So you’ve got your menu planned, you’ve picked out a name, and you’ve wrangled a couple of your best friends into helping you realize your dream. You’re off to a great start! But once the fun parts of opening a food truck are out of the way, there are still some technical details that can’t be ignored. Food trucks are subject to health codes and inspections quite similar to brick-and-mortar restaurants, and a disregard for the law can leave your business out in the cold. But we want you to succeed! So we talked to Ricardo Encarnacion, Environmental Health Specialist at the County of San Diego Department of Environmental Health, for a few pointers that every future food truck entrepreneur should know when getting started.
Point #1: Make Sure Your Plans Check Out
”For anybody who wants to start a business, whether it’s a mobile food facility or a food truck or a restaurant or a deli: the very first step is going through a department called the Plan Check Unit,” says Encarnacion. “This is the part of the department that handles the preliminary steps where things are approved first on paper.”
In the County of San Diego, the Plan Check and Construction Unit is responsible for reviewing and approving the plans of any new restaurant, and that includes food trucks – or, as the Department of Environmental Health refers to them, Mobile Food Facilities. Why start with plans on paper? “Because sometimes people will construct their own mobile food facility, but there are certain rules that are based on the state health code that dictate what the parameters are and the local jurisdiction has the responsibility to apply that law,” says Encarnacion.
Just as health inspectors examine brick-and-mortar restaurants to ensure they’re up to code, they also examine food trucks to make sure that handlers have their certificates and that the trucks themselves are up to code (an especially important point if you are planning to go with a refurbished or retrofitted food truck instead of a shiny new model built specifically for the job).
Fortunately the Plan Check website offers a fairly comprehensive compendium of information about the technical side of the business all in one place, from Mobile Food Facilities operational guide to the application you will eventually need to submit. “The plan check unit is basically a good place to start for people who know the business they want to get into,” notes Encarnacion, who also provides the Plan Check phone number 858-505-6659 for more detailed questions about starting your business.
Point #2: Make Sure The Rules You’re Reading are the Right Rules for You
You work hard to make sure you’re in compliance with every rule in the guidelines, only to have your food truck shut down because you failed take into account your jurisdiction – it’s scary, but it could happen.
“In every jurisdiction in the state of California, retail food is regulated at the local level,” says Encarnacion – differentiating the world of food trucks from wholesale foodservice, which covers businesses that only sell food to other production businesses and is regulated by the state. “Every city – and even every jurisdiction in the county of San Diego – may have differing rules. If you want to operate a mobile food facility, aside from the health department you want to also make sure that you’re also in line with the rules that are applicable to the jurisdiction you want to operate in.”
One county’s rules may be another county’s trash –the laws on mobile food facilities can vary drastically from city to city, let alone state to state, making it critical to understand your particular city’s laws before setting up a home base.
Point #3: Partner Up with a Central Commissary
You have a cook top in your truck and a kitchen at home – that’s everything you need, right? Unfortunately, there’s a lot more planning involved in food truck operations than that. Just like every ship needs a port, every food truck needs a central commissary to refuel and restock. More than just an industrial kitchen, a commissary includes space for trucks to park at night and receive maintenance, hookups for potable water uptake and wastewater discharge, and plenty of room to store and prep food in regulated sanitary conditions.
“A mobile food facility is required to operate out of a central commissary,” notes Encarnacion. “What we don’t want happening is a truck operating from a private residence – which will never be approved, for obvious reasons.” While the San Diego Department of Environmental Health doesn’t have a complete list of central commissaries posted online, your local chapter should be able to help you locate a commissary that will complement the needs of your unique concept.
Point #4: Don’t Forget to Have Fun With It
When you’re knee-deep in plan drafts and paperwork, it can be tough to remember that the Department of Health isn’t there to rain on your parade. But in reality, they’re actually fans of the food truck trend just as much as the next guy.
“It’s a great, innovative way that we’ve seen retail food industry adhere to the laws of the people, and people enjoy this type of food service,” notes Encarnacion. “We’re here to be in partnership with industry to ensure that you not only have a good experience in getting into the business, but know the rules to make sure that your customers have a safe and good time.”
So get out there and realize your dreams – just make sure you keep it clean and keep it safe, and the law will be on your side.