Food trucks: Navigating regulations in the southwest metro

Published in September 2017 by Shakopee Valley News

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Nothing in Amanda Erickson’s life has worked out more smoothly than the business tucked away inside a jade green 1951 Chevrolet panel truck dappled with bare patches and rust: I Look So Good Smoothies.

Her passion for smoothies runs deep. Deep enough for it to be considered an obsession — albeit, a healthy one. Once her Vitamix blender starts whirring, Erickson can hear whether the recipe is off by a single strawberry or peach slice.

And having a food truck lets her share that obsession one high-protein, low-sugar smoothie at a time at farmers markets and special events across the west metro.

“It’s been better than I ever expected. Everyone’s been really receptive,” Erickson said, reflecting on her first season in business as she sipped water from a cheery plastic pineapple. “It was just meant to be.”

But it’s also taken a lot of hard work that goes beyond what people may realize after ordering a “Tropic Like It’s Hot” or “Nobody Likes Shady Beaches.”

Food trucks are convenient in a lot of ways — hence their popularity. They’re compact, yet contain everything needed to prepare and serve a limited menu. They’re also portable, so you can actively travel to your customer base. But owners can’t just camp out on a street corner and catch a lunch crowd.

Food trucks are guided by a litany of rules and regulations that dictate where they are allowed, when and under what conditions. And it varies both from city to city and from year to year.

“These regulations for food trucks change all the time,” said Jess Jenkins, executive director of the Minnesota Food Truck Association. “Where and when and which days all vary from city to city.”

In some places, like Wayzata and Savage, food trucks are only allowed during special events, when catering a private function or if invited by the city.

Other cities offer longer-term permits, but may limit the number of days a food truck can work at any given location.

In Eden Prairie and Shakopee, food trucks can’t operate in the same place for more than 21 days each year, though Eden Prairie has an exception for mobile food units run by a local brick-and-mortar business.

Some cities require local licenses in addition to the ones issued by the Minnesota Department of Health and Hennepin County — which cover everything needed to ensure that food trucks can prepare and serve food safely, Jenkins said. Others have different types of permits.

A Savage special event permit costs $250. In Minnetonka, the charge for a one-day special event is $80, while a mobile food vendor’s license costs $490.

Shakopee doesn’t charge for temporary permits but has a $50 annual fee. In Jordan, food trucks are only required to pay $25 per visit, or $200 for a year. Eden Prairie only requires a MDH or Hennepin County license.

It adds up, so food truck operators may choose where to work based on which licenses they want to pay for and how they overlap.

“It’s so … complicated and people don’t realize it,” said Ricky Tollefson, of the Tollefson Family Grill Food Truck, which cooks up pork products from the family’s southern Minnesota farm. “People see a food truck at an event and think, ‘Oh, I want to run a food truck,’ but there’s a lot to it.”

The Tollefsons’ food truck can be found in Eagan, Waconia, Minneapolis, Bloomington and, sometimes, Excelsior. Usually the grill is set up at farmers markets near the stall where the Tollefson family sells pork chops, sausages, roasts, bacon and burgers to cook up at home.

Having the food truck lets chef Gary Lotzer begin cooking right as they pull in and cleanup is easier than on a free-standing grill. But it takes a lot of work to navigate city requirements and licenses and insurance alone can cost $10,000 each year, Tollefson said.

Local requirements can be very specific, beyond the “when” and “where” of food operation.

Jordan’s ordinance forbids food trucks from drawing attention by “crying out, blowing a horn, ringing a bell or by any loud or unusual noise, or by use of any amplifying device.”

Minnetonka has a similar, if slightly less descriptive, provision that bars noisemakers, sound amplification and flashing lights. Minnetonka also requires all signage to be attached to the vehicle and holds the food-truck operator responsible for any litter or garbage related to its business.

Local differences have grown more pronounced during the past two years, as more cities have adopted food-truck regulations to meet local needs and concerns, Jenkins said.

But many cities have yet to establish food-truck ordinances. Long Lake and Prior Lake don’t have any because the volume of food trucks has never increased to the point it requires regulation.

“If we started seeing more food trucks popping up, that would be the time to have the conversation and asking what that would look like for Prior Lake. We don’t really want to look for a solution without a problem. But at the same time, we want to be ready should things beef up a bit,” said Assistant City Manager Lori Olson.

Chanhassen doesn’t have an ordinance because the city simply doesn’t allow food trucks, unless they’re catering a special event on private property or requested to visit a business to give its employees more lunch options — a trend that has been getting more popular in parts of the metro where large office buildings aren’t near restaurants, Jenkins said.

Some cities decide to keep food trucks out — or tightly define their freedom to operate — to protect local restaurants, Jenkins said.

Restaurants and food trucks offer very different dining experiences, however, making it unlikely that someone planning to eat in a restaurant would change their plans after seeing a food truck, she said.

Even if it was permitted, it’s unlikely that food trucks would benefit from setting up at a street corner to serve lunch in a suburban area the same way they might in Minneapolis or St. Paul. The volume of people in any given location just isn’t high enough outside festivals, farmers markets and corporate lunches, Jenkins said.

Florence Aymard of the Crepe and Cake food truck began selling crepes from her food truck in 2015, after testing out the concept with samples from a table at the Maple Grove Farmers Market.

During the summer, she usually works two events a day, including farmers markets, corporate lunches and events. Business usually slows slightly with the State Fair, and then begins to taper with the start of school. In the winter, things wind down even more, though she still does events, or sets up a table at the occasional winter market.

Aymard doesn’t mind, however, given how much she works the rest of the year.

“It’s very fun. I am my own boss … I can organize my life myself,” Aymard said. “And it brings happiness to people.”

Tim Roets, owner of Roets Jordan Brewery Co., loves having food trucks at his brewery on weekends.

“It’s a great partnership. It’s part of what people want to see when they come to a craft brewery,” he said. “It’s almost like having a band, because a band brings people in. The food trucks work exactly the same; there’s a crowd that follows. It’s really very cool … We certainly do see a spike in business when there’s a food truck.”

Food trucks aren’t cheap, or easy to operate, but start-up costs are still usually less than opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant — which means that they can serve as a good starting point for prospective restaurateurs.

That’s the dream for Miguel Urrutia of El Jefe Mexican Cuisine, a food truck based out of Prior Lake, but he hasn’t found the right location for a small bistro yet.

Urrutia began his foray into food trucks several years ago, when he started selling homemade chips and salsa at the Prior Lake Farmers Market. Soon, he got a trailer, so he could offer a wider range of food. Then, he exchanged the trailer for a food truck, which allows Urrutia to serve up his creations at breweries and special events as well as the Prior Lake Farmers Market.

He has served as many as 300 people in a four-hour window and can go through 100 to 200 burritos at the farmers market. During the winter, when his salsa isn’t available for sale at the farmers market, he gets special requests from loyal regulars.

“My father owned a restaurant in Mexico. It’s all I’ve been doing my entire life. I love what I do,” he said.

Erickson also wants her own brick-and-mortar store eventually, a shift that would allow her to serve a wider range of items, including more smoothie options and fresh juices (wheatgrass-turmeric-carrot juice, anyone?).

Time working from the food truck would let her test out different flavors, establish her brand and build a customer base, beforehand, she said.

“Or maybe I’ll keep doing this because I love it,” she said.