Take a food truck to Chicago and you may be required to attach a GPS tracking device to it. Maneuver a food truck through New York and be prepared to possibly limit drink sizes to 16 ounces.
Park a food truck in Indianapolis and enjoy doing business in an environment with few regulations. Labor laws and health codes that govern restaurants apply to food trucks, but owners do not have to worry about extra requirements like tracking systems or operating only in specific zones.
Indeed, the lack of regulations is credited with helping foster growth of the industry in Indiana’s capital city from essentially one truck in 2010 to 47 trucks and counting today. To sustain the comparatively carte blanche atmosphere, a loose coalition of food truck and some brick-and-mortar restaurant owners is trying to work together to avoid the kinds of disputes that could inspire city hall to cook up a new ordinance.
“Restaurateurs are not by nature people who ask for more regulation,” said John Livengood, president of the Indiana Restaurant Association.
Crystal Williams, a Barnes & Thornburg LLP associate attorney, has become familiar with the differing regulations as part of her work assisting national restaurant chains expand into the food truck sector. The established eateries cannot arrive in a city, flip open their truck, and start serving food, Williams emphasized. Rather, they have to comply with the unique codes of each community.
For example, Chicago does not allow food trucks to cook on board or park within 200 feet of a restaurant. However, Indianapolis permits food trucks to station themselves in any valid parking space and cook on board, but prohibits selling food on public property between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.
The patchwork of requirements can be confusing and frustrating, but Williams does not expect a call for national food truck regulations. Each city, she said, knows what it needs and fashions its ordinances accordingly.
When he sketched out his business plan for his food truck, Matt Kornmeyer, owner of the Scratchtruck, admitted he planned for failure. He didn’t think he would get the minimum 40 customers he estimated he’d need at lunch each day to survive, but he now averages between 70 and 100 and is three years ahead of his revenue targets.
“I still don’t get it,” Kornmeyer said of the popularity of food trucks. “I’m right in the middle of it, and sometimes I sit and shake my head and say, ‘Look at all the people.’”
That kind of success is spurring growth of food trucks across the United States and luring chain restaurants like Chick-fil-A, Subway and Taco Bell to put trucks on the street.
“I think it’s becoming a new way we are consuming food,” Williams said. “I think it is becoming a middle ground between a large, fancy restaurant and fast food.”
However, Williams cautioned against the assumption that success in the food truck industry comes easy. Owners have to be aware of not only the regulations specific to mobile vendors but also of the laws and requirements, like local employment laws and intellectual property safeguards that apply to any business operation.
“It’s still a business,” she said. “You still have employees, and employees have rights you have to abide by.”
Williams emphasized that individuals entering the food truck business must also be knowledgeable about local sanitation regulations. They must be sure the kitchens used to prepare the food and the kitchen spaces on the vehicles meet code.
Matt Frey, who opened Bub’s Burgers & Ice Cream with his wife in 2003, is a brick-and-mortar restaurateur branching into food trucks.
Frey echoed Williams by pointing out that health codes for food trucks are similar to those for a restaurant. As in his establishment, his truck has to have things like a water heater, wastewater tank and hand washing sink, and he has to adhere to the same food safety requirements.
The truck has made catering easier since all the equipment to properly store and prepare the menu is on board, he said. Cooking in the vehicle is a more sanitary and safer way to cater, plus he is able to prepare a burger that customers tell him tastes exactly like those he serves in his restaurant.
“I think it’s a real clever idea,” Frey said of food trucks.
Mayor Greg Ballard’s administration has taken a hands-off approach to regulating mobile food vendors. The administration favors educating food truck operators, code enforcement officials and others about rules on the books rather than implementing special regulations, said spokesman Marc Lotter.
Food trucks are doing a good job of communicating with one another and working off best practices, Lotter said.•
This story originally appeared in the Indiana Lawyer.