Food Truck Laws and Regulations
This post is was first published in 2017 but has since been updated
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 (City Code Secs. 5.76.030(6) and 5.76.080(2)), 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 Ellensburg (City Code Sec. 6.64.160), 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 foodborne illness. Since health departments generally have countywide jurisdiction, food truck owners must obtain approval when they wish to operate in a new county.
Snohomish Health District indicated in 2017 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 (Municipal Code Chs. 16.70.050 and .060) 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, such as Everett (Municipal Code Ch. 5.84.090), specify locations at which a food truck may not operate.
In Tacoma, a partnership between the City of Tacoma and the Tacoma Pierce County Health Department has resulted in a regulatory license that allows mobile food trucks or trailers to legally operate curbside at select zones in the city. A Food Truck Vendor Checklist helps to guide applicants through the process. In addition, the City of Vancouver offers a helpful matrix that describes various approval requirements depending on whether the food truck will be on public or private property and whether it will be temporary or permanent. For a smaller city example, please see the City of Ridgefield mobile food vending webpage, which contains a concise description of the applicable regulatory requirements.
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.
Recent Legislation: SHB 2639
Earlier this year the legislature passed SHB 2639, which exempts food truck operators from state board and local health jurisdiction requirements to have a separate brick-and-mortar kitchen for preparation and storage of their food. Now, operators can prepare, store, and cook food in the trucks as long as certain requirements (listed in the legislation) for equipment and storage are met.
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