Washington’s growing food truck industry lacks a voice.
State legislature considered a bill this year that would have created a license for mobile food vendors to sell beer and wine. Despite the popularity of all three industries across the state—beer, wine and food trucks—it didn’t pass. Lori Johnson, whose husband met with food truck owners in his work as a lobbyist for small businesses, said that’s because few mobile food vendors knew about or advocated for the bill in Olympia.
“None of them really had enough time, being that they are busy food truck owners, to get organized,” she said. “When you have to focus so much on your business, it’s hard to advocate.”
Johnson, a personal trainer and nutritional consultant in Bellingham with a long history of entrepreneurial ventures, plans to become the industry’s voice. She started the Washington State Food Truck Association in April after building a website and researching the patchwork of mobile food vending laws in cities and counties across the state.
She signed up her first member in August. Though the association’s growth is slow, it’s a concept that has worked in other states.
Several regional organizations already represent food trucks in Washington, including the Seattle Food Truck Alliance and the Greater Spokane Food Truck Association. Johnson plans to represent those who are not covered by regional organizations. Other states including Maryland, Minnesota, and New Jersey already have statewide food truck associations, and there’s even a national association that provides support and resources for statewide and regional food truck associations.
In addition to lobbying for mobile food vendors, the association will serve as a business resource and information hub for mobile food vendors in the state, Johnson said. The organization could also connect vendors with new business.
“Already event planners all over Washington state are reaching out to the association so we can make connections for them to have trucks at their event, ”Johnson said.
Johnson has a list of regulations in cities and counties across the state that she hopes to change. Examples include a rule in the City of Edmonds that limits the number of available mobile vending permits to 15 and a Thurston County rule that requires vendors that provide seating for customers to also provide a restroom within 200 feet—rules that Johnson doesn’t think are fair, and limit the amount of places food trucks can operate. Many of the rules governing the industry predate the recent surge in popularity of food trucks.
Washington state has more than 800 licensed mobile food vendors that sell everything from boiled hot dogs to meat smoked for 12 hours. And the industry is growing—the number of licensed mobile food vendors in Whatcom County has more than doubled in the last five years, health department officials said.
Johnson doesn’t expect running the statewide association from the northwest corner of the state to be hard. She can network and reach out to business owners online and she also plans to travel a lot, she said.
Unlike the founders of the Greater Spokane Food Truck Association and the National Food Truck Association, Johnson doesn’t own a food truck. She thinks her diverse background makes up for that. She’s owned a small clothing company, and a small medical equipment company and done research analysis for a lobbying group.
Ryan Fornes could have benefited from the association while starting his business, a Bellingham food stand called Danielle’s Back East BBQ that he co-owns.
Health code, which is the same across the state, requires mobile food businesses to have a sink large enough to hold their biggest utensil. To comply, Fornes bought a sink just larger than his biggest tongs. During inspection, Whatcom County health department officials asked Fornes how his hotel pan—a rectangular stainless steel tray for serving food—was supposed to fit in the sink.
The problem is, the word “utensil” as defined by the health department refers to any object that touches food. That’s not the way the restaurant industry used the word, Fornes said.
With the help of the county health department, Fornes found a workaround—he uses disposable aluminum pans to serve his gumbo, smoked brisket, jerk chicken and other dishes.
That’s not the only regulation that frustrates Fornes.
“One funny one is our sink needs to be within 10 feet of where we’re working,” he said. “I get it, but if it happens to be 13 feet that’s not a huge thing for us.”
A food truck association could keep track of variances granted by health departments and let business owners know where they may have some legal leeway, Fornes said. He hasn’t joined the organization yet, but he said he plans to.
Not all food trucks had a hard time navigating city and county regulations.
Corina Collins and her husband started serving sandwiches and appetizers from their Bellingham-based food truck, Deli’cious Mischief, after traveling up and down the West Coast in search of a place to live and work.
Their food truck opened on July 4, 2014, and Collins didn’t encounter many regulatory issues. She’s considering joining the association but she’s not sure if the $100 a year membership would be worthwhile.
Johnson thinks the cost is reasonable compared to the Washington Restaurant Association where membership costs $290 or more depending on the restaurant’s annual revenue.
The association’s budget, which will come mostly from membership fees, will pay for lobbying expenses and a “modest salary” for Johnson, she said. For now, she’s volunteering her time with the organization until she can quit her “morning job” as a fitness trainer and nutritional consultant.
“There are new food truck permits and licenses being applied for every week. There are new trucks coming out all the time. It’s an industry that’s really growing,” Johnson said. “If only half join the association it would be enough to keep it going.”
Oliver Lazenby, associate editor of The Bellingham Business Journal, can be reached at 360-647-8805, Ext. 5052, or firstname.lastname@example.org.