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Gourmet Food Trucks Fight Inspectors’ Perceptions

By Stephanie Armour
May 09, 2012 1:05 PM EDT 1 Comments

Porc Mobile was born when Josh Saltzman pooled money to buy a white mail truck and convert it into a roving kitchen, dishing out barbecue and baguettes topped with goat cheese on Washington’s city streets.

While customers flock, so has the health department: six times since beginning operations last year, Saltzman said. Inspectors often arrive unannounced during the lunch rush, targeting food trucks because they’re so visible, he said.

“It’s crazy,” said Saltzman, 25, whose truck has three sinks, a hand-washing station and hot water. “There’s a misperception about these old model of roach coaches.”

The new model being set by Porc Mobile in Washington and Rickshaw Dumpling Bar in New York has moved beyond hot dogs and ice cream to miso soup, lobster rolls and crepes. Mobile food- preparation businesses increased 15 percent over five years to make up 37 percent of the $1.4 billion of U.S. street vending revenue in 2011, according to researcher IBISWorld Inc.

“They’ve grown aggressively,” said Nima Samadi, a senior analyst at Santa Monica, California-based IBISWorld. “It’s at a heightened pitch at this point.”

With that increase has come more concern about safe food handling by regulators and complaints by restaurants without wheels.

Varied Responses

New York is weighing letter grades that reflect inspection histories, and Boston now requires healthier menu items to be sold. A proposal in Washington to mandate shorter operating hours than restaurants at night has sparked a petition drive in protest, and California lawmakers faced a backlash in March over a pitch to ban roving eateries near schools in an effort to prevent children from buying less nutritious food.

“The food truck craze hit with some serious power, and cities are scrambling to respond,” Saltzman said.

Food trucks are multiplying as a sluggish economy has diners looking for deals and social media lets consumers track the eateries’ locations online, according to an August 2011 report by IBISWorld. The trucks can cost $40,000 or more and may feature tools found in traditional restaurants, such as certified kitchen equipment. They may have hot water heaters, employees trained in safe food handling, and menu preparation at off-site commissaries to reduce the risk of contamination.

‘Big Illegal Problem’

“We need more consistency across state jurisdictions,” Susan Vaughn Grooters, director of research and education at Chicago-based STOP Foodborne Illness, an advocacy group, said in an interview. “You have to worry about cross contamination. Restaurants have access to working bathrooms and food preparation. On a food truck, it’s limited.”

In Los Angeles County, sickness linked to food trucks and hot carts has risen to 33 illnesses in 2011 from 21 in 2009, according to the Public Health Department. Those numbers likely are underreported, Terrance Powell, director of the bureau, said in an interview.

The county has 13 inspectors to oversee mobile food facilities, of which 2,428 are trucks offering prepared or gourmet food, and those are just the trucks the county knows.

“We see a definite trend that’s concerning,” Powell said. “Candidly, we have a pretty big illegal problem here.”

About 13 percent of the problems found in Los Angeles County on food trucks and carts that served hot food in 2011 were critical violations most closely associated with foodborne illness, according to county’s health department data. High-risk violations include inadequate temperatures for holding hot food items, vermin and cross contamination.

Food Safety

About 40 percent of the 3,218 high-risk food trucks and carts -- which are those that handle potentially hazardous fare and display letter grades -- were inspected in 2011. The most- cited violations include unapproved food equipment, improper food storage and vermin.

New York City has about 120 to 140 inspectors for almost 20,000 licensed mobile food vendors, which includes food trucks. In 2011, 7,247 violations were issued. The most frequent citations related to food safety included not holding cold items at proper temperatures and inadequate hand washing facilities, Chanel Caraway, a spokeswoman for the city’s health department, said in an e-mail. New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.

“The health department inspects mobile food carts and trucks to promote compliance with food safety regulations,” Caraway said. “These inspections check for virtually the same food safety requirements as those required of restaurants and carts and trucks are issued violations for not meeting regulations.”

Letter Grades

Owners of the mobile eateries say the public is unaware how sophisticated and safe the operations have become, and some welcome letter grading as a way to reassure wary consumers.

“We’re extremely concerned about food safety,” David Weber, co-founder of Rickshaw Dumpling Bar and president of the New York City Food Truck Association, which represents 40 vendors, said in an interview.

Lawmakers say they are too. San Diego County officials in February backed a plan that may lead to letter grades on food trucks. The requirement is needed even though critics argued such a scoring system will amount to an unnecessary regulation, Ron Roberts, a county supervisor, said in an interview.

“I was concerned someone would get really sick and it would hurt the whole industry,” said Roberts, who championed the grades. “We want to protect the public.”

Famous All Over

In Washington, D.C., city officials are reviewing public comments on a proposal to set restrictions on trucks.

“The District’s primary goal in this area is to protect the health and safety of consumers who patronize food establishments, while providing reasonable rules to enable business owners/operators to understand their rights and responsibilities,” Doxie McCoy, a spokeswoman for Mayor Vincent Gray, said in an e-mail.

New York is also weighing letter grades for trucks, which already are mandated on restaurants in the city. A proposal was introduced in 2011 and is likely to be considered this year, Jose Peralta, a New York state senator seeking the truck grades, said in an interview.

“The New York City vendor is famous all over the world,” Peralta said. “Now it will be famous for its safety and cleanliness.”

In California, state assembly member William Monning, a Democrat, introduced a bill this year to keep food trucks away from schools to ensure the operations don’t interfere with healthier school lunches mandated by U.S. law. The proposal was dropped in March after opposition from the industry.

‘It’s Overkill’

Food trucks are being singled out because restaurants see them as competition, Baylen Linnekin, executive director of Keep Food Legal, a grassroots non-profit fighting against local and federal restrictions on food, said in an interview.

“The restaurant associations are powerful,” he said. “Cities tend to discriminate against trucks because they’re less powerful.”

Street vending revenue -- partly because of gourmet food trucks -- jumped an estimated 9.8 percent last year, following a 13 percent increase in 2010, according to IBISWorld data.

Daniel Conway, a spokesman for the California Restaurant Association, said members are not trying to hamper the success of food trucks. Regulation is needed to ensure there’s a level playing field, he said.

Saltzman, who helped start Porc Mobile, which stands for Purveyors of Rolling Cuisine, said there’s room for all. The success of his mobile venture has led him and co-owners to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant, Kangaroo Boxing Club, later this year in Washington.

He said he’s hoping it will be less stressful.

“I’ve been in the restaurant industry almost all my life, and I’ve never, ever had to go through the type of inspections I have had to with my food truck,” he said. “It’s overkill.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephanie Armour in Washington at sarmour@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reg Gale at rgale5@bloomberg.net

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