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Food Truck Law: How To Get the Necessary Permits and Stay Up to Code

Every area of the country has different licenses, permits, and regulations to govern food trucks. However, there are some standard practices that are relatively consistent across the board. You need to check on your state, county, and municipal regulations before you buy the truck because some areas have size or construction restrictions. Checking with your regional early in the process means you and your truck have a better chance of breezing through the license and permitting process.

Do You Need Certification?

Image via Flickr by ilovememphis

Some governments require food truck owners and operators to attend a food handling safety course and become a certified safe food handler before moving any further in the permit and licensing process. Contact your state health department to see if this is a requirement where you live. Once you receive your certification, you’ll be issued an ID that you’ll then use to move ahead with the process. The classes cover issues such as safe storage temperatures for foods, how to thoroughly clean equipment and utensils, how long foods can safely be kept (shelf life), proper hand washing techniques, and other safety issues regarding food storage, preparation, handling, and service.

What Paperwork Do You Need?

Most states and municipalities require food truck owners and operators to develop and submit a food plan. The food plan includes what foods you plan to serve from the truck, where the foods or raw ingredients are to be purchased, the methods you plan to use to cook, store, heat, freeze, and serve foods, what workers will handle your foods, and where and how you plan to serve customers.

Your food plan will also include your plans for fire suppression. This isn’t ordinarily a problem, so long as you’ve bought the truck from a reputable dealer such as Russell Concession & Mobile Kitchens, Many governments also require food truck owners and operators to submit a vending application, which is also done through the health department. Most areas require the food truck to be serviced by an approved depot, which is the station where you’ll stock your food truck with food, supplied with water, stored, repaired, cleaned, waste disposed of, and cooking oil recycled.

Who Needs to Inspect the Truck?

The health department conducts food safety inspections of the food truck, both inside and outside. The depot may also need an inspection, unless you’re planning to use a depot already approved and overseen by the health department. Health departments don’t necessarily conduct inspections of food trucks all day every business day, so call ahead for the hours reserved for food truck inspections before driving your truck to the health department.

Some areas also require that the truck be inspected by a fire marshal. You can learn whether this is a requirement in your location when you call to get the food truck inspection hours at the health department. The fire marshal looks for properly rated fire extinguishers and other fire suppression plans in your truck.

At the time of inspection, you’ll have to present proof of ownership of the truck, present your certification or other identification, and have your food plan ready, outlining where you’ll be purchasing your food or ingredients. You’ll also need a log where you’ll be keeping detailed records of where the food in your truck comes from, how and where it’s been stored, storage temperatures, and other critical logs.

After the health department, and perhaps the fire marshal, have approved your food truck, you’ll be issued your license. Licenses in most regions are given to the owner of the truck, not the food vending business. This means you, the operator, and not your business owns the license and are responsible for the safety of the food.

If you’re using hired help to operate the food truck, you’ll need to ask the health department exactly what is the procedure for hiring and monitoring the employees. Conduct your own safety inspections regularly so you can identify potential problems before the health department gets involved. In the food service world, cleanliness is next to godliness, so “clean and safe” should be your constant motto.

How Can You Stay Up to Code After Receiving Your Permit?

Just because you have a licensed food truck and you have the necessary permits doesn’t mean you’re allowed to operate anywhere, anytime you want. Many areas require you to purchase a permit just to park or operate the food truck. Some downtown areas also have restrictions, and almost all venues such as fairgrounds, sports complexes, shopping plazas, and malls charge a fee to operate on their property. Check with any venue and obtain permission before bringing your food truck.

Certain cities have regulations about when you can pull over to wait on customers. Many cities are still using the same laws written for ice cream trucks decades ago, which often state you can’t pull over to solicit business unless someone flags you down for service. These laws don’t cover modern social media advertising, whereby people can go online and request a food truck to come to their place of business. Read applicable laws, or ask your health department for specific guidelines. Local law enforcement can also advise you of when and where it’s okay to pull over and serve customers.

Always mind local traffic and parking laws. Any area restricted to parking, such as a cross walk, fire truck zone, or other area marked, “No parking” is off-limits to food trucks as well. In fact, law enforcement is less likely to give a business a break than an individual. For this reason, most food truck operators become familiar with a certain area of town, and find out what local businesses like and don’t like food trucks to do. Stay within your comfort zone where you know the people and they know you. If the business owners and patrons are familiar with you and your truck, they’ll be less likely to report you or become angry when you pull over to wait on customers.

It seems like a lengthy, costly process to get a food truck licensed and permitted, but most owners and operators feel it’s truly worth the cost. After it’s over and they’re in business, they wouldn’t go back to their desk jobs for anything. Food trucks are a great way to get out, get to know the community, and make your city a better place to live. Plus, you can make a living working with good food and friendly people, perhaps the best job on earth.



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