Randy Smith, operator of Pinky D’s Poutine Factory food truck, describes the administrative side of running a food truck as “relentless” and “never ending.”
He’s not exaggerating. There are many demands on anyone out to go mobile with their restaurant plans, and some of those demands come from city code enforcers and fire inspectors.
To get to the bottom of why food trucks have to follow such rigid guidelines, we turned to Louis Lachance, a Lewiston public health inspector and code enforcement officer who offered his unique view of the system that’s in place locally to oversee the trucks. Here’s what he had to say.
Why is it important to license food trucks? It’s important to license mobile units for all things safety. Inspectors verify foods are being stored, prepared and served in a sanitary environment with food safety and life safety as the priority. Here in Lewiston, we go one step further requiring approval from our fire prevention team.
How is a food truck license different than a restaurant? The license is different only because the food truck is a restaurant on wheels and can operate almost anywhere throughout the state. Most of the requirements are similar, but a mobile unit is intended to be a self-contained operation. This means that the menu and foods served need to be stored and prepared fully from this vehicle. If more storage, preparation area or cold holding is needed, the mobile (unit) may be required to have additional licensing in the form of a commissary kitchen. More often than not, this is becoming a common scenario because a mobile unit cannot use a home-based location for any food storage or preparation. This additional licensing is encouraged by health inspectors. This gives us more assurance that foods are safe.
When did you start to notice more people wanting to get a food truck license? Food truck business endeavors, in this area, have significantly increased in the past three years. The pandemic forced foodies and chefs to think outside the box and offer other means besides the traditional sit-down restaurant. For the most part, food trucks have a fraction of the staff as a traditional restaurant.
What are the common misconceptions people have when getting a food truck license? The most common misconception I see is that many (owners of) food trucks may not realize the need for local licensing, and that the state license gives them permission to operate in any or all municipalities. A good rule of thumb: Check with each town or city you plan on visiting. Each town may have an ordinance requiring the local license and inspection.
Name three great tips to get a license. 1: Call the State Health Inspection Program to inquire about the cost and timeline for licensing. 2: Reach out to your local communities or towns where you plan on selling foods to inquire about additional licensing. 3: Acquire your certified food protection manager (ServSafe) certificate in advance of applying for licensing.
What kind of food truck is definitely a no-no? Like, can I do a food truck on a bicycle cart? As long as your mobile (unit) can safely store, prepare and serve foods, and the basic requirements are met, the ideas are endless. Nowadays, it is not uncommon to find licensed mobile raw bars or even mobile alcoholic bars (must be a state licensed qualified caterer) in operation. I suppose a bicycle, equipped with cold holding, could sell prepackaged ice creams or other novelties as long as they meet state rules and regulations as well as local ordinances.
Do I need a state AND city license? You absolutely need a license from the state. There are two different agencies that may require the need for licensing. The Health Inspection Program (HIP), a division of DHHS (Department of Health and Human Services), or the Department of Agriculture, Food and Conservation are the two state agencies. The HIP licenses mobile units preparing foods on a mobile (unit). DACF will license mobiles selling prepackaged foods like ice cream, bottles of maple syrup, or raw produce.
What is the fine if I don’t have a license? The state of Maine speaks to all things requiring food licensing in 10-144, Code of Maine Rules, Chapter 201. The state could assess fees from $200 per day to $1,000 per day depending on the amount of days in operation. I have only seen this assessed once, during the pandemic.
Any last parting words? From a health inspector perspective, I encourage all persons intending on opening a food truck to have a conversation with their designated health inspector. We can provide you with information that may save you time and money. We are not business consultants, but we will provide the licensee with the minimum requirements. This may be a factor in the mobile’s business plan in regards to startup cost.