield also received a $25,000 grant as part of a non-profit partnership between celebrity chef Guy Fieri and the California Restaurant Foundation.
On October 3, 2021, a fire caused extensive damage to the Rollin Roots food truck at its location at 8040 Armour Street in Kearny Mesa, essentially totaling the vehicle. Hartsfield reported that prior to the fire, he was subjected to break-ins, theft, vandalism, and a noose-shaped rope was left hanging from his office door. The investigation into the cause of the fire was previously concluded as "undetermined". Despite Hartsfield's conclusion the fire was caused by arson, a San Diego Police Department stated in October 2021 the incident is not being investigated as such. Since the fire, Rollin Roots received more than $100,000 in donations through a GoFundMe campaign, in addition to a $20,000 donation from San Diego-based Sycuan Casino, which helped Hartsfield obtain a replacement food truck. 
Less than two weeks after the fire destroyed the first Rollin Roots food truck, Hartsfield was alerted while out of town in Texas that a brick was thrown through the window of the space that was planned to house his future restaurant at 807 F Street in downtown San Diego. The N-word was allegedly written on the brick and a big black "X" was reportedly spray painted across the building's window.  

On Tuesday, November 15, 2022, Avonte Hartsfield, age 26, pled not guilty in San Diego Superior Court to charges arising from the fire and subsequent events. Prosecutors have alleged Hartsfield set the blaze "with fraudulent intent" and subsequently filed a fraudulent insurance claim. Hartsfield also faces a grand larceny charge linked to his raising more than $102,000 from over 2,100 supporters as part of a GoFundMe campaign, as well as receiving the $20,000 donation from Sycuan tribal officials. Prosecutors allege Hartsfield accepted such donations under false pretenses. If convicted on all counts, Hartsfield faces up to seven years and four months in jail. There is allegedly security footage from the night of the fire in the area where it took place showing a barefoot person with a dark beard, towel over their head, and wearing ECKO UNLTD shorts approaching the vehicle before the blaze occurs. 

Hartsfield remains adamant that he is innocent of the charges, claiming the "police did not fully and properly investigate the case" and that his business was targeted. San Diego Superior Court Judge Laura Halgren ordered Hartsfield to report to a detention facility to be processed and released following his arraignment. Following the news of his arraignment, GoFundMe began offering refunds to donors. 
"They were only investigating me," said Hartsfield outside the courtroom. "I guess we can expose the system at this point, so I’m looking forward to that opportunity."

This past March, Hartsfield claimed on his GoFundMe page that he learned the fire was not arson but "actually resulted from an electrical mishap," and offered to return the money raised. This past October, Hartsfield announced on Instagram that he would be "pausing" his food truck but continuing to serve food from pop ups at area businesses. He then announced he would be moving to Los Angeles.
"This is a very distressing and unfortunate turn of events," commented Cody Martinez, Chairman of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation. "Avonte’s business and its impact in the community were felt by many. We believe in the bedrock principle of innocent until proven guilty. However, if guilty, we will be very disappointed by his betrayal of our trust and evaluate our options for recovery."

Avonte Hartsfield has been assigned defense counsel Douglas Miller for his criminal court case (#CD296701). There is currently a preliminary exam readiness meeting scheduled on January 1, 2023, at San Diego Superior Court House Central Division, Central Courthouse Department 1101. A preliminary exam is also scheduled for January 19, 2023. 

Although the Rollin Roots food truck and pop-up businesses have now paused operations following the criminal charges of arson and fraud against its owner, the company still intends to host a "Danksgiving" Meal Giveaway on the corner of 16th Street & Island Avenue in downtown San Diego on Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 2022, from 10:45am to 12:30 pm. 

UPDATE: Following the publishing of this article, the Rollin Roots Instagram account begin commenting on SanDiegoVille's Instagram post about this news (see below). Most of his comments have since-been deleted.