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The Legal Side of Owning a Food Truck

This excerpt is part of's Second-Quarter Startup Kit which explores the fundamentals of starting up in a wide range of industries.

In Start Your Own Food Truck Business, the staff of Entrepreneur Media Inc. and writer explain how you can get started in the mobile food industry, whether you want to own a food truck, cart, trailer, kiosk or other on-the-go . In this edited excerpt, the authors describe some of the licenses, permits, registrations and laws you'll need to be concerned about as a mobile food business owner.

Before you launch your mobile food business, you need to get your licensing in order. But while it would be impossible to list and explain all the numerous permits and licensing requirements because each state, county and city has their own, there are many universal concerns that need to be addressed. Typically, your local department of health will have the information you need, so you can get started by calling to inquire about the necessary requirements.

Your state or city will have specific requirements that must be met depending on your mode of operation. For instance, if you're selling prepackaged foods, you're not considered a food handler and may have less stringent requirements than if you're actually preparing foods or even scooping ice cream.

While your designer won't know the nuances of each city's requirements, they can usually help you meet health standards. Before you can hit the road, health inspectors will inspect your vehicle. In , DC, for example, an inspection is conducted to verify the following:

  • Proof of ownership, proper identification and vehicle license
  • Proof of district-issued food manager identification card
  • Food purchase record storage and record keeping
  • Depot, commissary or service support facility meets vending unit operation needs
  • Copy of license for the service support facility and/or a recent inspection report

Food vehicles are typically inspected at least once a year by a health department inspector, sometimes randomly. The inspector checks to see how food is stored so that it doesn't spoil and is kept at the proper temperature. All food equipment as well as sinks and water supplies are checked. Commercial kitchens and garages in which food vehicles are kept are also inspected frequently and can be fined if they don't meet health and fire codes.

Keep in mind that permits need to be renewed. Renewal applications are mailed to the last known address of the permit holder as the permit nears expiration, so remember to update your address should you move.

To be on the safe side, check with the proper regulating agencies in your area regarding specific requirements for your vehicle. For example, food preparers today are required to wear disposable food preparation gloves, and all foods that require refrigeration must be stored at proper temperatures.

As for retrofitting your vehicle, you'll want to start with the must-haves to meet inspection requirements in your municipality. You'll want to make sure everything retrofitted into your vehicle is easily washable, from the floors to the walls to the preparation and serving areas. From major food preparation equipment down to proper dispensers for napkins, stirrers and plastic utensils, you need to address everything in the vehicle or kiosk from the safest, most sanitary perspective possible. The department of health in your area will spell all this out in detail.

Business Permits

In addition to the food service permits and health requirements, you may also need to get business licenses in your city or county. City hall or the county clerk's office can usually point you in the right direction. Fees for business licenses are generally under $100. If you are doing business under the name of the truck or company, you'll need a DBA (Doing Business As) certificate, which indicates that you're legally doing business under a fictitious name.

In addition, in most states, business owners are required to register their business with a state tax agency and apply for certain tax permits as a seller. You may need to apply for a state sales tax permit. Consult your local tax office or check the IRS website. And if you're hiring employees, make sure to get an Employer Identification Number (EIN), aka a federal tax ID. The EIN is important because it allows you to identify your business on forms and official documents. Your federal tax ID is used when you file tax returns and also in place of your personal Social Security number (SSN) when you need to show business identification, thus keeping your SS number off a lot of forms. Even if you're not hiring employees, you'll need an EIN if you have incorporated. The IRS makes it very easy to apply for EINs and explains what you need to do on its website.

Don't forget that vehicle permits and inspections are also required. If you're driving a vehicle, you'll need to have proper vehicle registration. Carts and trailers may also need to be registered. Make sure you check with the motor vehicle department to find out what you need in your area.

While you need to have commercial plates on your vehicle, in most cities and states, you only need a commercial driver's license if you're operating a vehicle over 26,000 pounds. Check the vehicle weight requirements in your state. Visit the Federal Motor Carrier Safety License Administration for more information.

Zoning, Parking and Other Considerations

Towns, cities and counties also have zoning restrictions, designating commercial and noncommercial zones. While you may be mobile, you can't park just anywhere. Most areas limit food trucks, trailers, buses and carts to specific locations. A list of where you can and can't park should be available from the county clerk. You may also have to adhere to two-hour parking restrictions and pay for parking meters—yes, even carts.

Also be careful to park as close to the curb as possible—and never double-park. You should also find out about other, lesser-known parking restrictions. Contact your local motor vehicle department or look for a local website online with city or town ordinances. For example, some municipalities have laws stating that a food truck or cart cannot park within a school zone or within X blocks of a school during school hours.

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