Food trucks were once considered underground operations, inferior to restaurants. Now they are mainstream and the subject of numerous TV shows. But opening up a food truck is much more complicated than it seems. There is a mountain of government regulation and the occasional rival chef that you must fight. We spoke with two former food truck operators that gave us some inside information on the world of running a food truck.
Starting a Food Truck is Not Spontaneous
The food truck concept is still fairly new. Health departments are struggling to establish clear standards. They are restaurants but are also vehicles. This confusion has led to more than double the paperwork you would typically find in either category.
There is a different set of regulations and paperwork in every city, county, and state. One vendor tells us that to operate in LA, city permits, two county permits, and a state permit are required. They must be renewed every year. Taking your truck to San Diego requires even more county and city permits. Further, LA County requires the truck to be almost brand-new.
Food trucks are essentially small restaurants. However, the amount of regulatory red tape a food truck must navigate far exceeds anything a standard restaurant has to deal with.
Our food truck guys knew one truck was closed down because they had a waffle iron inside. Another was marked on an inspection for having a rice warmer not being on the original plans. One particularly wealthy city in L.A. county is probably the craziest because the committee told them how much of a privilege it was to have a permit in their city. A cute nickname for it would be ‘the begging city’ because vendors would have to beg them for a permit for a food truck.
The East Coast isn’t any better. According to one vendor, you just can’t set up a shop like the Food Truck Race TV show. It’s a long, tedious process. New York City is very stringent. A New York City-wide permit applies to any of the five boroughs, but if you enter New Jersey, you need at least three additional, different food truck permits.
“Those who like to cook in trucks” and “Those who like to file extensive, detailed paperwork” are almost mutually exclusive groups. Regulators seem to think they are identical twins.
Restaurants Aren’t as Clean as Food Trucks
Health guidelines are usually much more stringent than normal restaurants. The food trucks in LA are inspected three times as much as brick-and-mortar restaurants and need to pass more regulations despite having less food, fewer employees, and being in a much smaller place.
An inspector can give a Grade A to a restaurant by going in and out in 15 minutes. The same inspector will spend hours in a food truck, with finding extra violations as his goal, using degrading questions like, “Do you keep food inside the seats?” Despite the extra scrutiny, L.A. food trucks score better. Normal restaurants average 7.8 violations, with food trucks having just 3.6.
In New York, health inspectors show up without notice all the time. Generally, street-side restaurants get inspected every six months, but it’s once every two months for the trucks. Food trucks must stay constantly vigilant, while restaurants can relax for a few months. That’s why every spare moment you will see someone cleaning in a food truck, knowing an inspector may show up any time.
There is a Restaurant vs. Food Truck War
Does it sound like the food truck guys are resentful? It’s quite likely. And the feeling is very mutual. A restaurateur has an easy way to ruin a food trucker’s day: call the cops.
An LA vendor says they make things up – littering or disturbing the peace, just to get them to shut down. In downtown L.A. and Venice, they even start yelling and tell the cops the food truckers started it. The cops might be called if a food truck simply finds a place to park and begin serving food.
You can see why there would be conflict. A good location for a brick-and-mortar restaurant is also a good place for a food truck. Food trucks park on streets with a lot of restaurants because that’s where hungry people are. They are viewed as a threat even if the nearby restaurant has a line stretching out of their front door.
But beyond financial concerns, food trucks are seen as disrupting the status quo, upstarts who break the traditional “rules” of cooking. Most didn’t go to a culinary school or even have to wait many years in a restaurant to move up. They bought a cheap food truck and started serving food there and are viewed as ‘not going through the right channels’ to be a chef. One restaurant owner called food trucks ‘a blight to the community.’
Restaurant owners across the country are pushing for more laws, getting governments to tack on more fees, or just outright ban them. One NYC vendor reported securing a spot at CVS headquarters, a super-prime spot. You have to get to such places at 3:30 A.M. because all the best spots will be taken by 4 A.M. But the cops showed up at 11 A.M. and shut everyone down. Why? Because there were ‘noise complaints.’ No one was making any noise. But if you looked around, you could see restaurant owners watching from their windows. So when they get shut down like that, all the available spots are taken, and you earn zero revenue for the day.
Getting kicked out of a spot isn’t a minor inconvenience. It’s an existential threat to the business. It’s illegal to run a food truck from a metered spot. What spot in NYC is not a metered spot?