Health inspection delays put the bite on food trucks and carts
Laura Seitz, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Robert Schmidt, a veteran in the process of reinventing himself at the age of 62, decided to take a leap of faith.
Schmidt wanted to open a food cart. He would build the cart himself, park it on Main Street, load it up with gourmet bread and meats and call it City Streets Gourmet.
So, last February, Schmidt applied for a license from the Salt Lake County Health Department.
He didn’t hear back for eight months.
"I was so frustrated," Schmidt said. "I was mad. The lack of regard drives me nuts, because we’re putting our all into this whole thing."
A boom in the food truck industry has brought new revenue and a fresh vibe to downtown Salt Lake City. But delays and outdated approval processes at the health department are putting the chill on an emerging market, entrepreneurs say.
As of late January, 117 people were on a waitlist seeking inspections for the trucks or carts, according to records provided by the department. That results in monthslong delays and in some cases, loss of the business, business owners said.
Schmidt began reaching out to people at the Salt Lake County Health Department regularly, starting in September, to try to figure out where he was on the list, he said. But he said they didn’t return his messages.
“I still had my rent, my utilities, my bills — that doesn’t stop,” said Schmidt, who had started building his cart at this point.
“You have a paycheck coming every week,” he said. “I don’t.”
Alissa Largin, of the Suazo Center, said some of her clients have gone out of business as a result of the delays.
Largin helps low- to moderate-income English- and Spanish-speaking entrepreneurs start their own businesses.
One of her clients, a husband-and-wife team who ran a well-known food cart in Salt Lake City for years, decided to buy the business from the owner.
They waited four months for the health department to say they could bring the cart in for inspection.
In January, they became panicked because their grace period to renew their business license with the city was about to run out, Largin said. But each time they called the health department, they said they were told the person in charge was not available and that they didn't know where the couple stood on the list.
"This is the way they supported their family," Largin said. "This was something that they had been working on for years."
A few weeks later, the couple shut down their business after their grace period ran out.
They are in contact with the health department now but still waiting to hear if they can reopen, Largin said.
"They’re really concerned and confused because they’ve tried to do everything right, they’ve followed all of the rules, and they can’t figure out why exactly this happened," Largin said.
“In many ways, it kind of seems that everyone shrugged and put it back on them," Largin said.
Health Department response
Jeffrey Oaks, the food protection bureau manager at the Salt Lake County Health Department, said he was "very concerned" about the wait times.
But he defended the department and said they're reacting to a large surge in applications for food trucks, trailers and carts last spring. Since then, they haven't seen things slow down, Oaks said.
"We went from a few a week to — in some days — five or 10 requests per day," Oaks said.
Of the 117 people on the waitlist, about 50 of the applications were tied up due to issues with the business owner. The rest were waiting to be called up, including a dozen people who applied last August and 24 people who applied last September.
Oaks said the department made fixes such as increasing the mobile food vendor team from three to five. The department also decided to allow waitlisted vendors to apply for temporary permits, he said.
"When we see a large increase like we did, in one type of business, we’re going to react to hopefully get those businesses taken care of and to get those applications serviced as quickly as possible," Oaks said. "And I believe we have done that."
The department also created a class to help aspiring food truck vendors learn about the regulations and requirements in hope that it would speed up the approval process.
People who attended those classes said they were discouraging.
Rob Lundin, who runs a successful gourmet grilled cheese truck in Davis County called The Toasted Cheeser, said he and his wife were hoping to expand to Salt Lake City but left the class "beyond frustrated."
"I was under the impression that they really don't want any food trucks," Lundin said.
Instructors told attendees they would be tagged for small violations, according to Lundin. They also told people they would come to people's' houses after hours to check if they were parking their trucks illegally.
Most notably, Lundin said, the instructor also said that once the department called, applicants had 48 hours to present their paperwork and truck for inspection. Otherwise, they would be sent to the back of the line.
"The reason I thought of it was because what happens if I'm on shift for my 48 hour shift and I can't do it in those two days?" Lundin said. "What happens to those people that are just starting out in the truck and maybe they haven't rented a commissary yet? Are they supposed to pay rent for a commissary that they aren't going to use for months and months because they don't know when the phone call is going to come?"
Nikole Upchurch, a seasoned mobile food businesswoman who runs The Sugarhouse Donuts Co., has been waiting to get called up since last September.
She said instructors seemed overwhelmed and some attendees felt threatened.
"Don’t violate anything or we’ll shut you down. Follow everything to a T or we’ll shut you down. Every other word was, 'We'll shut you down,'" Upchurch said.
Carts and trailers start at about $20,000, Upchurch said. Trucks can cost upward of $100,000. On top of that, hopeful food truck owners are often paying for commercial kitchens and other licensing fees.
"It's not cheap to get into the business," Upchurch said. "So if you're continually threatened, why would you jump into it?"
Upchurch said she's canceled her plans for the food truck. So have Lundin and his wife.
Dawn Cox is waitlisted just above Lundin, waiting to start the approval process for the pizza cone trailer she applied for in October.
Cox said the temporary permits don't provide enough work for vendors. She's had to turn down four offers so far because she's only allowed to work at officially designated "events," she said. That means anything from Utes tailgate parties to corporate food truck days are out.
Running a pizza cone business has been a dream of hers for years. Cox thought it was kismet when her co-worker found one for sale.
Four months later and tens of thousands of dollars in, Cox said she has little hope of being able to open within the year. The only thing holding her back from quitting is how much she's already invested in it, she said.
"I am so disappointed that I did this," Cox said.
"Talk about affecting a small-business person. We're as small as it gets."
In response, Oaks said inspectors "have an obligation to protect the public health."
He said it's true that inspectors will check if vendors are doing their food prep at their approved kitchens and will do drive-bys at vendors' homes if they can't find them.
Oaks also said the class can seem demoralizing because instructors are trying to educate people on how much work is involved.
"We are oftentimes the messenger of the news they may not want to hear — that you may have to modify your truck or do these things to qualify for a permit," Oaks said. "That's not always the best news that people want to hear, but that's the news that we’re going to give."
As for the issues with communication, Oaks said that if vendors feel like they're not receiving a response, they should ask for a supervisor.
Oaks said it is not true that applicants have to have everything ready for inspection within 48 hours of notice.
Lundin said it wasn't the regulations that made him decide to quit — it was the "attitude."
“It’s not worth fighting with Salt Lake County to try and do that,” he said.
Lundin's business in Davis County is "absolutely booming," and he likes working with the health department there, he said. When Lundin opened his truck there less than a year ago, he brought it to the health department and got it inspected and approved within two hours.
In the Salt Lake mobile food market, turnover is high, despite the enormous amount of work the inspectors put into approving new trucks, Oaks said.
In 2014, the health department approved 70 food trucks or carts and 168 were operating within the county.
The next year, the department approved 92 new food trucks or carts and 176 were operating.
"You allocate a lot of resources to that and then we look at the net increase, that’s kind of small," Oaks said.
Oaks said the department is adding another full-time and part-time person to the mobile food team. He said the department will also meet with the Suazo Center, at the center's request, to getting through the food cart approval process.
Other than that, he said, "If there’s any area we have not streamlined, we will look for ways to streamline that process."
Largin called on the health department to be communicative with applicants about delay.
"If there is an issue or a backlog, I'm sure people in the community would feel really happy to help them get the resources they need, whatever recourse they have, to make a voice for this so we can help the health department," Largin said.
Schmidt said the health department plays a crucial role in protecting the health of the public, but its system is understaffed and not built to handle the unique needs of the fast-moving mobile food market.
He asked the health department to publish the waitlist and update it regularly so that people can track where they stand.
"It should be visible, it should be transparent, it should be public knowledge," Schmidt said.
Schmidt's cart was approved in late December, 10 months after he first applied.
He said he had to go to the department in person several times to find out where he was on the list.
On a blisteringly cold day in January, he's grilling onions and peppers on the corner of Main Street and 200 South.
Even though it's past the lunch hour by now, several people stop by. One customer pops out of his work truck and buys a sandwich. Another man in a suit, jogging past, shouts, "I"ve heard good things about your food, man."
Schmidt, grinning, serves up brisket and sausage, details his newest plans for the cart and talks about moving to a different spot on the sidewalk, one with more foot traffic.
He points a gloved finger at the certificate hanging on the side of his cart, issued Dec. 28, 2015.
"That,” he said, “was the first night I got a decent night's sleep.”
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