Food Trucks Have Arrived: What Are the Regulatory and Policy Options?
May 1, 2023
Category: Licensing and Regulation
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:
- Marysville Municipal Code Chapter 22C.260 — Limits hours of operation and states that food trucks are generally prohibited in residential zones and within 100 feet of an eating or drinking establishment.
- Newcastle Municipal Code Chapter 18.23 — Limits food truck operation to sponsored events within certain zones or street right-of-way.
- Ocean Shores Municipal Code Chapter 17.56 — Charges an annual $250 license fee for food trucks and specifies zones where food trucks are authorized (with city or private property owner approval).
- Richland Vehicle Based Food Service (Mobile Food Vendor) Licenses — Applies different rules depending on whether the operator plans to move from location to location or be stationary and operate in one place for an extended period of time.
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.
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