Food-truck operators may soon be freer to serve Riverside County residents, some of whom have looked with envy upon neighboring counties with far looser rules.
County Supervisor Kevin Jeffries, who was elected last year after pledging to “free the food trucks,” is consulting key players about the possibility of overhauling the county’s restrictions on mobile kitchens, according to his chief of staff, Jeff Greene.
Greene is now telling aficionados of food-truck fare—and those seeing potential dollar signs in an untapped market—that they’ll have to wait until the summer, at the earliest.
“We want to take time to do this right,” he said, while adding that proper regulation didn’t entail “inventing the wheel.”
The current rules were set in the 1980s as a reaction to incidents of food poisoning and injuries, and are among the most stringent in the state. As it stands now, vendors are restricted to selling pre-packaged foods or simple items typically associated with hot-dog carts, such as popcorn, snow cones, coffee drinks, churros and roasted nuts.
Food trucks, as they’re known and loved in other counties, across the country and on the Food Network—offering items cooked from raw ingredients—are only permitted at special events at which they can be inspected.
This has created the “disappointing” scenario in which food trucks only from outside of the county service these events, according to Angela Janus, executive director of Cathedral City’s ShareKitchen, a nonprofit organization that acts as a business incubator for restaurateurs.
“We spend our money on food trucks that then take the money back where they came,” she said. “The county is really missing out.”
Janus added that many entrepreneurs have come to her organization seeking advice on opening food trucks in Riverside County, viewing them as a gateway into the restaurant business. They’re ultimately frustrated by the restrictive environment, she said.
In terms of what a new environment might look like, Greene criticized one idea that has been circulated among county officials: that food trucks be installed with GPS devices, broadcasting their location to regulators.
“We want them to be inspected, but requiring 24/7 GPS monitoring seems over the top,” he said.
Government, GPS devices and food trucks have tangled before: A 2012 Chicago ordinance, which mandated the devices to enforce parking restrictions, was met with stiff resistance from food-truck supporters; a lawsuit against the rules is pending. A similar requirement in El Paso, Texas, was repealed when boosters sued.
Other jurisdictions require the devices so health inspectors can find the trucks.
Lynne Wilder, program chief for the Riverside County Department of Environmental Health, wrote in an email that there were “no major developments to report” about the potential overhaul, but then indulged the Independent with a little hypothesizing about what change might look like on their end.
“We would need to institute a new program as we do not currently have staff for the additional workload that would be generated,” she wrote. “We would want to address issues to ensure proper trash disposal, proper wastewater disposal should the holding tanks fill up during the work day, adequate commissaries located reasonable distances from areas of operation and possibly GPS for locating the vehicles.”
Public-health regulators in Los Angeles County and Arizona’s Pima County have noted the relative difficulty they have in finding food trucks to conduct inspections, when compared to restaurants that don’t move.
Given that, we asked Greene if GPS devices perhaps made sense.
“The reality is that most of these trucks want people to know where they are,” he said. Operators post their whereabouts, at least when they’re looking for customers, to Facebook and Twitter.
Greene threw out possible alternatives, including citations if operators aren’t where they’ve claimed they’ll be, or creating a website with truck locations that would serve both “a regulatory and marketing purpose.”
Regulatory details aside, some county officials seem committed to the idea that greater access to kimchi quesadillas and the like is more a question of when than if. And that has proponents like Janus and Greene sounding a hopeful note.
“If Orange County and Los Angeles and San Diego can have these gourmet food trucks,” Greene said, “then Riverside (County) should, too.”