How to Run a Food Truck 16: Prepare for Health Inspections

Do you remember when you first started trying to learn how to start a food truck? You had to research your city’s local laws, look into commissaries, and investigate your local health codes. There was a lot of legalese and red tape to wade through, but you managed to navigate the complexities and figured out how to get your food truck up and running out on the streets.

Now you’ve already got a good handle on the specific procedures and health code protocols your truck should be following, so it’s time to make sure you’re up-to-date and ready for the real test: a visit from the health inspector.

Let’s be honest: The mere mention of the words “health inspection” is enough to make even the most experienced FoodTruckr feel a bit of added pressure and anxiety. Health inspectors pay attention to the smallest details and most specific rules about what should be happening on your truck, and they also wield the power to shut your truck down. That’s why it’s so important to make sure you’re prepared for inspections in advance.

Though we can’t promise that you won’t still feel a little anxious at the thought of an inspector showing up (after all, that’s a perfectly natural response!), we can help you feel and be more prepared for their visits with the activity we’re going to tackle in today’s new lesson—performing a self-inspection.

Perform a Self-Inspection

Health inspections work differently all across the country, so it’s important to know what the laws in your area are like before you open for business. Some cities will let you know when you’re due for an inspection, while other areas simply send inspectors out to food service establishment randomly. Most cities inspect local establishments (including both your truck and your commissary) 1-2 times per year on average.

Whether you know when the inspector’s coming or you’re waiting for a surprise visit, the best way to make sure you, your employees, and your truck are up to the test is to perform your own inspections on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. Read on to learn our top tips for keeping your truck inspection-ready at all times.

What to Focus On

We’ll explain how to run a self-inspection in just a bit, but first, we want to point out some of the key things you need to check regularly on your truck. The following list will give you insight into some of the most common things inspectors will be looking at when they visit your truck.

Food (Ingredients, Preparation, and Storage)

  • All food on the truck is safe for consumption.
  • Raw meat is not touching already cooked food or items that will not be cooked before serving.
  • Food storage containers are labeled appropriately and products are dated for the correct amount of time.
  • Foods that are left out in a prep area are not kept exposed for unsafe amounts of time.
  • All food is stored at safe temperatures, particularly meat and dairy products.
  • Cooked foods are served or refrigerated quickly.
  • Paper products and other service items for customers are stored in a clean place until they are used.

Employee Behaviors

  • All employees practice proper handwashing techniques.
  • Cooks use meat thermometers to make sure meat is cooked correctly.
  • Employees are up-to-date on food safety practices and can answer questions about proper handling and cooking procedures.
  • Employees are healthy, well-groomed, and wear appropriate garments or protective wear.
  • Employees’ personal items are kept away from food preparation areas.
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Equipment

  • Refrigerators and freezers have thermometers inside to monitor temperatures.
  • Cleaning products or products with toxic chemicals are kept in a safe, designated area.
  • The truck has a separate sink designated exclusively for hand-washing.
  • The truck has adequate ventilation and is properly equipped with all required systems.
  • Your team uses a commissary as necessary for tasks that are not allowed to be performed on the truck.

Cleaning and Sanitary Conditions

  • All food preparation services are clean and sanitized.
  • Floors, sinks, and countertops are all clean and in good condition.
  • Garbage and food waste are disposed of properly.
  • The outside of the truck is clean and in good condition.
  • Dirty dishes are stored and washed according to the proper procedures.
  • There are no signs of pests.

Paperwork

  • All licenses and permits are in order.
  • The truck has proper records for everything (including hand-washing, ingredients, cleaning schedules, etc.).
  • All records are maintained daily.

How to Run the Inspection

As you can see from the above list, you can’t get your truck inspection-ready in the type of 15-minute mad dash you perform when a friend is unexpectedly on the way to your house. Preparing for a visit from the health inspector takes a lot more time—and a whole lot of consistent action. To make sure that you, your truck, and your employees are properly prepared for any drop-in visits you may receive, it’s essential to practice with regular self-inspections.

Use this simple five-step guide to self-inspections to make sure you’re ready to pass with flying colors every time!

1. Schedule It Randomly

Consistent self-inspections are the key to making sure you’re really ready for the real deal, but to truly emulate the experience, it’s best to schedule your inspections randomly. Even if you perform inspections every week, you can still catch your team off-guard by announcing inspections right before it’s time for them to take place instead of saying on Monday, “We’re having an inspection this Thursday.” Giving your team short notice will prevent them from doing all the work at the last minute, and will instead encourage them to make sure they’re ready for the real thing at all times.

Worried that your truck won’t be up to the proper standards if your team didn’t get an advance warning to prepare? Well, keep in mind that it’s much better to find this out and correct the problem on your own than to find out when the health inspector is involved. Furthermore, by keeping things in excellent, inspection-ready condition at all times, your truck—and the food you’re serving—will be cleaner and healthier for your customers.

2. Be Official

Of course, if you’re going to take the time to perform self-inspections regularly, you should make sure you’re doing them the right way. Visit your local health department or contact someone in the inspection office to see if you can learn more about the specific items the inspector will be looking for. Health departments typically have a form inspection sheet that they use to evaluate local food service establishments, and many of them will be happy to give you a copy so that you know exactly what you’re being graded on. The inspection sheet might even include notes on how important particular qualities are and what types of consequences you can expect for various violations.

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When you perform the self-inspection, be sure to use the form and check off every item on the list. Then, go ahead and actually give yourself a score—it’s important for you and your employees to know how you’re doing and what types of things still need to be improved. If anything on your truck would have counted as a violation of your local health code laws, be sure to inform your team. Don’t shy away from explaining the consequences of the violation to them, as everyone who’s working on your truck should have a clear understanding of how important these codes really are.

3. Examine Everything

During your trial inspections, you should be paying close attention to everything on your truck—no matter how recently you cleaned it or when your last inspection was. Use the list above or the information you received from your local health department to determine what you should be examining. Be sure not to forget things like small crevices between appliances and walls, the condition of your paperwork, and how the outside of your truck looks. Keep in mind—though something like peeling paint on the outside of your truck won’t necessarily factor into your actual health inspection rating, it can influence the inspector (and even more importantly, your customers!) to think that you might not be taking good care of your truck.

Inspect your truck thoroughly by really getting into the role of the inspector. Use a flashlight to examine everything on your truck. Wear white gloves to check for dust and grime on surfaces that may otherwise appear clean. Buy chemical test strips to test things like the concentration of your cleaning solutions. These simple tools will allow you to better examine your truck and to get a much more realistic view of what the inspector will encounter during his or her visit. They will also help your employees see that you’re really serious about making sure your health inspections go as well as possible.

4. Talk with Your Team

In addition to taking a close look at everything on your truck to make sure your equipment and ingredients are all up-to-code, you also need to pay attention to your employees. Review your employees’ attire and behavior to make sure they’re following all of your city’s local laws—and don’t be afraid to go over the guidelines with your team members again if any of them seem to be having trouble meeting the requirements.

Once you’ve observed your employees, you also need to get them involved in the inspection by quizzing them on health code laws. Health inspectors will frequently ask employees a few questions during their visits to get a sense of how informed the people working on your truck really are. Dedicate a portion of the self-inspection to simply talking to your team and asking them about what they’re doing and how they would handle particular scenarios. It’s important to make sure they know the correct rules for things like food storage, hand-washing, and cleaning and sterilization—and it’s also essential for them to be prepared with the right answers if a health inspector puts them on the spot.

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5. Review Your Results

As you run the inspection, you should also be talking to your employees about which things your truck is doing right and where your team still has some room for improvement. When you observe someone doing something the right way, praise him or her and point out to your other employees what the successful team member is doing right. This positive reinforcement will help your team remember how things should be done and will encourage them to keep up the good work. Similarly, if someone isn’t performing a task in exactly the right way, spend a few minutes explaining what needs to be corrected to your team. Stay positive and focus your message on what can be improved in order to keep morale up—and try to find something else that the team member is doing well to compliment him or her on.

When the inspection is over, you should share the score you’ve given the truck with your team so that you can go over what’s working and what needs to be fixed once again. As we mentioned before, it’s a good idea to make sure your employees understand what the consequences of health code violations are. They might not think that a few small missteps are really that big of a deal, but when those tiny mistakes can add up to your truck being taken off the street and losing valuable selling days, they quickly become a whole lot more important. Positive results will help to encourage your team in the areas where they’re succeeding, and less-than-perfect outcomes will give you a common goal to focus on as a team. You can even turn a goal to improve a particular area of your truck into a friendly competition—consider bringing in pizza if they can correct the violation within a couple days or taking everyone out to the movies if your truck can get a month’s worth of great self-inspection scores!

Preparation Helps You Become a Better Business Owner

Though running a self-inspection every week or two can seem time-consuming and perhaps a little tedious, it’s one of the best things you can do to legitimize your business and to make sure you, your truck, and your employees are all ready for the day when a real health inspector comes calling. Putting in the effort consistently along the way will help to ensure that you don’t ever suffer the consequences of any serious violations—and it will also allow you to deliver a healthier and cleaner experience to all of your food truck’s customers. It’s a winning situation for everyone who’s involved!

Have you ever run a self-inspection on your truck? Learned any special tips to prepare for an inspection from your city’s local health inspector? Share them with other food truck owners in the comments below or on our Facebook page—we’d love to hear what strategies you’re using to make sure you pass those tests!

Up Next: We continue onward in our quest to help you become a better business owner with a special lesson focusing on one of the most important components of your food truck business—you! In Lesson 17, we’ll explore some ways you can improve your work/life balance so that you can bring your all to work every day without running yourself into the ground.

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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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