Washington State food trucks fight for exemption from commissary requirement

| by Elliot Maras
Washington State food trucks fight for exemption from commissary requirement

Photo courtesy of iStock.

Food truck owners in Washington State are trying to change a law that requires them to operate from a commissary or servicing area, a requirement they claim is oftentimes impractical, highly expensive, and according to some, not in the best interest of food safety.

Orca Eats on Vashon Island, Washington, has worked with four different commissaries in two years.

State Rep. Vincent Buys of Lynden, Washington, introduced the bill, House Bill 2639, supported by the Washington State Food Truck Association and 11 co-sponsors in addition to Buys. The proposed bill would allow a mobile food vendor to be granted a variance to the requirement if the food truck has the same capability as a commissary kitchen.

Under the proposed measure, food trucks would not be required to have a commissary or servicing area if the mobile unit contains all the equipment and utensils needed for complete onboard preparation of an approved menu. The exemption would apply if the mobile unit is protected from environmental contamination when not in use, providing the unit can maintain required food storage temperatures during preparation, service, transit and storage, and if the unit has a dedicated handwashing sink to allow frequent handwashing.

One truck owner's challenges

The need to have a commissary has been a challenge for Emily Wigley, co-owner of a food truck, Orca Eats, on Vashon Island, which is a 15-minute ferry ride to Seattle and a 10-minute boat ride to Tacoma. The truck, a step van just under 22 feet long which operates from April to October, changes its menu every week using locally supplied food.

Wigley currently prepares almost all her food in a commissary at the local senior center. The fact that she is now on her fourth commissary in the two years she has been in business demonstrates the difficulty in securing a commissary.

Wigley is required to use the commissary for tasks as small as slicing tomatoes, slicing bread or grating cheese. Vashon Island is an unincorporated part of King County, which includes Seattle.

"I can make grilled cheese sandwiches on the truck, but I have to have all the components prepped and ready to go," she told Food Truck Operator in an interview. Her truck has an oven, a flat top, two burners, a fryer, a refrigerator, a freezer, a hand sink and a triple sink. 

"If I slow cook something, I have to do it in the commissary," she said. Meat that is under an inch thick can be cooked to order on the truck.

Many food trucks cannot take food deliveries at the commissaries they use, she said. After they buy their food, they must take it to the commissary and store it until they are ready to prepare it. After they prepare it, they must store it until they are ready to serve, then load it into the truck and take it to where it is served. Any food that needs to be reheated has to be reheated in the commissary and transferred to the truck for hot holding.

"You move the food like crazy,” she said. "It's a little bit nuts to be moving things around like that. The more temperature changes you have with your food, the more risk you have. If we could serve it where we prep it, that would be fantastic and the quality of the food would be even higher." 

The commissaries can run $300 to $2,000 per month depending on what they are cooking, said Wigley, who is an advisory board member for the state food truck association. 

Legislative relief sought

Wigley said the food truck owners decided to seek legislative relief after learning that a regulatory change could take as long as three years.

Last April, the association held a "Food Truck Lobby Day" at the state capital, Olympia, to acquaint lawmakers with the issue. There were several food trucks serving food to hundreds of people, and lawmakers were receptive. The fact that the bill has 12 legislative sponsors speaks to the level of support.

However, "We don't know if the bill is going to pass," she said.

In addition to the pre-operative inspection that is required, food trucks are inspected whenever they change commissaries, or at any time of the county inspector's choosing, Wigley said. Inspections can be as often as once a month or as infrequently as once a year.

Trucks must include their social media tags with their applications to allow the inspectors to find them, she said.

The high cost and limited availability of appropriate commissaries have created a hardship for many vendors, the association noted in a prepared statement about the proposed bill.

It is not uncommon for a food truck to pay in excess of $1,000 per month in return for one hour per day of kitchen use for a commissary in each county they service, the association noted. In some cases, new business owners are unable to open operations due to the inability to find any approved commissary kitchen in their county.

"The local regulatory authority's decision to require auxiliary support services such as a commissary or servicing area should be based on the menu, type of operation, and availability of onboard or on-site equipment," Lori Johnson, executive director of the association, told Food Truck Operator via email.  

Food truck operators would like to be able to prep foods onboard, which they can only do if they have a temporary permit, which is inconsistent from one county to the next, Johnson, said. 

Safety concerns

Johnson further noted that safety has become a concern since many commissaries are tight and cramped due to the lack of space and/or the over-sharing of facilities. 

Johnson said Oregon, Florida, Texas, Georgia, Washington, D.C., California, Maryland, Michigan are among jurisdictions that allow onboard prep and cook.

Susan Shelton, food safety program public health advisor for the environmental health division at the Washington State Department of Health, said the department is concerned that food trucks have the capability to properly prepare their menus, a contention that no one in the food truck industry disagreed with in conversations with Food Truck Operator.

The exemption under the proposed bill stipulates the mobile unit would have to have adequate water capacity and ware washing facilities to clean all multi-use utensils used on the truck at a frequency specified in state board of health rules, providing the unit is able to store tools onboard needed for cleaning and sanitizing, and if all food, water and ice used on the truck is prepared onboard or otherwise obtained from approved sources.

Wastewater and garbage would have to be removed in a sanitary manner from the truck following an approved written plan or by a licensed service provider.

Extensive requirements

Under the existing state law reviewed by Food Truck Operator, the person operating a mobile food unit is required to submit a plan with specifications of the mobile food unit, commissary and servicing area to the regulatory authority for approval before the unit's menu is changed, before the food method of preparation is changed, before the vehicle is changed or before the commissary is changed.

The owner must include the source of water and specifications for onboard plumbing, the site used for sewage disposal, availability of restrooms for employees and a cleaning schedule.

All foods, including ice, must be from an approved source or commissary, according to the law. All potentially hazardous foods that are prepared on the mobile food unit must be served the same day they are prepared.

"Potentially hazardous foods" cannot be cooled on the mobile food unit under the existing law. The person in charge must ensure that reheated food for holding from 41 degrees Fahrenheit to 165 degrees Fahrenheit or above must be within one hour on the mobile unit when the foods were cooked and cooled in an approved establishment that is not on a mobile food unit.

The person in charge must ensure that raw meats that are more than one inch thick are not cooked on the mobile food unit unless otherwise approved.

Water and wastewater must be refilled as frequently as needed to furnish enough hot and cold water for handwashing, food preparation, utensil cleaning, sanitizing and facility cleaning on the mobile food unit.

Topics: Equipment & Supplies, Food & Beverage, Food Safety, Independent Operators, Legal Issues, Policy / Legislation / Regulation, Waste Management

Elliot Maras
Elliot Maras is the editor of KioskMarketplace.com and FoodTruckOperator.com.

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