On weekends, food truck Dreamy Drinks floats through Ballard like a pink bubble, stopping at 2401 NW 80th Street to serve boba from its unicorn-adorned window. Until last year, Washington food safety regulations didn’t allow any mobile food vendors to prepare ingredients on board, so Dreamy Drinks — which opened in 2019 — rents a licensed commissary kitchen where they boil water for tea. Last summer, when tourists disappeared and offices allowed employees to work from home during the early months of the pandemic, Dreamy Drinks relocated to more residential neighborhoods.
Even without COVID-related difficulties, the business has encountered obstacles in Seattle, one of the most challenging cities in the country for food truck vendors. In spite of recent policy changes, Seattle food trucks continue to face high rents, unexpected construction, and the expense of repeated vandalism threatening businesses and employees’ livelihoods.
At first glance, opening a food truck may seem more affordable than a restaurant lease and payroll for a large front-of-house staff, which quickly skyrockets to hundreds of thousands of dollars. According to local restaurant business consultant Arnold Shain, owner of consulting company Restaurant Group, the cost to open a new restaurant in Seattle is at least $800,000, depending on the size of the space, how many staff members will be hired, and what renovations are needed.
Although the overhead cost to operate a mobile business without a dining area is less, the expenses add up quickly for Seattle food trucks: A health permit and review fee costs over $2,000; the price to lease a space on private property varies wildly depending on the location and landlord; fire permits are $422 or more; and rent for a commissary kitchen ranges from $1,000 to $4,000 a month. Because these costs for mobile vendors are so high, many food trucks open a fixed location as soon as they can afford to offset the expenses of renting a kitchen.
For instance, Cycle Dogs — the longtime vegan hot dog stand — has opened a new restaurant in Ballard, and Des Moines favorite Dat Creole Soul debuted its first permanent location after three years. The main motivation for Cycle Dogs’ owners, Keaton and Becky Tucker, to move the operation into a more permanent spot this year came from growing customer demand and increasingly complicated logistics. “As a mobile food business, we needed to rent dry storage space, commercial kitchen space, negotiate fridge use and coordinate times with the other business for prep,” Keaton Tucker says. “That, plus the parking fees and cost of propane versus natural gas, gets you close to what a modest brick-and-mortar costs.”
In addition to the financial burden, securing a location that regulars can reliably find is a challenge on Seattle’s crowded streets, where half of downtown’s avenues are not level enough to safely cook on a flat surface. James Barrington, who co-owns Wood Shop BBQ with partner Matt Davis, describes how Seattle’s steep hills can make it difficult to set up a space where people want to walk. Permits to reserve a four-hour designated Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) space in a prime location are so valuable that if a food truck forgets to renew one year, it will be snatched up overnight. On mornings that a food truck arrives to find unexpected construction in its designated space, or when a car needs to be towed before the business’s four-hour allotment ends, employees scramble to find an alternate location.
SDOT acknowledges this problem in a statement on its website: “We will attempt to provide notice 30 days in advance and coordinate to reduce impacts,” it says. But obstacles like this often mean that food truck employees must forfeit their workday and tips altogether. Renting a permanent space on private property is one solution, but much like Seattle’s expensive residential rents, these rates can fluctuate depending on the landlord.
Recognizing some of the challenges that food trucks face, Seattle passed a new policy in 2020 that allows vendors to park within 50 feet of another dining establishment, as long as they have permission from the nearby restaurant. Partnerships like this are especially popular for breweries and other brick-and-mortar businesses with limited menus. Closer proximity to a business where customers can browse and make purchases, use the restroom, or, in the case of breweries, purchase drinks to go with their meal is mutually beneficial.
Mat Kelley, general manager of Chuck’s Hop Shop, has relied on food trucks during the pandemic to help draw in customers to the popular beer retail operation (and keep them there), since the shop’s two locations have patios, but no on-site kitchen. “Food trucks and breweries are like bread and butter,” Kelley says. “It’s a symbiotic relationship. People seeking good beer typically want to pair it with good food and vice versa. We bring them customers, they bring us customers.” Food trucks partnering with breweries can also be more nimble than restaurants. “There is no shortage of restaurants offering good food and beer, but a bottle shop with rotating food trucks can offer a relatively new menu and tap list seven days a week,” Kelley says. “Who doesn’t like variety?”
Lori Johnson, executive director of the Washington State Food Truck Association, believes Seattle’s regulations have significantly improved in recent years. She says that nearly all the recommendations have been resolved from a 2015 Pacific Lutheran University study that concluded the city needed more spaces approved by SDOT for food trucks with public restroom access and a streamlined permitting process. According to Johnson, the state’s health department has worked to make sure that there are staff and translators available to help business owners navigate the permitting process if they are still learning English.
Celebration over the new and improved policies was dampened, though, when the pandemic drastically reduced tourism and led to the cancellation of many outdoor festivals that mobile vendors rely on for revenue. “In the first two or three months of COVID, there was panic trying to figure out a strategy to survive. We saw the [number] in King County go from 460 mobile permits down to 320,” says Johnson. Seattle responded to the pandemic’s impact on the industry by waiving fees for temporary outdoor cafe permits in order to expand safer dining options. When asked to clarify the future of the policy as vaccinations roll out, SDOT spokesperson Ethan Bergerson said, “We’re considering what the next steps are.” Bergerson noted that the website will be updated to reflect the Seattle City Council’s recent vote to extend the outdoor cafe permit program and waive application fees an additional year, until May 31, 2022.
Seattle’s latest permit changes have helped improve the limited parking issues for food trucks by expanding location options and waiving fees. But frequent vandalism repairs and expensive commissary kitchen rents continue to plague businesses. “One of the trucks was vandalized 50 times in the last year,” says Matt Davis of Wood Shop BBQ, adding that they had to hire a security guard. Nearly every food truck owner has a story of overnight damage to their business, especially if they need to park in an isolated area near their commercial kitchen, many of which are located in remote, industrial districts.
Food trucks typically don’t keep cash on board when they are closed, but because they are physically more vulnerable than storefronts or restaurants, many fall prey to nighttime property destruction, stolen propane tanks, or severed catalytic converters. Catalytic converters are especially valuable to resell, retailing for around $2,000. Several food truck owners who have had their catalytic converter stolen discovered that the gas line or brakes were also carelessly cut in the theft, rendering the vehicle dangerous and undriveable. Vandalism often means that the business must close for the day, and employees must skip out on tips, while focusing on repairs.
Depending on the severity of the damage, the closure can last one day or even longer if a more complicated mechanical issue needs to be addressed (in one recent South King County fire, a food truck was completely destroyed, with arson suspected). Food truck owners may have business insurance that they could use to cover these crises, but near-weekly reports of vandalism to an insurance company would jettison premiums beyond what small businesses can afford. Many food truck owners pay out-of-pocket because it is cheaper to do the repairs themselves or develop handshake deals with sympathetic tow truck companies.
Some new rules in Washington are intended to help mobile operations, but any positive impact may have been blunted by a lack of communication. Although a new state law allowed food trucks to apply for an exemption to Washington’s requirement for commissary kitchens, many business owners remained unaware of the legislative changes during the pandemic. For the first time in Washington State, RCW 43.20.148 allows vendors the option of requesting permission to prepare food on board without a separate commercial kitchen if they install equipment including a handwashing station, refrigeration, and a way to keep food hot in compliance with food safety regulations. With the new law, they still need to discard all food at the end of service, unlike restaurants which can follow regulations to cool and store leftover ingredients for the next day. This difference can make operating a food truck more costly because if you have too many customers and run out of stock, you lose sales; but if you cook too much, or if the weather turns unpredictably bad and no customers show up in heavy rain, you have to throw away all the inventory you prepped for the day.
Patrick Murphy, a King County plan reviewer, confirmed that there have not been many applications for the exemption over the last year since the law was passed. One reason could be the cost-prohibitive requirements of the exemption application, including sinks and refrigeration that most food truck owners estimate would price out at around $15,000. Better outreach may have made a difference, though. When she heard the news almost a year after the law took effect, Kaye Fan, owner of Dreamy Drinks, was excited to apply for the exemption because it would allow her to brew tea onboard, eliminating many of her overhead costs for a commissary kitchen. Unlike other vendors with more complex food menus and ingredients, for Dreamy Drinks, building the necessary equipment could be the perfect cost-effective solution for transporting water to and from an expensive commissary kitchen.
Adding to the regulatory challenges for Seattle food trucks, the state legislature passed a new fire code in July 2020 requiring mobile vendors to acquire fire inspection permits from every local precinct where they serve customers. A Seattle food truck would need to pay the fire department $422 for a local permit, while also paying for an inspection in every other city where they set up to serve a festival, concert, or catering event.
Some cities, including Olympia, offer reciprocity, agreeing to honor another fire department’s permit, while other Washington cities are still figuring out how to implement the new law. Tacoma Fire Lieutenant Kenneth Hansen says that he wishes there was more standardization across the state. To avoid potential fines or getting shut down, he recommends that food trucks call the local fire department in advance when they travel to work somewhere new. Food truck owners and fire departments both acknowledge that the fire code keeps everyone safe, but that the cost for multiple cities’ permits can add up quickly, ranging from $35 to $422 for each municipality per year.
Some food trucks returned to Westlake and other popular spots this summer as out-of-town visitors and office workers began spending time downtown again, despite the increase of COVID cases due to the highly contagious delta variant. Although there is no single solution for the barriers that Seattle’s food trucks face, there are obstacles that the city could choose to remedy through policy. In addition to contending with frequent vandalism and the high cost of commissary kitchens, Seattle’s regulations continue to make this a difficult city for small businesses of any kind to survive or thrive.
A decade ago, Mayor Michael McGinn and the city publicly recognized how food trucks aided the city’s recovery after the 2008 recession by buoying economic growth and revitalizing neighborhood communities. Yet food trucks, and other small businesses, never seem to receive the level of support from the city that they give to it. For many chefs with a big vision and a small budget, a food truck is the most viable step toward opening their dream restaurant in such an expensive city — if only it were easier to run one.