Report: Permitting The Food Truck Fiesta

The Bon Me food truck weighed in on local permitting difficulties after the Food Truck Nation report showed that some cities rain on the food truck fiesta.
Image: Boston Food Truck Blog, Flickr

The Food Truck Nation report reveals that being part of the food truck fiesta is easier in some cities than in others. Mobile kitchen vendors weigh in on how some local government permitting processes stall the burgeoning business.

A recently released report about food truck regulations surveyed mobile-kitchen entrepreneurs in 20 U.S. cities about the challenges they face obtaining permits and licenses, complying with restrictions and conducting operations. Some local governments have struck a balance that embraces the food truck trend, while others have laborious permitting processes that bury food trucks in red tape.

The Food Truck Nation report looked at published data from 20 U.S. cities, and the counties in which they are located, and combined them with survey responses from 288 food truck owners and operators.

According to the report, on average, starting and maintaining a food truck for one year requires 45 separate government-mandated procedures over the course of 37 business days, and costs $28,276 for permits, licenses and ongoing legal compliance.

Slowing Down a Blooming Industry

The report, published in partnership with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, points out regulatory speed bumps to mobile vending may needlessly slow the industry down, limiting entrepreneurial opportunity and consumer choice.

The friendliest city toward food trucks is Portland, Oregon, and the most difficult is Boston:

“Numerous parking lots are set aside across downtown Portland for the exclusive use of food trucks,” according to the report. “And the local government goes out of its way to offer an easily navigable experience for staying in business.”

Boston is a different story.

“To get a food truck rolling in Boston requires more than three times the number of procedures as Denver (the city with the fewest required procedures) and, by our estimates, some 22 discrete interactions with regulators,” according to the report.

Growth of the Food Truck Industry

The modern food truck industry began in 2008 in Los Angeles, when entrepreneurs Mark Manguera and Caroline Shin had a hankering for late-night tacos filled with Korean-style meat.

They approached chef Roy Choi and together started Kogi Korean BBQ, setting up outside L.A. nightclubs to feed hungry partiers. Before long the truck was also operating during the day, and in its first year cleared $2 million in sales, according to the report.

The report states food trucks reached $2.7 billion in revenue in 2017, and by the end of 2016, IBISWorld estimates there were 3,703 trucks on the road, employing 13,501 people.

Streamlining Processes Across City Lines

Rebecca Simonson vice president of community engagement at Bon Me, a food truck with “bold fresh and fun Asian Cuisine,” was recently interviewed on an NPR Radio Boston episode in response to the Food Truck Nation report.

Permitting is the biggest challenge,” said Simonson, Bon Me’s former director of mobile operations. “Once you cross over from the city of Boston to any other municipality, you have a redundancy in applications, permits, inspections, fees – it’s really dizzying to keep track of, not to mention the additional costs that go along with that.”

In a follow-up email, Simonson explained the challenges food-truck operators face and offered solutions.

“Municipalities should come together and decide on a common application that the food trucks can fill out once and then submit to every city in which they vend,” she wrote, adding that it’s often difficult to have trucks inspected in each community in which they hope to serve food.

For this reason, Bon Me sometimes must turn down participating in community events because getting inspected is too much of a hurdle, she wrote.

“We love being a part of making communities vibrant, and communities love gathering in public places to visit food trucks, so this is a shame,” she wrote. “At the same time, it is reasonable that municipalities want to inspect trucks and make sure that they are safe and that the community is safe. A compromise to this tension would be creating a standard for health and fire inspections and accepting the results of inspections across city lines.”

Robert Frommer, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, a Virginia-based nonprofit law firm that represented the food-truck industry, would like to see statewide licenses and interstate compacts.

“My vision for a best-case scenario would be that food trucks could secure a single statewide license that would allow them to operate in any jurisdiction, said Frommer.  “And I would hope that adjoining states would enter into interstate compacts and reciprocity agreements to let those trucks cross state lines.”

How to Do Food Truck Fiestas — Chicago-Style

Chicago Food Truck Festival since 2015 has been producing large events in the Windy City, which ranked 13th overall in the report, with 23 annual procedures, 19 trips and $2,713 in fees.

The Chicago festival puts on three seasonal events each year and works with the Cubs to produce one at The Park at Wrigley Field, according to Alex Blackshire, the festival’s coordinator.

Blackshire said the biggest event is the 55-truck summer festival, which attracts 50,000 people over two days to the South Loop. Admission to the summer festival is free, with VIP tickets available and $5 early-admission fee. He said the festival operates on public and private land and he works with the city and Cook County to get initial approval.

But food-truck operators must previously be licensed and have a special-events permit to participate in the Chicago Food Truck Festival.

Once Blackshire has those documents in-hand, along with proof of liability insurance for each truck, he submits them to the city.

“If they have all that in place, the process is pretty simple,” he said.

Part of Blackshire’s job is to research each business and troubleshoot licensing prior to approaching the city with a list of trucks. If there’s an issue, he will circle back to the owners.

“A lot of these guys are busy trying to run their truck and deal with city regulations, so it’s easier for them to go through me,” he said.

Before the festival begins, health inspectors arrive to look over the trucks and make sure their list matches with the vehicles on site, according to Blackshire.

Most truck owners are seasoned professionals and know what’s needed going in, Blackshire said, adding that new truck owners get up to speed fast with his help.

“For the most part, everyone knows the process really well,” he said.

Small City Approval

Raleigh, N.C., which came in 11th in its overall score in the report, has a “beloved food truck scene,” according to the News & Observer. More than 80 trucks are “offering some of the most inventive kitchens in the area, slinging hot dogs and waffles, doughnuts and dumplings wherever they can park.”

Universities, breweries and office parks have also given food trucks ample spots to land, according to the article.

Other small cities, seeing the benefits of food trucks, have made the permitting process simpler.

Last month in San Angelo, Texas, the city council approved an exemption for food-truck operators, so they will no longer be required to obtain an itinerant vendor permit, according to the San Angelo Standard Times.

The exemption was recommended in order to streamline the permitting process, the article states.

And last summer, the city council in Corpus Christi, Texas, approved an update to the city’s mobile vendor ordinance designed to make it easier for them to get permitted with the city and expand the number of locations, according to the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

The ordinance also reduces some permitting fees and size limitations on vehicles and trailers, and it eliminates some of the hurdles prospective vendors need to clear before they can begin doing business, the article said.

“We want the process to be streamlined and more fair to the vendors while still protecting the health and safety for the public,” Mayor Joe McComb said.

It’s about making things simpler.”

Review and download the report:

Food Truck Nation Full Report by Ed Praetorian on Scribd

Editor’s Note: This article was updated on March 30, 2018, to include comments from attorney Robert Frommer.

About the author

Larry Claflin, Jr.

Larry Claflin, Jr.

Columnist Larry Claflin, Jr., is a freelance writer based in New England and co-founder and former executive director of the non-profit Salem Jazz and Soul Festival. He is fascinated with the mechanics of city government and cultural development in cities.