The Rules of the Road: How to Make Sure Your Food Truck is Compliant

Your food truck is a non-starter if you don’t have the paperwork you need.
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Familiarity with local laws and regulations is crucial in the food truck industry. (Photo: anaglic/Shutterstock)

Starting a food truck business isn’t as easy as buying a truck and finding a great place to park. Aside from purchasing equipment, hiring staff, building a website and making sure your food is easy enough to cook in a confined space, you need to obtain the right business licenses and operational permits, get approval from the health department and fire department, know where you’re allowed to park and more.

Making things as complicated as possible, food truck rules and regulations can vary drastically from state to state and county to county — and even from one city to the next city within the same county.

To help you keep your food truck business on the straight and narrow, NCR Silver asked Richard Myrick, editor of Mobile Cuisine Magazine and author of “Running a Food Truck For Dummies,” for his advice on staying compliant.

Schedule a sit-down with local regulators

Myrick’s number one piece of advice is to meet with local regulatory officials early on. The key is to do as much research as you can before buying your truck and outfitting it, he said. That way you’re not spending money on equipment that won’t pass inspection.

Related: 4 Ways to Prepare Your Food Truck for the Busy Season

“I always suggest you sit down with your concept, with the folks at the municipality and walk them through the process so they can visually see what it is you’re planning,” he said. That way, they can tell you exactly which departments and agencies you’ll need to get approval from.

In general, he said, food trucks are required to have the following permits:

  • Business licenses and a federal employer identification number (EIN)
  • Operational permits from each county and city in which you will be operating
  • Insurance, proof of ownership and appropriate licenses for your vehicle
  • Food handler’s license and department of health approval
  • Fire certificates

Again, these requirements can vary widely based on municipality rules, so talk with your city officials first. Then, with their direction, connect with each of the relevant departments for details about specific codes and requirements.

Related: 4 Ways to Succeed in the Food Truck Business

Plan for multiple municipalities

One of the benefits of being a mobile vendor is that you can take your business anywhere. But the further you venture, the more permits you may need. If you plan on serving multiple municipalities, talk with officials in each county and focus on making your truck compliant with the toughest set of rules, suggested Myrick. “That way you’re covered everywhere.”

He also suggested asking if neighboring counties and cities accept reciprocation. “Here in the Detroit metro area, we’re kind of lucky in the fact that if you’re approved in one county, the other two main counties will accept that reciprocation,” he said. Sometimes, cities won’t require an additional inspection if you’ve already been reviewed by the county — but they’ll still want you to pay a fee for a permit to operate in their jurisdiction.

Know where you can park and for how long

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Find out if your city has time requirements for locations frequented by food trucks. (Photo: Fotokon/Shutterstock)

While a location may look like the perfect place to park your food truck, it may not be legal, said Myrick.

“Every city can have their own parking restrictions,” he said. “Some cities may allow on-street parking, where others only allow you to park on private property.” Also be aware of “buffer zones,” which prevent food trucks from parking within a certain distance of a brick-and-mortar restaurant.

“The other thing is absolutely find out what the timing requirements for parking are,” said Myrick. “Some cities only allow trucks to park in one spot for two hours.” If you’re running a lunch shift and require 30 minutes each for setup and breakdown, that can leave you with only an hour to scramble for a profit before having to hightail it or get a ticket.

Keep your paperwork organized and ready

Once your food truck is cleared for operation, keep copies of your licenses and regulatory paperwork on the truck.

Related: 5 Mistakes That Are Costing Your Food Truck Business

Brett Chiavari, owner of BC Tacos in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, has a dedicated binder on each of his food trucks with copies of operational licenses, inspection reports, insurances and any other regulatory documents that a police officer or an inspector who shows up randomly might ask for.

“I made it very easy for my managers to be able to conduct business and know what they’re talking about, so if they ever need anything or are in a city and someone asks to see our license, they could go right to the binder, pull it out and show them everything’s in order.”

Paperwork isn’t the reason you got into the food truck business — but not having it could get you out of it in a hurry.

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