Starting a food truck sounds simple enough—buy a truck, make food, sell it. Like any business, the food truck business has rules, but those rules are easier to find and follow in some places, and downright difficult in others. A lot depends on how friendly the local environment is to food trucks.
Even Portland, Ore., one of most food truck-friendly cities in the country, has enough permits and licenses involved in operating a food truck business to cost you about $5,400 and an average of seven procedures to comply with, requiring seven trips to city agencies. The worst city for food trucks, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s “Food Truck Index,” is Boston, costing operators as much as $38,000, 21 procedures and 31 trips to city agencies each year.
In addition to imposing extensive fees and red tape, the least friendly cities for food trucks also make it harder to find parking locations and require such operations to be farther away from restaurants, public parks, sports venues, festivals and even residential buildings. Minneapolis, for example, requires food trucks to stay 500 feet from sports events. Phoenix has six of these “proximity” restrictions totaling 2,215 feet.
Food trucks, because they’re mobile, are subject to different scrutiny—and regulations—than brick-and-mortar restaurants. For example, as a food truck operator, along with other requirements, you’ll be subject to:
- Commercial vehicle inspections and licensing
- Parking regulations
- Fire–safety permits
- OSHA regulations, in some places.
- A commissary kitchen license, in addition to the standard business license
- Mobile food vending permit
- Food handling card
The mobile food vending guidebook for New York City, for example, is 85 pages long; and that doesn’t include rules on commercial truck licensing.
Before you even think of writing a business plan, it pays to look into local regulations where you’d like to open your food truck business. Many cities, for example, now have lottery systems for a specific number of food truck permits, which means you might not get a license to operate.
That doesn’t mean you can’t open a food truck. You just might not be able to operate in the locations you anticipated. Washington, D.C., for example, has very restrictive rules for food trucks, but many surrounding suburbs do not. Enterprising operators find ways to make a go of it even without choice, high-traffic downtown locations to choose from.
Researching food truck regulations also will let you know of special requirements in your area. In Los Angeles, for example, food trucks must move every hour, unless they have a parking permit for a specific spot. And trucks that are parked longer than an hour either must have a bathroom on board or be within 200 ft. of a public restroom available for their use. In Washington State, food trucks must comply with OSHA requirements—one is that door openings on food trucks must be a certain width (which is wider than a standard truck door).
Three places to start your search for local food truck regulations are your state food truck association (if you have one), your municipality’s business–licensing department and your local health department. Among them, you’re likely to get all your questions answered and find virtually all of the forms and applications you’ll need.
Food truck regulations vary city by city; however, Mobile Cuisine, an online resource catering to the mobile food industry, has a handy one-stop-shop for each major city’s requirements regarding food trucks.
Here are some of the most common licenses and permits needed to open a food truck:
- Employer Identification Number (EIN)—required of all businesses as taxpayer ID.
- Portable Fire Extinguisher Requirements—sometimes referred to as fire safety permits, these are in addition to fire code inspections of your fire suppression system.
- Exhaust Hoods—must be cleaned on a specific schedule and inspected by both the health department and fire department (read also: Restaurant Hood Cleaning Made Easy).
- Foodservice Establishment Permit—also referred to as a mobile food vending permit or food truck permit.
- Recycling and Waste Removal—food truck operators are responsible for making waste receptacles available to customers, as well as removing and properly disposing of waste (read also: How to Recycle Food Waste – It’s Easier Than You Think.)
- Unemployment Insurance—part of your payroll taxes.
- Employee Disability Coverage—you’re not required to provide it, but you are required to withhold FICA (Medicare) payments from payroll checks.
- Sales Tax Vendor Registration—required in all states but Alaska, Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire and Oregon; some municipalities may require it even if the state doesn’t.
- Parking, Standing and Stopping Rules for Commercial Vehicles—every city is different, and some may require permit fees for parking.
- Commercial Vehicle Inspection/Registration—you’ll need a state commercial–vehicle license plate, a commercial–vehicle driver’s license and usually a city commercial–vehicle permit.
- Required Equipment for Commercial Vehicles—some states and municipalities require food trucks to have special equipment (such as portable fire extinguishers); an example is Washington State’s use of OSHA requirements, mentioned above (read also: Choosing the Right Food Truck Equipment.)
- Mobile Vendor License—in some places, it may be separate from your foodservice establishment permit.
- Workers’ Compensation Insurance—also part of your payroll tax.
- Idling Regulations—may apply to food trucks when parked.
- Commercial Vehicle Restrictions—apply to food trucks in certain areas of cities; Denver, for example, doesn’t allow food trucks in a specific quadrant of downtown.
- Air Facility Registration—California, for example, has Air Quality Management Districts and Air Pollution Control Districts across the state.
- Special Event Permit—often required if you operate at festivals, art fairs, farmers markets, etc.
- Food Protection Certificate—all employees must have food handler cards in most jurisdictions, and some health departments require a certified food safety manager be on duty at all times (read also: Food Safety 101: A Crash Course).
Hope has been a Content Specialist since November 2015, where she brings to the table years of experience in the food service industry in a variety of roles. Throughout her time with Central, Hope has focused on learning all things possible about everything from cooking equipment to concession and specialty products in order to empower operators with education on commercial equipment and supplies. Hope is a wife, new mom, avid crafter, and food lover (french fries please!).