It’s not just your dad’s taco truck anymore.
These days, rolling food vehicles are just as likely to be upscale, say Korean barbecue or gourmet cupcakes as they are to be the “roach coaches” of years ago.
Finding them has changed, too. Some companies have gone high-tech and Tweet what office park or corner the truck will pull up to in a half hour’s time.
With the demographic change in mobile food facilities, Los Angeles County has upgraded its regulation and transparency for the industry. The Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance, to take effect Nov. 18, authorizing county staff to give mobile food facilities A-B-C grades. Soon, they’ll be posted on the dad’s taco truck and the daughter’s Tandoor oven wagon alike.
See the Public Health Department’s frequently asked questions
Los Angeles County’s deployment of A-B-C grades to mobile food facilities, applied the same way as at brick-and-mortar restaurants, is believed to be a first in the country.
“I’ve not heard of any others doing it,” said Don Atkinson-Adams, an environmental health specialist for Alameda County Environmental Health.
If a mobile food vendor scores less than a “C,” it will result in a hearing and potential closing of the truck or cart.
Los Angeles County has combined the grading system with a requirement that operators of mobile food facilities file their routes and schedules with Public Health or post them on a Web site, to enable inspections.
The devil might stick a fork in those details, suggested Atkinson-Adams.
“It’s one thing to go from restaurant to restaurant and develop a schedule,” he said. “It’s another thing to count something that’s moving. That might be like trying to count the ants in your kitchen. Some trucks stay in one location all day. Some have five stops or a dozen.”
Particularly in a shaky economy, Atkinson-Adams added, food trucks pull up to a job site only to find it suddenly closed. Then they change their route on the fly.
When California changed its Health and Safety Code three years ago, it opened the way for mobile vendors to use more grills and griddles.
With that came the capacity for fancier food on wheels, prepared on location. Atkinson-Adams ticked off permits issued in recent weeks: trucks for solar-powered soft ice cream, all-vegetarian, Indian Tandoor oven and high-end sandwiches including lobster tail.
There’s been a change of mindset in mobile food.
“Different people are more inclined to patronize them now,” said Terrance Powell, director of Los Angeles County Public Health’s Bureau of Specialized Surveillance and Enforcement. “It’s part of pop culture.”
And the new, upscale patrons are more likely to look for an accounting of an inspection of a food truck. “It’s a natural progression that we would expand our disclosure to tell the public what we find in every aspect of public food inspection,” said Powell.
Los Angeles County will evaluate the costs of its modified system of inspecting and grading mobile food facilities. It will factor into an adjustment of Environmental Health fees next year.
Alameda County inspects vehicles once a year, arranging for the vendors to bring the vehicle into a Public Health facility. The county supplements with random field checks of trucks and carts, mostly based on consumer complaints, Atkinson-Adams said.
Public Health has had success in requiring mobile facilities to maintain food at the legal requirement of 41 degrees, and demonstrating the capability to bring the air inside refrigeration units down to 38 degrees, Atkinson-Adams said (figuring the temperature will rise a few degrees with the constant opening and closing of doors). Sometimes the enforcement means forcing vendors to replace decades-old refrigeration units.
Public Health also stresses employee training, adequate water supply and thorough hand washing, Atkinson-Adams added.
Alameda County is regulating about 600 units, “from full-scale mobile kitchens like taco trucks and catering trucks all the way down to ice cream carts,” said Atkinson-Adams.
Los Angeles County has about 6,000 permitted mobile food facilities, and perhaps just as many unpermitted trucks and carts that are the targets of raids by Public Health Department enforcement teams.
There has been a slight increase in the number of mobile food facilities, Powell said, but the dramatic change has been in customer demographics – more upscale, white-collar workers are queuing up at trucks. A generation ago, most mobile vendors were conveniences at construction job sites, often miles away from restaurants and takeout joints.