By Tim Fleischer
For years, there was only Sylvia’s, set up daily in front of Salado Wine Seller to sell breakfast and lunch tacos, gone before 5 p.m.
But now, not a week passes that food trucks can’t be spotted in various locations throughout town. For the past two years, Barrow Brewing Co. has been a focal point for food trucks to set up on the property on Royal Street to offer a variety of options from Mexican fusion to soul food to Korean to German to stuffed baked potatoes.
Food trucks have become quite a trend and local municipalities, including the Village of Salado, are struggling to wrap their heads (and regs) around them.
“They’re restaurants on wheels,” village administrator Don Ferguson said during a workshop session on a possible food truck ordinance.
The possible ordinance, which may be discussed again in draft form in April, pulls mobile food vendors out of the itinerant vendor ordinance first adopted in 2011 and sets specific regulations for the trendy trucks.
The ordinance could regulate operating locations, health and safety, sales tax reporting, parking requirements, restrooms, permits and fees and special events.
Ferguson said that food trucks should meet the same health department requirements of a restaurant in terms of permitting and employees having food handling certificates.
“Mobile food operations generally are inspected one to two times per year depending on the nature of the operation,” according to George A. Highsmith, supervisor in the Food Protection Division of the Bell County Health District. “Some operate seasonally so they would get usually only one as the rotation for two would fall in a time period when they are not operating.”
Highsmith told Salado Village Voice that there are 181 mobile food operations with county-issued permits for operation. Bell County currently has four staff members that conduct food sanitation inspections on a consistent basis, according to Highsmith.
Village administrator Don Ferguson told Salado Village Voice that it is “Difficult to say” how many food trucks are registered with the Village under the itinerant vendor ordinance. “Most register just for a few days of operation,” he added, “though we do have a handle to maintain an annual permit.”
The possible ordinance would do away with short-term permits and have a single annual permit for mobile food vendors for $100 per year.
Currently, the annual permit for a mobile food unit/vendor is $250 per year. The itinerant vendor permit requirement does not apply to the following: persons who make such sales sporadically for the purposes of raising funds for an incorporated charitable, fraternal, educational or religious institutions; street musicians who play free of charge but accept donations; garage sales; produce stands where vendors sell fruits and/or vegetables grown in Bell County, according to the current ordinance.
Ferguson told Salado Village Voice that the Village has received “very few complaints” about food trucks. “If we get a complaint,” he added, “it typically relates to the location of the food vendor or the lack of a permit.”
“We welcome mobile food vendors in Salado,” Ferguson said. “It is important, though, that we make sure such facilities are safe and clean, and that proper food preparation and service practices are being followed to avoid health issues for customers.”
“Mobile food vendors are restaurants on wheels and we try to address their operations much the same way we address the kitchen in a restaurant,” Ferguson said.
Brick and mortar restaurants are inspected by Bell County Health department inspectors three to four times a year.
“The difference in the numbers has to do with the inherent risk associated with the type of operation,” he explained. “The higher the risk, the more inspections necessary during a given year.”
Highsmith explained that the standards vary from unit to unit, “based on the type of operation and the minimal needs for food safety processes.
“The more risky, involved the process, the more things (operational provisions) they would have to observe or have,” he stated.
Supporting Ferguson’s assertion that food trucks are restaurants on wheels, Highsmith referred to the Texas Food Establishment Rules: “The basic premise (and this is paraphrasing TFER) is that the mobile food unit must adhere to all standards a restaurant does with the exceptions of permissible waivers or things not applicable to the type of operation.”
The Bell County Public Health District, through inspection processes, enforces the requirements established in the TFER.
In addition to food safety, the Village may want to be able to track the local sales of food trucks to be sure that it is being paid the tax dollars it is owed. One requirement for permitting may require vendors to send their periodic sales tax reports to the Village at the time that it sends those reports to the Comptroller.
Ferguson told Salado Village Voice that the Village has not tracked the sales taxes due the city from mobile food vendors.
Tracking sales tax from itinerant vendors may be an effort not worth the cost. However, requiring vendors to self-report to the Village at the time they report to the State may make it easier to track the source of potential income.
While it is difficult to determine the direct financial impact on the Salado economy of food trucks, they certainly have the effect of generating a buzz of activity in the areas in which they locate, particularly when their food complements the sale of alcohol at places such as Barrow Brewing Co., which hosts food trucks every weekend at its Royal St. location. Other retail businesses have taken notice and have invited food trucks to set up outside their locations.
The possible ordinance may address parking issues affected by the placement of food trucks. In the discussion on March 15, Ferguson said that the Village has a parking ordinance that regulates the number of spaces required by business type. If a food truck takes up parking spaces, it could impact whether a business is in compliance with those parking requirements.
The possible ordinance may require a site plan that shows adequate parking, nearby restrooms, signage and placement of the truck.
Parking requirements could include codifying that food trucks cannot be set up in public rights-of-way, setting aside parking for food truck employees and not blocking the vision triangles at intersections.
The possible ordinance could include the requirement that food trucks provide access to restrooms within a certain distance during operational hours.
Salado is not alone in its efforts to regulate food trucks. Municipalities throughout the state are dealing with the regulation of food trucks as the food phenomenom has exploded since 2008. Some have kept regulations to a minimum and others have put in costs and regulations that have sent a clear message to food trucks: don’t stop here.
Temple has a low permit fee of $35 plus $5 per vehicle, but requires food trucks to pay the county permit fee of $125 as well. Temple requires a site plan, a Bell County food permit, property owner permission and a signage plan.
Belton requires, according to the permit online, a photo of the truck, a site plan to include parking (except in the commercial district where there is public parking, sales tax certificate, inspection, permission from the property owner, photo ID of owner and food handlers certification for workers. The permit is $100 annually.
Jarrell’s permit is $250 and follows the requirements laid out by the Williamson County Health Department.
Georgetown’s permit is $150 and follows the requirements of the WCHD. It also requires proof of proper handling of wastewater and fresh water and inspections by the county.