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Food Truck Laws and Regulations


June 15, 2017 by Oskar Rey
Category: Licensing and Regulation

Food Truck Laws and Regulations

Food trucks have become increasingly popular in recent years. They are also complicated from a regulatory standpoint because they are both vehicles and food service establishments. As a result, food truck operators typically must obtain several state and local authorizations to do business in a given location. This blog post will sort through applicable food truck laws and regulations and cite examples of approaches taken by Washington municipalities that regulate food trucks in their jurisdictions. 

What is a Food Truck?

You might know one if you see it, but according to the State Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) a food truck is a licensed vehicle from which food is sold at temporary sites. Workers work inside the food truck but the public stays outside. Also, a food truck is no more than 8.5 feet wide and has at least one of the following: an electrical system, a water or drain system, or a propane gas system. 

From L&I’s perspective, if customers can come inside, then the establishment may be a commercial coach (if it is a vehicle) or a modular building (if it is not a vehicle). If workers serve or deliver food outside, then it may be a push cart or food delivery truck. Local jurisdictions may choose to include food trucks with other types of temporary merchants and mobile vendors for regulatory purposes. 

Business License Requirements

Like other businesses, a food truck is required to have a state business license. Cities and counties typically require food trucks to obtain local business licenses as well. 

Food truck operators note that it can be burdensome to obtain business licenses from the different jurisdictions in which they would like to do business. Some cities, like Wenatchee, provide temporary business licenses at reduced cost to vendors who seek to do business in the city for a limited period of time. Other jurisdictions, such as the City of Ellensburg, will not require a business license from a vendor that is an authorized participant in a permitted special event. 

Health Department Requirements

In order to serve food, operators are required to obtain a permit from the local health department. Health departments require detailed plans to minimize the risk of food-borne illness. Since health departments generally have county-wide jurisdiction, food truck owners must obtain approval when they wish to operate in a new county. 

Snohomish Health District recently indicated that it would not require plan review from operators who have current permits in King or Pierce counties. This step significantly streamlines the permit process and saves operators approximately $400 in fees. Snohomish Health District indicates that it is the first health district in the state to try this approach. 

Local Food Truck Regulations

Cities have a broad amount of discretion with respect to issuing permits for food truck locations. Cities often require prior approval for a food truck operator to operate in a specific location. For example, the City of Lacey designates certain areas in the right-of-way for food truck use and also provides that food trucks may operate in certain zones with the prior authorization of the City. 

In addition, some cities specify that food trucks may not operate within a certain distance of “brick and mortar” establishments. For example, Everett’s code provides that food trucks may not be located within 250 feet of a restaurant or café. The question of how best to regulate food trucks is mostly a question of policy. Here is a link to additional examples of regulations applicable to food trucks.

Food Trucks on Public or Private Property (Non-Right of Way)

Food trucks outside the right-of-way present a few unique issues. First, food trucks on public property, such as a park, trigger a requirement to pay leasehold excise tax pursuant to chapter 82.29A RCW. Agencies will want to factor that into account when setting food truck rates and be sure to remit the tax to the Department of Revenue. 

Second, some businesses, such as brew pubs, consider food trucks to be complimentary to their operations and allow food trucks to provide service on their property. To the extent a business owner provides space for food trucks on a regular basis, the use of that space may be subject to transportation impact fees. For example, Mount Vernon provides in its zoning provisions that transportation impact fees shall be assessed for mobile food van uses. 

Looking Forward: A Move towards Standardized Regulations?

In April, the Washington State Food Truck Association held a Food Truck Lobby Day in Olympia. The purpose of the event was to call the legislature’s attention to the many different local regulations applicable to food trucks. MRSC is not aware of any proposed legislation to standardize food truck regulations, but we will keep you posted!

Questions or comments? Please leave a comment below or email me at orey@mrsc.org.

About Oskar Rey

Oskar Rey has practiced municipal law since 1995 and served as Assistant City Attorney for the City of Kirkland from 2005 to 2016, where he worked on a wide range of municipal topics, including land use, public records, and public works. Oskar is a life-long resident of Washington and graduated from the University of Washington School of Law in 1992.

VIEW ALL POSTS BY Oskar Rey

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