News: CJ Exclusives

Food Trucks Still Not Free of Restaurant Ties

'Commissary rule' continues to impede mobile food vendors

Five months after state lawmakers passed a law freeing food truck owners from a regulation that required them to rent space in a restaurant or commissary, no food truck operator has taken advantage of it.

The Mobile Food Vendors Association, a membership and advocacy organization, said most don’t know about the new law, and the few who do have been thwarted by their local health departments.

Before Republican lawmakers negated the “commissary rule” this summer as part of a larger regulatory reform legislation, food truck owners were required to rent space in a restaurant or commercial kitchen to prepare and store their food and to wash and store their supplies.

Pastor Michael King of Salisbury challenged the rule as unnecessary, protectionist and anti-competitive. He argued that his food truck — the first of many he plans to build as part of a ministry creating jobs for the homeless — was equipped with everything it needed to operate, including a commercial refrigerator, food-prep counters, deep fryers, a grill, storage space for dry food, dishes and utensils, a three-compartment sink for dishwashing, and a hand-washing sink. Renting space in a restaurant to accomplish these purposes would be redundant and cost-prohibitive, he said.

Republican state Reps. Paul “Skip” Stam of Wake County and Pat McElraft of Carteret County agreed and wrote a law saying essentially that a food truck could be exempted from the regulation if it met “all the sanitation requirements” of a commercial kitchen or commissary.

King and a few other food truck vendors inquired about having their trucks inspected as commissaries. Not so fast, they were told. If their trucks were to meet all the same requirements as a commissary, to the letter of the law, they would need bathroom facilities and grease traps, among other things, according to at least one health official.

Those two items alone would be extremely expensive and nearly impossible to install, according to the Mobile Food Vendors Association.

Toilet on a truck?

After receiving inquiries about the new law, Robert Thomason, a board member of the Mobile Food Vendors Association, called Regional Environmental Health Specialist Carolyn Griffin — an employee of the state Department of Health and Human Services, Division of Public Health, Food Protection Program — asking what vendors needed to do to get their trucks approved as mobile commissaries.

Thomason said Griffin told him if taken literally, the new law would require food trucks to have toilets and grease traps if they were to be permitted as commissaries. Griffin also said state health officials were working with the attorney general’s office to figure out how they were supposed to apply the law.

When Thomason asked Griffin what he should tell food truck operators in the meantime, she said hold off until they get things straightened out with the attorney general’s office.

Griffin’s boss Larry Michael, head of the Food Protection Program, said his office is working on a set of guidelines to help health inspectors evaluate whether a food truck can operate without being attached to a brick-and-mortar kitchen.

While Michael says there are no plans to require toilets or grease traps on the trucks, the draft guidelines make no mention of them, and that makes Thomason nervous.

“I know the health inspectors and I know how they operate,” Thomason said. “If you don’t spell it out in black and white then they’ll mix in the bathroom. They’ll say, ‘you’re not a commissary because you don’t have a bathroom or you don’t have a grease trap,’ or whatever.”

He said it’s possible to put a grease trap on a truck, “but it’s not practical or necessary. You’d have to set up a whole pressurized system and it would be very expensive.”

Instead, Thomason said, the health department could require the vendors to prove they have an approved site to dump their wastewater, whether it’s a restaurant, commissary, car wash, truck stop or RV Park, all of which have filters to catch grease and other debris in their sewage pipes.

King maintains that his truck doesn’t produce any more grease than he does in his home kitchen, and that it shouldn’t matter where he disposes of his wastewater.

Open to interpretation

Thomason also worries that the draft guidelines are vague. For example, the guidelines say a truck should have adequate “storage all food supplies, utensils, equipment, and employee belongings.”

“It’s hard to say what is storage and how much do you need,” Thomason said. “And what are you talking about when you say employee belongings? Are you talking about for their pocketbooks? If they pull up to a site near the truck, who cares if they leave their coat in their car?”

Another guideline says in addition to hand-washing and ware-washing facilities, the trucks should have “cleaning facilities, maintenance tool,s and related supplies.”

While brick-and-mortar commissaries historically were supposed to serve as places food trucks and mobile food units could be serviced and washed, Thomason doesn’t see why they can’t be washed at a car wash or in a home driveway.

And while it’s unclear what is meant by maintenance tools, Thomason pointed out that there is no such requirement for a brick-and-mortar commissary. “They don’t walk in and say where are your screwdrivers?”

Michael said his office would work with local health inspectors to permit trucks as commissaries on a “case-by-case” basis.

“They can’t approve the trucks on a case-by-case basis,” Thomason said. “These people are getting ready to buy a $30,000 truck or build one, they need to know exactly what’s expected of them.”

Without detailed guidelines and examples of what kind of equipment is approved and is not approved, whether or not a truck is permitted is left to the health inspectors’ “best professional judgment,” he said. Thomason has had to deal with several health inspectors whose “best professional judgment” almost put street food vendors out of business for having the “wrong” kind of sneeze guard or the “wrong” brand of push cart.

“You have rules and you have laws,” Thomason said. “Your job is to enforce them exactly to the letter. You can’t go out there and say, ‘Well, sir, I think you ought to have your hose about 12 feet closer to the door, just because in my best professional judgment, I think it ought to be that way.’”

Thomason said he and King will offer Michael advice for fine-tuning the guidelines before they are finalized.

Sara Burrows is a contributor to Carolina Journal.