23 March 2024

Starting a Food Truck: Local Regulations

Local Food Truck Regulations:

Understanding local regulations will be one of the more important tasks in running a food truck. You'll need to be able to interact with the regulatory agencies that dictate how and where you operate your food truck. In the food truck industry, you'll need to interact with multiple regional agencies and make sure you're in compliance with all State laws concerning running a business and serving food. When you're getting started it's important to get good information directly from the source. This module will take you through the steps for reaching out to local agencies to get the best information.


Getting Started with your Food Truck:

For regulatory questions, the enforcement agencies issuing your permits are the best source of information. Always get the name and email from anyone that gives you information so you can hold them accountable if someone else gives you conflicting information. Take notes during all meetings with regulatory agencies. After the informational meeting send a follow up email to the inspector/regulator so they can confirm the discussed regulations. This is the only way to protect yourself from a new inspector who may have different ideas about the regulations.

Food Truck Permits:

Health Permits are usually County issued. Bigger cities will have their own departments. 

- This is a permit to serve food. The HD usually only cares about food safety

Business licenses/vendor permits/peddlers permits: Unless your region is unincorporated this will be City issued. Any info you receive, get names and email addresses.

- This permit is to SELL food. They don't deal with food safety, just collecting taxes and permit fees. They'll also be able to tell you where your truck can park and sell

Fire Departments: A fire department sign off is necessary in some jurisdictions. They'll be looking at fire suppression, gas lines and safety valves

Starting a Food Truck: Local Regulations

Health Departments and Food Trucks:

You'll need to get your food truck permitted for operation in order to legally serve in the region you'll be operating in. Since regions have vastly different regulations it's important to make sure the food trucks you'll be building or purchasing can be permitted in your region. It's not just about having a three compartment sink and refrigeration! You have to make sure that the way the food truck is built complies with the build standards of the region you want to do business in. The safest way to ensure a food truck can be permitted in the region you want to serve is to submit the plans to the health department for review. Before buying or building a food truck, you can go into the health department with the food truck blueprints to have the health department review. Once they have "stamped" or approved your plan you're safe to buy or build. Some health departments have a distinct protocol that requires a fee and some will do an over the counter review. Either way, you must have something official from the health department. A stamp, or a letter of approval is standard.

A permitted food truck must be able to serve the cuisines on their menu. For example, if you have a food truck with a menu of "freshly made sausages" but have no way to make sausages on the food truck, you must be able to provide the health department with the means of how you'll make the sausages. Additionally, your food truck is being permitted as is. If you want to add equipment to the kitchen after you've been permitted (rice cookers are an example) you'll need to get approval from the health department. Without approval the health department can site you. Commercial grade equipment (NSF/UI) is usually required for all equipment on a food truck. There are some exceptions, but this is the standard. Texas is more lenient on the commercial grade equipment standards than most states. California has the strictest standards in the Country. Buying out of state food trucks is not a good idea.

Real World Story: A large fast food chain had a Texas company build a food truck for the Los Angeles market. The total cost of the food truck was $230,000. The food truck plans were not approved before building began. The food truck was brought to the Los Angeles Department of Public Health for an approval inspection. The food truck failed spectacularly and inspectors actually broke out into laughter as they were inspecting the food truck. Lesson: Regulations vary wildly and just because you have an expensive food truck built, doesn't mean it can pass all regions' requirements. In the end the food truck needed another $40k in changes to meet LA County requirements.

Health departments may also require serve safe certifications from management and from employees. Makes sure to inquire about the regions food service educational requirements before getting on the road.

Starting a Food Truck: Local Regulations

Municipal Food Truck Regulations:

Each municipality will have their own requirements for food trucks. The requirements start with a permit/license for mobile vending. The names differ, but they're all the same. Peddler's permit/vending license/business license are the most common names.

What is a municipality?

A municipality can be a City, a township or an unincorporated part of a County. Each municipality where you'll be doing business will require you, the operator of a food truck, to have their particular permit/license. If you're doing business in an unincorporated part of a county, one business license will allow you to do business in all of the unincorporated parts of the County, but as soon as you're in a City within the County, you'll need that city's business license.

What are the regulations for food truck vending in a Municipality:

The best way to find the regulations for a municipality is to go in and talk to someone in the permitting/business license office. Get the persons name, let them know where you want to vend and let them tell you about their regulations. For every regulation, there should be a code. Politely ask for the code section for regulations being presented. If codes differ from the regulations, ask for clarification. Cities may not have "rules" or "policies" that are stricter than the actual code. Regulators have a job to enforce the codes as written. Occasionally, when a code is out of date or runs contrary to another code, they can ignore it. But, they can not make a code stricter out of convenience.

Three ways municipalities regulate mobile vending:

The ice cream truck regulations: These are regulations that were created from existing ice cream truck regulations. Typically these were codified a long time before the recent popularity in food trucks (1980s). The regulations typically require a food truck to move every 10-30 minutes. These codes are antiquated and serve no purpose other than to avoid having to create new regulations. These regulations will also include trash pick up, speed and restricted areas of operation, typically close to schools.

The protectionist regulations: These are codes expressly created to "protect" brick and mortar businesses. Typically these regulations have distance restrictions from restaurants or outright bans on mobile vending outside of City sanctioned events. These can be very difficult to work with and require a longer process of advocacy. These regulations do not place the interest of the public above the interest of restaurant owners and therefore should be challenged. These are more common in smaller areas.

The Public Safety regulations: Some municipalities, mostly in California, but now in Arizona, have created regulations that are meant to protect the public. These types of regulations do not take into account brick and mortar business interests. Rather these regulations focus on keeping the public safe. These regulations will include, height limitations near intersections, serving to the sidewalk side, height requirement for hatches/awning from food trucks, trash receptacles and distance to school regulations. These are the best types of regulations for food trucks as they permit them to operate in a safe way to serve the public.

Starting a Food Truck: Local Regulations

Different Food Truck Regulations

The New York City Food Truck Regulations:

New York has a cap on permits and therefore has a well developed black market permitting process. Most food trucks operating in NYC are using a black market permit which is a permit that was obtained by someone else and "rented" for an exorbitant amount of money.

Washington DC Food Truck regulations:

DC trucks are the smallest in the nation. 18.5 feet bumper to bumper with no exceptions. Every food truck must fit in a standard car space. Additionally, the best locations are assigned via a lottery to trucks who apply for them. The system isn't well thought out and puts food trucks in areas that may not fit with their cuisine or brand.

California/ Los Angeles Food Truck Regulations:

Los Angeles has the strictest standards in the County. Many builders will tell you that they can build for the California/Los Angeles. Check out their previous builds. Ask to speak to the operators of those food trucks. Food trucks in other states typically have a hard time passing California/Los Angeles Health Department's licensing requirements. California has the strictest building codes in the USA, and Los Angeles, interprets those codes tougher than anyone in the Country.

Starting a Food Truck: Local Regulations

Food Truck Fire Codes:

Fire safety is a huge part of food truck safety. Fire departments have become increasingly strict with food truck fire safety since some high profile propane explosions. Food trucks using propane must have an Ansul fire system, emergency shut off valves, k and b class fire extinguishers and get a fire inspection in the municipality you intend to do business in.

Starting a Food Truck: Local Regulations


Local regulations are often unfavorable to the local food truck industry. Many times, advocating for your right to do business is the only recourse a food truck operator has. Advocacy requires patience, diligence and guts. Simply hoping a City Council or a local regulatory body will change is a recipe for disappointment. Identifying the issues, understanding the players (those that will benefit, those that will loose) and calculating the municipal costs are required to mount a successful advocacy campaign. Additionally, framing arguments in terms of small business rights and outlining the limits of municipal authority will help advocates to avoid spinning their wheels on nonsensical arguments. Is it the governments job to choose where customers spend their money? Of course it isn't. Are they tasked with creating laws for the public benefit? Of course.

Starting a Food Truck: Local Regulations

Framing the Arguments for Food Trucks:

Often times, city governments want food truck operators to "come to the table" and discuss regulations with restaurant owners. This is a ploy to reduce vendor negotiating power by plotting one emerging industry against an entrenched industry that will surely be impacted by a loosening of food truck regulations. The best tactic is to ask, "do those restaurant owners have some sort of public health or public safety experience?" If the answer is no, they shouldn't have a seat at the table. Cities didn't ask Blockbuster Video if it was ok if Netflix could deliver DVDs to local residents. Cities didn't ask book stores if Amazon should be allowed to deliver books near their brick and mortar establishments. A city's job is to protect public health and safety, not to determine who in the marketplace should be the ultimate winner. City council members have constituents who want more choice in the marketplace, not less. When a city council member sides with a restaurant owner, they're siding against the majority of constituents who don't own restaurants and just want great options for food and events.

A City Council meeting is a good place to start framing arguments in favor of reasonable regulations for food truck operators. Don't wait until regulations are being voted on, show up to city council meetings, ask to speak during the open question period and start framing your arguments early. For example, in cities that have distance restrictions from restaurants, it's important to ask if council members believe in capitalism. Asking why council members think the government should have a say in where a consumer spends their money is an effective way to sway public option to your side. In more conservative states/cities asking, "why does a liberal City like Los Angeles allow food trucks to park anywhere a car can park and our city is blocking competition and the free market?" Another effective strategy is to outline how cities didn't stop Netflix and Amazon from competing against brick and mortar establishments. Why then do they want to limit a small business from doing the same. Food trucks are typically residents where they do business. They're at least from the same state and the money generated goes back into the local economy. This is not the case with large scale franchises like McDonalds and Burger King that pay large franchise fees to out of State companies. Why do cities want to side with an out of state entity over the hard working people of the local town. These types of questions really impact how city council members view the argument. Argue for local businesses, customer choice and competition especially in conservative enclaves in the USA. In more liberal cities, highlighting the importance of immigrant small businesses, and diversity of cuisines helps to frame the arguments for inclusiveness and opportunity for all.

Starting a Food Truck: Local Regulations

Fighting for Food Truck Rights:

There are different styles of advocacy. Both require a lot of time and patience. Lobbying for your rights in the traditional sense requires creating relationships with City/State government. Through meetings, compromise and support (sometimes financial) a group of trucks can sway a local government's decisions on food truck matters. Typically, a group of food trucks will have to show the regions elected officials why amending food truck regulations for more freedom will be a net positive for the community. While you're trying to convince the elected officials of your point of view, there will be others doing their best to convince them of the opposite. An elected official will always weigh the pros and cons to the community and the pros and cons to their electability. This lobbying approach requires advocates to gently express the consequences of inaction. Restaurant diners aren't going to be up in arms if a city council allows food trucks, but food truck followers are going to be really upset if a city council doesn't allow food trucks. Making sure elected officials know that there will be upset constituents if they maintain the status quo, is part of the lobbying process. It's a soft carrot and stick approach that requires time and patience, but also support from passionate food truck customers who want more access to great food in their local community.

Advocacy can also be aggressive and unrelenting. Where some organizations went a traditionally lobbying route, other food truck associations went into full attack mode because of impending regulations that would have limited vendors operations and opportunities. The term we use if Blunt Force Advocacy. In today's food truck industry it isn't used as much because the food truck industry has been around long enough that it's supported and loved. However, when City Council members are not moved by reasonable arguments or when too connected to restaurant owners and commercial real estate interests, it's important to kick the advocacy up a notch. Framing arguments in City Council meetings is just the start. Food truck owners typically have passionate fans who are always willing to help out their community especially when they feel as though an elected official is overstepping state authority.

Ways to aggressively advocate for better food truck laws:

  • Use social media to call out elected officials for their unwillingness to allow food trucks
  • File Public Records requests (FOIA) to see what City Councilmember have been emailing and talking about
  • Use food truck festivals to hand out flyers identifying who in City Council to call/email to support food trucks. Give 10% off if they'll call and show support while waiting in line to order
  • Reach out to the local press to tell your side of the story
  • Highlight other region's regulations as successful when food trucks can flourish
  • Research who has donated to local elected official campaigns and make it public if it looks like the elected official if favoring those who donate
  • Lawsuits against unfair/unreasonable regulations

Aggressive advocacy can be scary, especially when threats of reprisals start coming in. A well focused group that doesn't back down can accomplish favorable outcomes. Most City Council Members do not want to be looked at as public enemy number one.

Lawsuits and State Lobbying for Food Truck Rights:

Lawsuits are typically a last resort option. The Institute for Justice (ww.ij.org has assisted many regions on using lawsuits and Statewide lobbying for change. You can also get help from pro-bono attorneys looking to cash in on attorneys fees if they win a public-benefit lawsuit. The SoCal Mobile Food Vendors Assoc sued 13 cities in Los Angeles County between 2010 and 2014, costing cities huge attorney's fees settlements and rewriting the laws across the county.

Starting a Food Truck: Local Regulations

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