There's no doubt that starting a food truck is exciting but before you can open there are various licenses and permits you need to get. That's much less fun but something you can't avoid.
There are a lot of different rules and regulations you need to know about before you can run your food truck, and these cover food truck locations, the ingredients you use, any employees you hire, and more.
Required Licenses and Permits
The first thing you need to do is determine which licenses and permits you need. Check the Small Business Administration website to figure out what licenses and permits you must have in the area where your food truck will operate. Let's take a look at some of the paperwork you'll need to have.
You're probably going to need an Employer ID number (EIN) so the IRS can collect taxes from you and anyone else you employ. Details to provide include your business name, county and state where you operate, and taxpayer ID number.
Although the IRS will give you an EIN for free, bear in mind it can take about a month to come through, so give yourself enough time to get it before planning your food truck opening day.
Your business license means the government in your state will recognize your business as being legitimate and they will begin to track your operation to determine tax payments. The price of this license varies depending where you are located, for example costing $65 in Boston compared to $150 in New Orleans.
Food Handler's Permit
You will be able to get one of these permits by completing a food handler training and food safety course. It's a good idea to take this course prior to inspection, although that isn't mandated. Most states only require the shift manager to have this permit but it's a good idea to make sure at least one worker per shift has one.
The health department will issue a food truck health certificate after inspecting such things as whether the food comes from an approved source, whether there are sufficient handwashing facilities, that food is labeled and stored safely, that your meat thermometers are correctly calibrated, that the walls, floors and surfaces are cleaned properly, and more.
It also gives customers peace of mind when they see this permit and health grade displayed in your food truck, since it tells them the food is being prepared safely. These permits usually need to be renewed every five years.
Examples of local permits, which vary from state to state, include a business license and tax permit, zoning permit, alarm permit, health permit, and signage permit.
Although you won't need a building permit since you're operating a food truck rather than a bricks and mortar restaurant, keep it in mind you will need it if you ever do decide to open a fixed location.
You will need to register your food truck formally as a legal entity, unless you are planning to operate a sole proprietorship, which isn't a good idea since if you get sued your house and personal assets would be at risk.
Doing Business As (DBA)
A 'doing business as', or DBA, legally identifies the name of your food truck. This can be a business name, trade name or it can be an LLC company name.
If you are going to hire staff for your food truck, you will find there are several requirements to meet, including the following:
New employees must be legally allowed to work in the United States and will need a W-4 to determine their income tax payments and an I-9 to prove they can work legally. The IRS will have the newest versions of these forms. Once you've hired someone, you need to report them to the directory of your state within 20 days.
You will need workers' compensation insurance and also unemployment insurance, so your employees are covered. Workers' compensation insurance covers employees if they are injured while working, and unemployment insurance covers them if you lay them off or fire them.
Legally you must display various posters where they're visible to your employees. These posters offer information about minimum wage as well as workers' compensation.
Food Truck Laws and Where to Find Them
As well as general permits and licenses, every city, county and state has their own requirements, and if you're going to operate in more than one county or city, you'll need to determine the laws for each. You might find you need separate permits and licenses for each.
Check your local requirements for things such as parking laws and permits, food handling, bathroom locations, zoning, food safety inspections, truck inspections, and commissaries.
You can check your local laws at the Department of Health, which is sometimes called the Department of Environmental Health or Department of Public Health. Also check whether your city has a food truck association, since this is a group that works to improve food truck laws and they will be knowledgeable about local requirements and restrictions.
If you aren't able to find food truck laws and information at the Department of Health, check for laws about opening a restaurant, since many of the same will apply. Even if the website for your area does describe the necessary regulations, don't assume all of them are covered. It makes sense to call the licensing officials directly and ask questions.
Although it can seem like you have to jump through all kinds of hoops before you even get your food truck business up and running, cities are happy for new businesses to open.
If you find yourself overwhelmed or confused, you can always see whether your city has a small business assistance program or Department of Economic Development. Additional information can be found on the Small Business Administration website.
How to Stay Organized
Although there is a wealth of paperwork and information you're going to work on, you shouldn't find it too challenging as long as you're organized. Here are some ways to keep on top of everything:
Create a Checklist:
First of all, you will need to work on a checklist of things you need to investigate. Bear in mind you will be able to get answers to several questions at once from contacts like your local health department. Also, keep in mind you are going to find more things for your list as you're working through it.
Schedule Time to Research:
Different people have their own preferred way of scheduling in time. Perhaps you'd prefer to spend an hour each evening doing research or maybe you want to schedule a whole weekend and complete it then.
There is no right or wrong way - it just depends which you prefer. Try to keep your scheduled time free from distractions, since it's crucial to get the research done and all the relevant paperwork completed before opening your food truck.
Phone Calls, Emails and Meetings Records:
It's a good idea to keep records of everything. This will help you make sure you have all the right information, as well as ensuring you know what else you need and how to go about getting it.
Another advantage of keeping records is in case you have a problem down the line. For example, if you filed an application late or wrong, you can quickly refer to your records to see who you spoke to and when that was.
Keep Everything to Hand:
It might sound obvious but not everyone keeps their documentation in one place. However, if you can store everything together, including applications, approved licenses, contact records, and so on, you will find it much simpler to keep up. Consider scanning any papers or printing them off so you can have everything in one folder.
Use the Same Information for Everything:
Make sure you use the same information for every document and application so there won't be any confusion. This applies to things like street address abbreviations and separate business name DBAs.
Some licenses and permits are a one-time process while others will expire and need to be renewed. You can learn more about licenses and regulations at the Small Business Administration website.
It is estimated that it costs about $28,000 to operate, open and maintain a food truck, and there are more than 40 different government-mandated procedures you need to know about and follow.
It can seem daunting to tackle a whole list of licenses, legal compliances and permits, but if you can stay organized you will be able to get through it and then all that's left to do is open your food truck for business and start making a profit!