San Antonio, TX: Keeping up with the Lunch Truck “Invasion”

Mobile kitchens parked at Travis Park downtown

By Jaie Avila | WOAI.com

Mobile kitchens parked at Travis Park downtown

SAN ANTONIO – It’s a trend that is changing the way we eat in San Antonio.  There’s been an explosion of “mobile dining” places around town.  In the past year the city has granted 779 mobile food permits: everything from push carts and taco trucks, to gourmet mobile kitchens.

Are they being held to the same standard as restaurants when it comes to cleanliness, and paying taxes?  News 4 WOAI Trouble Shooter Jaie Avila has the Inside Story on the lunch truck invasion.

Mobile kitchens have to undergo the same strict, health inspections that regular brick-and-mortar restaurants do.  The problem is, obviously, they move around and sometimes inspectors have a hard time finding them to inspect them regularly.

So once a year, all food trucks must be driven to a city inspection station before they can receive a food permit.

It’s not easy to pass either, just ask Julie Mercado.  Her barbeque and taco truck just failed for the third time, because she was missing a window screen and some documentation.

“It’s irritating.  It’s frustrating, but I know they have to do their job, and I know eventually we’ll get it to pass”, says Mercado.

Once they get a permit though, Metro Health says trucks are less likely to receive random inspections during the year.

The agency’s Sanitation Services Manager, Steve Barscewski tells us, “They can be hard to find, so they tend to not get inspected as often as a fixed establishment.”

Truck operators disagree, arguing that they receive more inspections.  They say it’s mandatory for them to be inspected whenever they work a carnival or special event.

There’s one requirement trucks must meet that regular restaurants don’t have to: all employees must undergo a criminal background check.

The fee they pay the city for a food permit is actually higher than one for a small restaurant, and while they don’t use a building, mobile kitchens are required to pay property tax on furnishings, fixtures and equipment.

Lately, people working and visiting the downtown area are jumping on the lunch truck bandwagon.  It used to be the mobile kitchens weren’t allowed downtown, but now a few of them can do business as part of a six-month pilot program.

“The food is incredible.  Actually, we just decided that dinner is going to be much smaller because we enjoyed our lunch so much”, says Kim Ziel, a visitor from Michigan, in town for a conference.  Ziel and several co-workers enjoyed food from a mobile kitchen parked at Travis Park.

The city is also trying to crack down on bandit trucks that operate without permits or inspections.

If you are tempted to eat at a lunch truck or other mobile vendor, and you want to make sure that it’s been inspected, look for a valid permit sticker near the service window, or maybe on the front windshield.

Metro Health has just 33 inspectors to check all the restaurants and mobile vendors in Bexar County. They do investigate complaints.  The following is a link to the complaint page… sanantonio.gov/health

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