Food trucks have become more popular in Seattle and elsewhere, and King County officials say they have about the same inspection ratings as restaurants.
Working at Bo and Tom Saxbe’s food truck, Cheese Wizards, isn’t rocket science — it’s just grilled cheese. And yet the brothers’ daily process is deceptively multifaceted.
First, they head to a commissary kitchen to prepare food, including toasting bread slices and making their special sauces.
They lug it all onto their 16-foot truck, covered with nerd paraphernalia — which can get crowded with too many cooks in the kitchen. Then they park and wait for the line of hungry customers.
The rules and requirements for food trucks are enforced by Public Health — Seattle & King County. They must have a constant, fresh water supply and a restroom within 200 feet. And they can’t cook onboard.
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Most food trucks in Portland’s Multnomah County can prepare and cook food on their trucks.
California’s food-truck workers can cook on board, too. In Washington, basic food assembly can happen on a truck, but not the majority of the preparation.
“I think that’s a little more restricted here in Seattle,” said Bo Saxbe of the prepping requirements here and statewide.
Food trucks used to bear the nickname “roach coach,” but over the past decade they have become a viable lunchtime alternative to a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
They’ve become a pricier option, too; what used to be cheap street food can run $9 to $12 from a trendy truck at lunchtime.
A 2014 study by the Bellevue-based Institute for Justice called “Street Eats, Safe Eats” found that in Seattle, food trucks and restaurants are equally sanitary.
Yet, the trucks face space limitations and mobility challenges that restaurants don’t.
“Here, we treat and honor food trucks like we do in any other business,” said Becky Elias, food-protection program manager at Public Health — Seattle & King County.
There are more than 450 mobile food units (which include carts, trailers and trucks) in King County, and the county inspects them at least once a year for the same factors as restaurants: potential contamination, food temperatures, labeling, signage and facilities.
Washington has some of the strictest food-truck equipment standards, said Matt Geller, CEO of the National Food Truck Association.
The reason King County pulls out all stops, Elias said, is to minimize the risk of food-borne illnesses.
Late last month, health officials investigating an outbreak of E. coli 0157:H7 infections shuttered the food-truck business Los Chilangos and closed the commissary it used, Eastside Community Kitchen in Bellevue.
The food truck and the commercial kitchen have since reopened, but investigators are still looking into the outbreak that sickened at least 13 people, health officials reported.
King County’s regulations are similar to those in other counties, because they all follow the state’s guidelines, Elias said.
Common food-truck violations can include incorrect hand-washing facilities, and not keeping the right heating and cooling temperatures for food.
Since food trucks must manage their own water source, “that can be a violation that might appear more commonly for food trucks than it would for restaurants,” Elias said.
Elias used the example of a truck selling pulled-pork sandwiches: Chefs would handle raw meat and cook it in a commissary kitchen. On the truck, they could assemble the sandwich and warm it on a grill, but couldn’t cook the pork onboard.
The food code is the same for all businesses, but the county works with truck owners to determine how a specific menu can and can’t be handled on board, she said.
Commissaries can get costly, Tom Saxbe said. Cheese Wizards shells out $15,000 a year for its commissary — and most trucks pay more than that, the brothers said. Cheese Wizards is expected to rake in $350,000 to $400,000 this year; its sandwiches cost $9.75.
The similarities between violations for restaurants and food trucks show up in the data, too — primarily for things such as improper temperatures, storage violations and inadequate hand washing.
“Those are things that are behavior-based,” Elias said, noting that food trucks and restaurants perform “in a comparable way with one another.”
Nuances can affect inspections, said Tokyo Dog food truck co-owner Samson Kwong. Once, his food truck was dinged for having its paper towels not on a rack but right next to it.
In King County, trucks and restaurants get inspected one to three times each year, Elias said. If an establishment doesn’t perform well, it could be face more inspections.
Trucks and restaurants are divided into three “risk categories,” which increase based on the complexity of the cooking process, and that determines how often they are inspected. About 45 people are out in the field doing regular inspections, Elias said.
They also inspect about 11,500 brick-and-mortar food facilities.
Food-truck owners understand the regulations are for their protection, as well. And Washington’s tougher restrictions can limit the competition to the most dedicated of food truckers, Bo Saxbe said.
“The process is somewhat onerous,” he said. “I’m kind of grateful for that.”