Top Legal Issues for Food Truck Owners
It's no secret that starting a food truck business is all the rage these days. Food trucks have found that sweet spot by tapping into the current popularity of foodie culture, the powers of social media, and, in many cases, cheaper prices. Getting into the food service industry can be prohibitively expensive for would-be restaurateurs looking at brick-and-mortar locations in urban areas, so some entrepreneurs become mobile food vendors instead.
Unfortunately, serving delicious food at fair prices isn't the only thing food truck owners have to think about. Foodie entrepreneurs must also do their legal research before hitting the road — or risk getting shut down by the health department.
Here are the top legal issues that food truck operators commonly face:
- Licenses and permits. Food trucks can require just as many business licenses and permits as a stationary location. While the details vary by state and municipality, many areas have ordinances that place a cap on the number of vendor permits they distribute in a certain amount of time. Because food trucks are so popular these days, this can put serious roadblocks in the way to bringing mobile food service to some communities.
- Health and safety issues. Food trucks are essentially restaurants on wheels, and thus are subject to the same health and food safety regulations as any other food establishment. The local health department will require extensive food safety permits, official inspections, and food preparation certifications before they will give the green light. For example, considering a food truck's limited space, is a brick oven in a truck safe? Can all the people crammed into one food truck practice proper sanitation procedures with so little room — especially in places facing major COVID threats?
- Commissary Kitchens. To address health concerns, many cities may require you to do food prep in a commissary kitchen. This is basically a public brick-and-mortar industrial kitchen that can be rented, and can either be shared or private. This type of place offers not only water, gas, electricity, and disposal services, but other perks such as a designated parking spot for your truck when you're not in service. So even if your local laws don't require you to use a commissary for meal prep and food storage, it may be convenient to look into using one anyway.
- Costs. While running a food truck is cheaper than maintaining a brick-and-mortar restaurant, it's still not cheap. Food trucks can range in price from as little as $30,000 to more than $80,000 -- and that doesn't even include the cost of supplies, food handler permits, vendors, business licenses, employee salaries, insurance, food safety certifications, and more.
- Competition. While food trucks are outnumbered by restaurants, they cater to similar clientele. Local restaurant owners may be unhappy with the competition, and often seek to lobby local lawmakers for relief. This can lead to problems with new zoning, vending, and food service ordinances that can make it nearly impossible to operate in certain municipalities. Though it can almost certainly qualify as unfair competition, there's little a mobile food vendor can do to fight it.
- Inconsistent laws. Even though food trucks have been around for quite some time, their recent popularity has sparked the need to reassess food truck laws more closely. Regulation and enforcement of food truck laws is often incredibly erratic. Sometimes, you're only allowed to park in a spot for 30 minutes; other times, it's an hour. Sometimes, you can't sell if you're within 500 feet of a school zone; other times, you can. Sometimes, you get a ticket; other times, you'll get towed.
As exciting and innovative as the food truck business is, it's always best to know what you're getting yourself into before you dive in. If you have any questions, or if any legal issues arise, it may be wise to consult an experienced business lawyer in your area. Mobile food vending isn't for everyone, but it is an achievable goal for entrepreneurs who really want to start a small business and don't mind doing a lot of paperwork.
- Starting Business Resources (FindLaw's Learn About the Law)
- What Your Food Must Legally Tell You (FindLaw's Law and Daily Life blog)
- Avoid These Five Mistakes When Starting a Business (FindLaw's Law and Daily Life blog)
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