Supervisors lift most restrictions for food trucks

County lifts food truck restrictions

RIVERSIDE, Calif. - Riverside County supervisors have signed off on a proposal to lift most restrictions that prevent food truck operators in the county from selling foods that are fried, barbecued, broiled and grilled, though operators will be prohibited from parking in some locations.

Supervisor Kevin Jeffries in June proposed eliminating provisions in Ordinance No. 580, which limits food trucks to selling only packaged foods, ice cream, roasted nuts and steam-cooked hot dogs. Jeffries called the restrictions anti-business and anti-competitive, noting that in neighboring Los Angeles and Orange counties, no such prohibitions exist.

The county Department of Environmental Health and county lawyers drew up amendments to the ordinance that would free mobile food operators to dramatically expand their menus, offering chicken, burgers, steaks and other meaty foods.

An introduction to the revised ordinance states that operators would be permitted to engage in "full service food preparation and sales on a daily basis.''

"The proposed changes will provide expanded business opportunities for mobile food operations within the county,'' documents said.

Under the amended ordinance, mobile food vendors would be classified according to what they sell. The key change in the law would be the addition of a designation for "mobile food preparation unit,'' or food truck.

The full-service trucks would be required to undergo inspections by county health officials and obtain annual permits. Operators would have to ensure staff have food handler certification specified under the California Health & Safety Code. All trucks would have to be supplied by a central "commissary,'' where supplies and products are stored. Commissaries would have to meet sanitation standards defined by the state and obtain annual permits, according to documents.

Trucks would be letter-graded, same as brick-and-mortar restaurants. Any facility that fails to achieve an "A'' -- 90 percent or better -- during a routine inspection would be given five business days to correct deficiencies.

According to the ordinance, if issues aren't resolved by the time of the second inspection, an operator would be subject to penalties ranging from $50 to $1,000, depending on the number of offenses.

Operator permits could also be revoked. Any non-permitted food truck operator caught doing business in the county could face misdemeanor charges.

When the board first discussed making changes to Ordinance 580, Supervisors Jeff Stone and John Benoit both expressed concerns about food trucks stripping business way from brick-and-mortar establishments. Stone was especially worried about mobile vendors setting up near wineries, potentially marring the image of what the supervisor calls the "jewel'' of Riverside County -- the Temecula Valley Wine Country.

Under the revised ordinance, food trucks would be allowed to operate in any unincorporated community and within the county's 28 cities. However, cities would retain discretion over "time, place, manner'' and zoning restrictions that block mobile vendors from selling in certain locations.

The change comes as welcome news to some vendors in the Coachella Valley.  "Think of the vibrancy that it brings to that whole area that wouldn't exist otherwise, and that's what a well-run food truck will do," said Haddon Libby.  

Libby helps run Sharekitchen, a place where food entrepreneurs come to start cooking and start businesses.  The new ordinance would help Sharekitchen expand to a food truck commissary and in turn get more chefs moving.  "It allows people a less costly legal alternative to begin a food business," said Libby.  

But, some fear the business could hurt eateries that don't sit on wheels.  "It's competition, it's a restaurant and even though it's mobile, it's a restaurant," said Chris Powell, who works at Bill's Pizza.  "So, it'll be a little bit of competition."

Powell isn't worried about Bill's, but says smaller places could suffer.  A few, who didn't want to be included in our report, told us they worry about losing customers to food trucks that don't deal with the expenses a restaurant does.  Customers whom backers of the ordinance say don't want the same thing.  "We've gone through a a number of studies that 52% of the people that go to food trucks would not go to a brick-and-mortar restaurant," said LIbby.

To avoid any issues, the county gave individual cities the power to further regulate the trucks.  Something Palm Springs plans to watch closely.  "It hasn't been a problem, I think it's sort of a wait-and-see mode," said city manager David Ready.  "We'll see if it turns into a problem and we'll work with it."

Problems or not, Powell says food trucks mean more opportunities which is welcome news for the economy.  "There's enough pieces of the pie out there and everyone's trying to make a living.  I think it's a good thing."  

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