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Food Trucks Have Arrived: What Are the Regulatory and Policy Options?

A large social gathering in front of a row of food trucks at an outdoor park at dusk.

When I first wrote about food trucks in 2017, they were still a bit of a novelty for many Washington communities. However, in the intervening six years, food trucks have become commonplace throughout the state. Food trucks are now a popular option for diners and clearly not just a passing fad. Many jurisdictions have adopted regulations addressing food trucks in recent years, and this blog will explore some of the policy options available, with a special focus on cities.

Food Trucks are Regulated at Multiple Levels of Government

First, let’s look at the regulatory landscape for food truck operators — it can be complicated!

Department of Labor and Industries

According to the Washington 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 pushcart or food delivery truck. Local jurisdictions may choose to include food trucks with other types of temporary merchants and mobile vendors for regulatory purposes. 

Local Health Department

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. Under RCW 43.20.149, health departments are required to provide for reciprocity if an operator has obtained a permit from another health department within the state.

State and Local Licenses and Regulations

Like other businesses, a food truck is required to have a state business license. Cities typically require food trucks to obtain local business licenses as well. Some cities dispense with requiring a business license if the operator is operating within the city as part of an approved special event.

Many cities have specific code provisions that regulate food truck operations. Common areas of regulation include:

  • Obtaining fire department or fire district approval;
  • Compliance with applicable electrical codes;
  • Requiring liability insurance with the city as a named insured;
  • An emphasis on the temporary nature of food trucks and a limit on operation from the same property (such as no more than three days of any calendar week);
  • Restrictions on the hours during which food trucks can operate (such as 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.);
  • Limits on signs, lights, awnings, and overhangs, and prohibition of sidewalk and right-of-way obstructions;
  • Evaluation of impacts of any off-site parking displacement when food trucks are proposed on private property; and
  • Management and disposal of trash, recyclables, and wastewater.

Cities also commonly regulate the locations of where food trucks may operate. Some cities prohibit food trucks in certain areas (such as residential zones) while others specify that food trucks may only operate in specified areas (such as specified business and commercial zones). Some cities prohibit operation of a food truck within a specified distance from restaurants and similar establishments.

For examples of food truck regulations, see:

Cities Have Additional Authority Over Food Trucks on Agency Property or Right-of-Way

Cities (and counties) have additional review obligations when asked to authorize the use of their property or right-of-way for food truck operations. In these situations, a city or county is wearing a property owner’s hat in addition to a regulatory hat.

Cities take a variety of approaches when deciding whether to allow food trucks to use city property or right-of-way:

  • Kirkland uses an RFP process for food service concessions in city parks.
  • The Langley Municipal Code provides that food trucks on city property or right-of-way may only operate in designated food truck zones and in spaces assigned by the city to the operator.
  • Vancouver has a pilot program in which 10 mobile vending approvals are available to mobile vending units (including food trucks). The approvals can be used on a limited basis in certain parking zones. Operators are allowed to exceed posted time limits and are not required to pay parking meter fees while the approval is properly displayed.

If it seems hard to decide what a city’s long-term policies should be with respect to food trucks, consider using a pilot project to see how things go. Burien is using a pilot project to explore increased food truck operations in its communities. Since food trucks are mobile by definition, this is an area where experimentation can occur without the long-term ramifications that would result from approval of brick-and-mortar establishments.


Cities have considerable flexibility and discretion in deciding what type of role food trucks will play in their communities. Although the regulatory requirements can seem daunting, food trucks are a relatively low-cost way for an entrepreneur to start a business and a quick way to expand the culinary options in a community.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

Photo of Oskar Rey

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.