A new law just cut through a chain that has stopped countless food trucks in North Carolina from getting out of the garage.
Until now, the “commissary rule” had forced food truck operators either to rent space in brick and mortar restaurants or commissaries or to buy their own restaurant-quality kitchens to serve as home bases for their mobile businesses.
For many would-be entrepreneurs, the commissary rule is an impossible hurdle to jump. If a food truck operator could afford to buy a restaurant, that’s what he would do.
While health officials have argued they need a stationary commercial kitchen to inspect, the new law requires them to inspect the food truck itself, provided it has all the necessary equipment and storage space required of a commissary.
The man who inspired the law change — a pastor attempting to start a food-truck “ministry” in Salisbury — is rejoicing and reluctant at the same time. He’s both hopeful that the new law will allow him to employ dozens of jobless black men in the poorest part of Rowan County, and worried that health department bureaucrats might make it meaningless by imposing additional rules and regulations.
Pastor Michael King has been trying for more than a year to get a permit for the first of several food trucks he owns, so he can use them as a source of employment for men who desperately need jobs and a source of good, inexpensive food for a community that desperately needs more culinary options. (He’d also like to sell grocery items from his truck, but that’s a battle for another day.)
Shortly after he got his first truck ready for the road, however, he learned there was a long list of requirements keeping him from operating the truck unless it was tied to a commercial kitchen or “commissary.”
His truck did not have a toilet, a source of potable water, an approved place to dump wastewater, or an approved place to clean his trash cans.
Another justification health officials often give for the commissary rule is that mobile vendors must have a place to store and prepare their food other than in their home kitchens, which health officials say they cannot inspect.
King has countered that, unlike many food trucks, his has a large commercial refrigerator, countertops, and extensive shelving for dry goods and supplies. Nothing he would sell from the food truck would need to be stored or prepared at his home.
Larry Michael, head of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Food Protection Program, is in charge of food truck inspections under the new law. He said he’s no longer concerned about trucks not having toilets, but he questions whether the truck operators will be able to find an acceptable source of potable water and a location for wastewater disposal.
Michael said, “it’s important to determine the source of the potable water supply so it can be inspected and sampled. …”
King argues it shouldn’t matter whether he fills his truck’s water tank from his church, his law office, or even from his home, as long as he’s using a food-grade hose.
“It’s all city water, so if the restaurants’ water is good, my water is good,” he said.
King also argues that health officials shouldn’t be concerned about his wastewater, which they’ve said should be poured down a drain with a grease trap.
He says his employees dump all of the grease from the deep fryers “right back into the containers it came out of.” He donates the grease to the county, which resells it as biodiesel.
The only grease that might end up in the truck’s sink, and thus the wastewater, is what is left on the utensils, he said. “Any greasy water we produce is much less than would be in a person’s kitchen at home.”
Michael said health inspectors also will have to “ensure that there is adequate storage for food and supplies to avoid food preparation and storage in unpermitted areas, such as a private home kitchen.”
King said he thinks health inspectors should find his storage space adequate, but worries they’ll find some other reason not to permit his truck.
“[Michael’s] agency has fought this idea the whole time,” King said. “They didn’t even want to consider it. And now they’re forced to do it. Anytime you lose a battle like that, you try to come through the back door and do what you cannot do now through the front door.”
Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam, R-Wake, who worked with Rep. Pat McElraft to get the legal provision tagged on to the Regulatory Reform Act that passed in July, said he has the same concern about his commissary rule “fix.”
“Section 16.2 should solve their problem unless the health department comes up with something else,” Stam said.
Stam, leader of the House Republicans, called the previous commissary rule “needless government interference with freedom.”
McElraft, a Republican from Carteret County, agreed. Brick-and-mortar commissaries are not necessary to ensure public health and safety, as long as the trucks are equipped with all the same equipment required of a commissary, she said.
McElraft said the new law is an example of “government getting out of the way so that our private sector, aka citizens, can create jobs.”
The law is effective now, Michael said. “So our office will work with local health departments on a case-by-case basis if a mobile food unit operator requests a review of their establishment for compliance with the commissary requirements. To date, there have not been any requests.”
King said he looks forward to making the first request.
Sara Burrows is a contributor to Carolina Journal.