For many entrepreneurs, starting a food truck business seems like a great way to break into the restaurant industry. The cost to start a food truck is usually far less than the start-up costs for a restaurant. A food truck also allows you to move your business from place to place to take advantage of special events and other opportunities, such as a lunch rush in a busy downtown area.
But opening up your own food truck business can have its own challenges – such as getting the right licenses and permits. The requirements for food truck permits can vary significantly between states and even between local communities. Getting the right permits – such as a business license and a food service license – is critical to avoid legal issues, steep fines, and even getting shut down by the city or state.
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Why Are Food Truck Owners Required to Have Licenses and Permits?
As the name implies, food trucks generally prepare and sell food. It is for this reason that food trucks are typically required to have various licenses and permits.
Food trucks typically engage in a variety of activities that would require a permit or license if conducted in a traditional brick-and-mortar restaurant. This may include preparing and selling food, selling time/temperature controlled for safety (TCS) foods (such as meat, dairy, and cooked foods), selling pre-prepared or packaged food, and doing certain types of complex food preparation. These activities would typically require one or more employees to have a food handlers’ permit if they took place in a restaurant. It isn’t surprising, then, that states similarly require food trucks to obtain similar permits and licenses.
Similarly, food trucks will be usually required to obtain the other licenses and permits that restaurants and other businesses are required by their state or local government to have. This may include everything from a business license to an employer identification number (EIN) to a liquor license to a sign permit. These permits and licenses are often required for any business operating within a particular jurisdiction.
There are also licenses and permits that may be specific to food trucks. For example, one or more people will need a driver’s license to drive the truck. You may also need special permits to sell food from a truck or to sell food or beverages at a special event. These permits and licenses are a way for government agencies to ensure that food trucks comply with the law and various food safety regulations.
Food truck regulations can seem overwhelming, particularly because food trucks may be required to comply with different laws each time they move to a new city or town (which is fairly common for food trucks!). In many places, the law has not caught up with the reality of food trucks, so government agencies are applying the same laws to food trucks as they would to restaurants.
This can be frustrating, but it is important to figure out what licenses and permits you need before you open up for business. Operating without the proper licenses and permits can result in hefty fines and fees – and may even result in your business being shut down entirely.
Licenses and Permits Typically Required to Run a Food Truck
Before we dive into the specific permits and licenses that you may need to operate a food truck, it’s important to understand that these requirements are very location-specific. While some cities and states may require things like a special event permit, others will have no such mandate. If you are operating in multiple places – such as going from town to town for special events – you may even need separate permits and licenses for each jurisdiction. When starting a food truck business, it is a good idea to consult with a lawyer to figure out exactly what licenses and permits you will need to operate in your community.
Most states and/or cities require businesses to have a license before they can operate. These licenses are usually issued by the city or state where you are located. The cost can vary considerably, depending on your community, business type, and expected profits. A license may cost anywhere from $25 to $500, and will generally have to be renewed periodically.
To figure out what you need to do to get a business license in your jurisdiction, you can consult with your lawyer or google your city and/or state plus “business license.” You may be able to apply online, which makes the process far easier for most entrepreneurs.
Employer Identification Number (EIN)
An EIN isn’t technically a license or a permit, but it is necessary if you plan to hire employees. It functions as a tax identification number for employers. You can get one free of charge through the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) website.
Many states also require businesses to obtain a state EIN or tax identification number. They may also require a separate number for sales tax purposes. If you have questions about what tax identification numbers you need, reach out to your attorney.
Food Service License
When a food business opens, the government wants to make sure that the product that it is selling to the public is safe. For this reason, restaurants and related businesses are usually required to obtain a food service license. This demonstrates that your food truck has met all food preparation, safety, and storage regulations. Depending on your jurisdiction, you may have to take courses, fill out paperwork, and schedule an inspection of your truck before you will receive a food service license.
Food Handler’s Permit
In addition to a food service license, you may need to obtain a food handler’s permit for at least one employee who handles food. These permits are issued after the person has completed a food safety source (typically through ServSafe) and passed an exam on safe food handling.
In some states, every person who prepares or handles food must have a food handler’s permit. You may also have to show proof of one or more food handler’s permits in order to get a food service license.
Food Truck Permit
Many cities and states require food trucks to obtain a special permit to operate. This can be confusing, as the requirements for food truck permits may vary considerably by jurisdiction.
To obtain a food truck permit, you will usually need to demonstrate that you have all of the necessary permits and licenses and that you have obtained liability insurance. The cost can vary considerably based on location, even within a city. For example, a city may charge a relatively low fee to operate in an office park but a much higher fee for a food truck permit for busy downtown areas.
Some cities and states require businesses that sell goods – including food – to have a seller’s permit. These permits may also be referred to as a hawker’s or peddler’s license. The cost is usually minimal, but it is important to have these permits in place to avoid legal issues.
This may seem obvious, but if you are going to be driving your food truck from place to place, you will need a driver’s license. Depending on the size of your truck, you may even need a commercial driver’s license (CDL), which requires taking a special course and passing a separate exam. You will also need an auto insurance policy on your truck to cover you in the event of an accident.
While it may be possible to just pull up somewhere and start selling food out of your truck, many communities require food trucks to have parking permits. If you don’t have the proper permit, you could be ticketed, fined, or even banned from operating in a certain area. Check with your municipality to see if you need a parking permit, and if so, how much it will cost.
Special Event Permit
While this is highly dependent on jurisdiction, food trucks may need a special event permit to sell food at a particular venue, such as a public park during a festival. You may also need a special permit to do things like cater a wedding or sell food at a sporting event. The coordinator for the event should be able to inform you about any licenses and permits that you will need.
In some places, you will need a fire certificate in addition to a food service license. Generally, this is mandated if you have cooking equipment and a source of power and/or heat on your truck (such as gas lines). If you have an ice cream truck, a fire certificate may not be required. The local fire department will check your truck to make sure that the cooking equipment and electrical wiring was properly installed and that you have an adequate fire suppression system in your vehicle.
If you plan to sell beer, wine, or alcohol out of your food truck, you will need a liquor license or a special beer and wine license. Selling alcohol from a truck isn’t permitted in all states, so the need for this type of license will vary considerably. Some jurisdictions offer both temporary licenses (such as for a special event) as well as annual licenses that can be renewed.
Make Your Food Truck a Success with Budget Branders
Getting the right permits and licenses for a food truck can be a daunting task. Getting these legal approvals is necessary, however, if you want to do business in a given city or state. Once you have your permits in place, you can expand your marketing efforts for pennies on the dollar with custom-printed disposables.
Budget Branders works with small to medium-sized businesses in the food and beverage industry. We offer custom cups, coffee sleeves, bowls, bags, and more in quantities and prices that make sense for smaller businesses like food trucks. To learn more or request a free quote, email us, or press the live chat button at any time to discuss your specific needs.
The information disclosed above does not constitute legal or financial advice. Use this information at your own discretion and consult a legal or financial professional for further guidance.