Before Firing Up the Grill, Approval Needed

By Heather Murtagh | SMDailyJournal.com

Operating a food truck isn’t as simple as buying the vehicle and food then parking.

Like any restaurant, the mobile food vendors need to be inspected. The vehicle itself needs to get approval from the state before getting the OK from county health services. It’s the latter that grants a registration sticker saying the food truck is approved to prepare and serve food. Often placed in the rear top corner on the left side of the vehicle, securing the round sticker can be held up by the smallest of detail.

“It’s all about the small details,” said Environmental Health Specialist AJ Sekhon.

Once a week, on Wednesdays, food trucks are able to drop in to get inspections by the San Mateo County Environmental Health Department. Requirements are different for trucks in which food is prepared — like a taco truck — compared to one from which food is simply served, like an ice cream truck. Those that are prepped to prepare and serve food must meet multiple requirements similar to a restaurant.

For example, there needs to be hot water at a certain temperature, a commercial refrigerator with a fan is required and fire sprinklers must be installed.

The process can be time consuming.

Redwood City resident Paulette Elliott, one of the owners of Ciao Bella, knows all about the long process. On Wednesday, her restaurant, which is inside a trailer, was getting the final approval. Starting the business has taken about a year.

First there was finding a concept, then a truck (or in this case a trailer) — a distinctive difference that Elliott liked. She settled on a 20-foot trailer which was ordered from Arkansas and outfitted to look like a cable car. With about a 4-foot deck at the end, the trailer restaurant also has lots of windows.

“I like going to restaurants where you can see the food being prepared,” said Elliott, who brought that same feel to her business which will feature Italian and British food.

It’s been a learning process for Elliott. Building a mobile business required different types of insurance. Since the trailer needs to be attached to a vehicle, the vehicle also needs insurance. The type of refrigerator Elliott originally had needed to be replaced to include a fan.

After getting approved, Elliott still had lots to do. She needs to chat with each city in which she’d like to work and learn the rules. Cities have different regulations about food trucks parking and for how long they can remain in one location. Despite the work, she’s excited to get started and hopes to be a regular on the local scene soon.

For the Environmental Health Department, the demand for checking mobile vehicles has risen 10 percent in the last year, said Director of Environmental Health Dean Peterson. Registrations are updated annually in February. Those who get a permit mid-year are given a prorated cost. Physical inspections occur at least once a year. Random checks, which the department often does in restaurants, are the big challenge.

Mobile trucks aren’t exactly in one place at any given time making seeing the truck in action tricky. Planned events with a number of food trucks often offers an opportunity to get a first look and watch employees in action, said Peterson.

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