How to Start a Food Truck 05: Look into Local Laws

Before we get started on today’s lesson, let’s take a minute to look back at everything you’ve accomplished so far—as well as look forward at all the crazy awesome content we have coming up for you in the next couple months.

We’re four weeks into the “How to Start a Food Truck” series, and so far, we’ve logged a lot of miles. Over the past month, we’ve helped you: (1) decide whether to start a food truck or a brick and mortar restaurant, (2) come up with a unique selling proposition for your truck, (3) learn about ingredient sourcing and the value of high-quality goods, and (4) begin testing your recipes and getting feedback from friends and family.

Phew…you’ve already done so much—way to go! Now, if you’ve made it this far in the series, we know you’re serious about learning how to start a food truck. So starting today, we’re moving on to a new unit of your food truck journey that’s crammed full of serious information, know-how, and advice to start your business off on the right, uh, wheel.

The next two months are all about research and planning. During February, we’ll cover the four key factors you need to learn about to truly determine the viability of your food truck dream: (1) local laws and licensing requirements, (2) health code standards, (3) commissaries, and (4) parking restrictions. Then, in March, we’re going to get down to business with the business planning side of things. We’ll talk about profit margins, goal-setting, business plans, and emergency funds. By the time April rolls around, you’ll be all set to start taking action on everything from the process of procuring licenses to buying a used food truck. And most importantly, you’ll be ready to take action from a knowledgeable, informed, and prepared perspective.

So without further ado, let’s start preparing for action by getting into our first topic of the research unit: looking into local laws and licensing requirements in your city!

Preparing for Battle

If you’ve been thinking about getting into this business for a while, you probably already know that many cities have notoriously strict restrictions and laws regarding food trucks. We won’t lie to you: Finding the information you need to know is likely going to be time-intensive. Compiling this information in a single, easy-to-browse place is one of our long-term goals here at FoodTruckr—but until we’re able to put this massive resource together, we’re going to share some tips and strategies you’ll need to find the information for your city.

As you begin researching the food truck requirements in your area, there are a few key challenges you need to be ready to face:

1. Some cities don’t have food truck laws on the books.

The food truck industry is still pretty new. Though people have been selling food on the streets for decades, the concept of a food truck in its modern iteration really took off when Kogi BBQ got started in 2008. Especially if food trucks aren’t already popular in your area, you’re going to have to do some legwork to connect with the right government offices and figure out whether or not what you want to do is legal. Be prepared to explain the concept of a food truck over and over again, and understand that you’ll likely be met with some resistance or general apathy from government workers who don’t know or don’t care about what you’re trying to achieve.

Note: If your city doesn’t have laws about food trucks, you might assume that you can go ahead and operate your truck as you please (so long as you aren’t breaking any other laws). In some cities, that’s true to an extent—but keep in mind that just because your city doesn’t have laws in place now, that doesn’t mean they won’t in a few years. Be cautious before investing your time and money into a truck and business model that could be ruled illegal once the local government gets around to regulating the industry.

2. Some cities have incredibly restrictive laws about food trucks.

The beauty of a food truck is its mobility. You can take it anywhere, park anywhere, and serve all kinds of customers—right? Well, not exactly. Many cities restrict food truck owners from parking too close to brick and mortar restaurants, from parking anywhere other than private properties or food truck lots, and even have time limitations on how long a truck can park in areas that are open to food trucks.

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In addition to parking laws, you’re also going to encounter very specific requirements about the size of your truck, what types of permits you need, how close you must park to a bathroom, and where you can store food. There’s no way to sugarcoat this—you’re entering a complex business in a very new industry that can be either under or over regulated, depending on your area. It’s a lot more complicated than slapping a fancy graphic on a used truck and whipping up tasty meals for scores of adoring fans all day. As Sameer from Rickshaw Stop told us in our article “50 Food Truck Owners Speak Out: ‘What I Wish I’d Known Before Starting My Food Truck,’” “Do your homework about your market…it’s a business, not a cooking hobby.”

3. Every city has different laws.

If you live in a major metropolitan area or a city where you’d like to sell in the surrounding cities and suburbs, you’ll need to repeat this process for each individual town or city. Every city has different laws—so while you may be allowed to have up to an 8×22 truck in one city, the next town over might limit you to an 8×6 concession trailer. Similarly, one city might require you to park at least 500 feet from any established brick and mortar restaurant, while a neighboring city will only allow you to park on private property. You’ll need to be aware of the laws to follow and licenses you need in each city that you’re planning to spend time in—or you’ll need to come up with a plan to only park in and attend events in one area.

What Do You Need to Know about Food Truck Laws?

Alright—now that you’ve got an idea of some of the challenges you may encounter as you start looking into the local laws and licensing requirements in your city, it’s time to figure out what kind of information you should be seeking out. We’ve put together a list of questions you need to find the answers to. Now, we can’t guarantee that this is an exhaustive list by any means, but we can promise that it’s a great start that should be applicable to aspiring entrepreneurs like you in any area.

Here’s what you need to learn about any city you’d like to sell in:

  • What licenses do you need to operate a food truck? This will likely include at least a license for the truck itself, a business license, and a special driver’s license that allows you to actually drive your truck from location to location.
  • Where can you park? Again, parking restrictions vary widely in each city. Find out whether you can park in any open spot, only on private property, only at a particular distance away from brick and mortar restaurants, or in areas where other food trucks have congregated. Can you park at metered spots? How long can you park in each type of location?
  • What kind of truck do you need? How big can your truck be? What kind of equipment does it need to have on it? Are there any restrictions as to how you can power it or what kind of fuel you can use?
  • What kind of health code and safety procedures do you need to follow? This is a huge topic, so we’re going to cover it in a separate post in the next couple weeks. For now, keep these basic questions in mind: Where can you prepare food? Where can you store food? What kind of water access do you need? How will you dispose of waste? Does your truck need to be parked in close proximity to a bathroom at all times? What type of fire extinguisher or sprinkler system does your truck need to have?
  • How do you get permits in your city? Some cities will require you to fill out a simple application, while others might have a lengthier process before you can get a permit. Find out how much permits and licenses cost and whether or not there is a waiting list in your city. In some areas, local governments only give out a set number of food truck permits each year—and in these cases, there are usually a lot more people who want them than people who will ultimately get them.
  • What kind of insurance do you need? Your food truck will need at least a couple different types of insurance. You’ll need insurance for the truck itself and for anyone driving the vehicle in case you get into an accident or in case the truck is damaged. You’ll also need insurance for your business (another topic that we’ll cover more in-depth later) so that you won’t be held personally liable for any lawsuits or actions taken against your truck.
  • You need different licenses and permits for each city you want to operate in—but will you also need some from the county or state? Even if you get fully certified for each city you want to take your truck to (or even if you choose to only operate in one city), you may also need state and county licenses and permits. Find out what kinds of documentation you need to sell food or operate a business in your state and in multiple counties.
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Where Can You Find the Information?

Still with us? This is a lot of information to take in—but food truck owners who are truly passionate about their businesses will find that all of the research and time spent learning about the industry is worth it in the end!

Finding the information you need is most likely going to take some time. To help you get started, we’ve put together a list of the best places to turn to find the answers to these questions.

1. Local Government Offices

Your local government is the first place to turn to find the answers you need. Check out your city’s local Chamber of Commerce, Health Department, and chapter of the Small Business Administration. Many of these offices have answers to the questions you’ll need online, particularly if food trucks are already popular in your city. If there aren’t many laws in place in your area or if you can’t find the answers online, start making phone calls. In some cases, it might be helpful to visit the offices in person, but you’ll usually have better luck calling and emailing to get the answers you need.

2. Food Truck Associations

The food truck industry is still new—which means that some areas don’t have laws in place, some areas have unfavorable laws in place, and some cities have laws and regulations that are changing rapidly. Fortunately, that’s where food truck associations come in. Food truck owners in many cities have formed organizations to help one another and other aspiring food truck owners learn about local laws and fight for better policies for the industry as a whole.

If you’re lucky enough to have a food truck organization in your city, get in touch with them to see if they can point you in the right direction for the information you need. The group might also have some of the answers to common questions already compiled—and they may be able to help you stay up-to-date with the latest changes to local ordinances. And if you have an interest in improving the laws in your area, it’s important to have a group of like-minded food truck owners and entrepreneurs who share your interests on your side.

Bonus Tip: A food truck organization is also a great place to connect with people who are already living the dream and may be able to provide you with some guidance or mentorship. Keep in mind that food truck owners lead extremely busy lives. Between managing and running their trucks each day, participating in the food truck association, and hopefully having some semblance of personal lives, the people you’ll meet don’t have a lot of free time. However, many of them will be more than willing to give you honest opinions and advice if you ask nicely, aren’t demanding or pushy, and are respectful of their time.

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3. Google News

As we noted above, laws about food trucks change frequently—and in many areas, they are hot topics of debate. Use Google News (either by searching regularly or by setting up a news alert) to look for articles on food trucks and laws being passed in your city and surrounding areas. This is a great way to get the latest information on what laws have been passed (sometimes before the local government has had a chance to update their website) or to get the scoop on what types of changes have been proposed and what laws they’re currently voting on. You may even find out about some local forums and town hall meetings happening where you’ll have the chance to voice your opinion on how great food trucks are and how laws should be improved to make it easier for them to sell tasty food to the masses.

4. FoodTruckr

FoodTruckr is the #1 online desti—hey, wait! That’s us! You know who we are and how much we love helping aspiring food truck owners, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that you can always turn to FoodTruckr when you have questions about getting your truck started or about the laws and requirements in your city. Though we don’t have a list of all the different rules and regulations compiled yet, we are happy to help you figure out where you can find the answers for your city, county, or state in the meantime. There are plenty of ways to get ahold of us. Send us a message on Facebook, connect with us on Twitter, or email us through our contact form and let us know what city you’re in and what question you’re having trouble finding the answer to. We’re always happy to do anything we can to support your food truck dream!

Taking the First Steps

We know that decoding the laws and requirements in your area is one of the toughest parts of learning how to start a food truck. If you don’t have a solid plan in place, the prospect of doing that type of research can be a little daunting—so we recommend figuring out a schedule that works for you and sticking to it.

For some people, that means doing a little bit each day. Set aside 20-30 minutes every morning or night to get online and look up the laws about food trucks in your area. In just a couple weeks, you’ll have put in hours of research that you otherwise might have continued to put off until that elusive day when you had “more time.” If digging in to research headfirst is more your style, set aside a full day or two to get started on your quest for information. The weekend is a great time to browse online, but you may need to plan some time during business hours to call local government offices. We know that many of you are working full-time office jobs or corporate gigs and taking that kind of time off can be tough—but spending a sick day on a task that puts you that much closer to your food truck dream may well be worth it.

Have more questions on what you need to know before starting a food truck—or need help finding the answers for your city’s laws? Let us know in the comments below or contact us by email, on Facebook, or on Twitter and tell us how we can help. And most importantly, stay tuned for the next chapter of “How to Start a Food Truck“—there’s lots more information on the way!

image by mer chau

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FoodTruckr

FoodTruckr is the #1 online destination for current and aspiring food truck owners looking to succeed in the mobile food industry. Self described “food truck devotees,” the FoodTruckr team enjoys reading about successful entrepreneurs, salivating over photos of burritos on Twitter, and long walks through food truck parks. Chat with FoodTruckr on Facebook or check out the FoodTruckr School podcast for more awesome tips to level up your business.

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