Gone are the lunch hours filled with packed downtown restaurants and the sole option of grabbing a quick bite from the dodgy hot dog stand outside work. Instead, businessmen and downtown dwellers stand happily in line along sidewalks for grass-fed beef hamburgers with arugula, bacon jam and cambozola on a soft roll, Kimchi Quesadillas with cilantro and kalua pork, or Fresh Mint Stracciatella ice cream.
From New York to Seattle, food trucks are pulling up to businesses, parks, construction zones and street fairs offering a quick serving of unique, gourmet and oftentimes local food options to hungry passerby’s.
The new breed of lunch truck is aggressively gourmet, tech-savvy and politically correct, according to The Wall Street Journal, and now more than ever they provide safe, healthy food.
“Historically, food inspections were only required on hot dogs carts and espresso stands,” said Chris Skilton, a Seattle-King County Health and Environmental investigator. “Unrestricted mobiles could pretty much do whatever they wanted.”
As the food truck culture develops in cities, health departments are changing the permitting and are tightening things up, he said.
Food truck culture and laws in its most popular cities:
Austin: Home to a long tradition of taco carts and roadside food trailers, Austin’s mobile food industry is in the works of modernization. The Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department is considering tougher regulations to clearly define the two kind of food vendors—those that operate out of a trailer at a fixed location and those that are fully mobile—and consider different rules for each.
Chicago: Chicago has strict regulations on food trucks, requiring all food be prepackaged in a licensed kitchen before hitting the streets. Without any cooking, cutting or food preparation on board, Chicagoan restaurateurs and locals say it’s holding their city back on joining the culture emerging across the nation. The Chicago Food Truck revolution is imminent, however, with groups like the Chicago Food Trucks lobbying for change.
Los Angeles: A new breed of Los Angeles food vendors have transformed otherwise empty spaces into lively, popular and profitable hubs, but not without backlash. Restaurateurs groan about the mobile food vendors taking away business, and increasingly, permits are being revoked and parking citations have followed, according to MSN. The Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association works together to open designated areas of operation and establish a more consistent market.
New York: New York’s vibrant food truck and cart culture, with 4,000 licensed mobile food vendors, is filled with its famous bagels, New York-style pizza, hot dogs and pretzels, along with many immigrant-owned Middle Eastern foods such as falafels and kebabs. The booming culture isn’t without conflict, however. A controversial law forbids vendors to ever leave their carts, in order to ensure food does not become contaminated; even for a bathroom break. And new proposed regulations could give the health department authority to suspend any vending permit issued to a truck with two parking tickets in a year, and revoke the permit of a truck; a move opponents say could put many truck owners literally on the streets.
Seattle: In 2009, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels ended a seven-year ban on downtown food vendors in efforts to increase the city’s street life. Current county regulations require food trucks to have refrigerators, propane heaters and three sinks, among other equipment; or limit their food options to precooked food like hot dogs or popcorn. The Seattle and King County Health Department of Epidemiology, Planning and Evaluation unit is currently working on new regulations, including putting healthier foods on carts and trucks, according to Skilton.
While regulations and openness to the fairly-new, and still somewhat weary, means of buying a quick bite to eat on food trucks vary by city, one thing is for certain: health departments are going to have to address it sooner, rather than later.
“People are catching on saying they don’t have a truck but want to be part of the culture,” said Michi Suzuki, owner of Owner of Suzuki Chou Media and CoFounder of Mobile Chowdown, a popular food truck event in Seattle. She said she has seen established restaurateurs enter the food truck business as a side project and new business owners join the movement as a way to enter the food world.
“I think cities are seeing the success and benefits of having a mobile food culture and once they begin to soften the rules and make dedicated regulations, it seems like a lot more business is going to start coming out,” she said.
How does a cramped, sometimes refurbished trailer home-looking food truck really provide safe food?
It’s all about the way the food is prepared, held and served, said Skilton.
In Seattle, food trucks are required to have a commissary kitchen within King County. Most of the food to be served on the trucks must be prepared at the brick and mortar kitchen, including chopping vegetables, creating sauces and slicing raw meat.
“The more we can limit what food trucks are making on the fly, the less risk there is to the consumer,” Skilton said.
The most common cause of foodborne illness at both mobile food trucks and restaurants is bare hand contact with food, according to Skilton.
An estimated 76 million cases of foodborne disease occur each year in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Inadequate hand washing by individuals who prepare, process and handle food, fecal-oral transfer of foodborne illnesses means bacteria continues to be a problem.
Other common violations on food trucks include refrigeration failures, food not being kept hot enough and inadequate hand washing facilities.
Cities often require high-end food trucks to tell the department its route ahead of time, to ensure they are able to be inspected throughout the day. The trucks must also move often and return to their brick and mortar location to refill food items, and always be parked in a location within 200 feet of a bathroom.
While food trucks upgrade their beef tacos to pasilla braised pork tacos with chunky guacamole, diced onion and spicy tomato hot sauce the menu becomes more complex, and uniformly so do the food safety risks.
One thing food truck groupies can look out for is the license and permit held by the food cart, which should be on display. Also be aware of any hand-to-food contact, which is the most common way germs are spread. Gloves should be worn by food handlers at all times and changed when an employee handles money or touches anything outside of the food that could be contaminated.
And just because a pulled pork sandwich sold out of a car trunk sounds good at 3 a.m. on a stumbling walk home from the bars, it’s not a good idea.
“We’ve run into people selling food out the trunk, which is completely unpermitted,” Skillton said. “The first time I see them I’ll chase them off, but if I see them the second time I’ll try to get them arrested.”
Consumers can report violations to their local health department, but usually, the gourmet trucks don’t seem to have a problem. They know the ropes, Skillton said.
“The rules are all science driven and risk driven,” he said. “Most of the Seattle locals are figuring it out.”