Riverside County, CA: Free the Food Trucks, Advocates Say

Restaurants on wheels offering gourmet fare could one day be allowed to roam in Riveside County, where a movement seeks to ease food truck regulations.

By Jeff Horseman | The Press-Enterprise

Restaurants on wheels offering gourmet fare could one day be allowed to roam in Riveside County, where a movement seeks to ease food truck regulations.
Restaurants on wheels offering gourmet fare could one day be allowed to roam in Riveside County, where a movement seeks to ease food truck regulations.

A new supervisor is among those hoping for changes. Riverside County has some of the toughest rules in the state

A movement is rolling to get Riverside County to ease its restrictions on food trucks.

Food truck advocates and newly elected Supervisor Kevin Jeffries, who campaigned on a promise to “Free the Food Trucks,” want to change the county’s regulations so the public doesn’t have to go to festivals to enjoy freshly prepared food on wheels.

“This is something that people have been enjoying in Orange County, LA and San Diego,” said Jeff Greene, Jeffries’ chief of staff. “There’s no reason people in Riverside County shouldn’t have that right.”

An online petition seeks to have the Board of Supervisors relax its food truck restrictions. More than 800 people had signed the petition as of Friday, Jan. 18.

“We want gourmet grilled cheese, bacon-wrapped brownies and pancakes and bacon flavored cupcakes year-round! Day or night. On a Tuesday,” reads the petition.

San Bernardino County supervisors last summer voted to overhaul their food truck regulations. The trucks can operate in certain locations for extended periods after getting a permit.

Riverside County’s food truck rules are among California’s strictest. Right now, they’re allowed only if they sell pre-packaged foods or are like the hot dog carts outside the County Administrative Center and courthouses in downtown Riverside.

Vehicles in which raw food is cooked and sold can operate in the county only during special events where the trucks can be inspected.

In recent years, food truck festivals have taken place in Riverside, Ontario and at Pechanga Resort & Casino near Temecula. More than 1,500 events involving food trucks took place in 2012, according to Supervisor John Benoit.

The county has connections to the mobile food industry. Mangler’s Meltdown based in Pedley roams throughout California and visits music festivals selling grilled cheese and other hot sandwiches for under $10. California Cart Builder of Lake Elsinore builds food trucks and concession trailers.

Brightly colored food trucks are popular in Los Angeles and other cities. They sell everything from Korean barbecue tacos to sushi and use Twitter to broadcast their locations to followers daily.

Lynne Wilder, program chief for the Riverside County Department of Environmental Health, said her department would be willing to revisit the food truck rules, provided health and safety issues are addressed.

County officials have said food truck restrictions stem from the 1980s when there were incidents of food poisoning, injuries while trying to cook on moving trucks and truck operators dumping wastewater into storm drains.

Angela Janus, executive director of ShareKitchen, a Cathedral City nonprofit organization that provides startup space for aspiring restaurateurs, said she got involved in the effort to ease food truck restrictions after hearing from clients who wanted to start their businesses by running food trucks.

“For us, it’s a great steppingstone for entrepreneurs to step into a truck and eventually a restaurant,” she said.

Chad Gardner of Dash and a Handful Catering in Cathedral City said a food truck would help his business. A truck, he said, would make it easier to cater events, or he could park it somewhere and sell his food.

“I think that the county’s missing the boat on real business opportunities,” he said.

In the past, owners of traditional restaurants have complained about food trucks being unfair competition since they don’t have the overhead that comes with a building, said Angelica Pappas, spokeswoman for the California Restaurant Association.

Now, many restaurant owners also have food trucks, she said. “They see a huge marketing opportunity,” Pappas said.

“We don’t see food trucks parking in front of restaurants because it’s just bad business,” said Matt Geller, CEO of the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association. “They’re going to want to go to a place where (people are) underserved.”

Los Angeles County subjects food trucks to unannounced health inspections and restricts where they can go. The trucks also must be inspected annually at commissary kitchens where they are parked overnight.

Angelo Bellomo, environmental health director for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, said food trucks have the same safety and sanitation requirements as conventional restaurants. But enforcing those rules on food trucks is a little more complex, he said.

Even though food trucks must provide information on their routes, it can be hard to track them down for a random inspection, Bellomo said. Food trucks can lack redundant systems, such as a backup refrigerator if the main one breaks down, or restroom facilities for workers, he said.

Geller, of the Mobile Food Vendors Association, said the trucks are safe.

The California Retail Food Code provides a strong regulatory framework for food trucks and today’s trucks must meet high standards, said Geller. “It’s never the gourmet food trucks that (inspectors) have a hard time finding,” he said. “Gourmet food trucks want to be found.”

Food truck advocates have been in touch with Benoit’s office. “Frankly, my original reaction was not to restrict (food trucks) any more than necessary,” he said.

“After looking at it and hearing from our health experts, we need to have some control and to be able to tell our citizens (food trucks are) safe,” he said.

Public health officials, food truck industry representatives and others are looking at reasonable regulations, Greene said. He said there’s no timetable for when food truck rule changes might go to the Board of Supervisors.

Janus, of ShareKitchen, is hopeful that food trucks will get greater leeway to operate in the county.

“Small business really drives our country,” she said. “This is just another opportunity to support small business.”