ENCINITAS — An “A” grade in a restaurant’s window is a reassuring sight. But how do you know it’s safe to eat at the hip food truck across the way?
This line of thought led the county to require all food trucks to display the same “A,” “B” or “C” grades as brick-and-mortar restaurants. The county adopted the new rules this summer, and it will issue the first grades this month.
New regulations often aren’t popular with businesses. But Scott Lucksanalamai, operations and events manager for Thai 1 On Eats, said the grades only cement the evolution of food trucks.
“Some people still associate food trucks with beaten-down ‘construction trucks,’” Lucksanalamai said. “Gourmet food trucks are all the rage now. We want people to know they’re eating quality products…this is proof that they are.”
He added that he fully expects an “A” grade once his truck is inspected later this month.
There are roughly 600 mobile vendors in San Diego. Of those, 50 are gourmet food trucks, 250 fall under the category of “hot food trucks” and 300 food carts serve items like hot dogs, according to Gig Conaughton, a spokesman for the county. All must post letter grades with the new ordinance.
Previously, food trucks were subject to a pass or fail rating. A “pass” rating didn’t have to be displayed on the food truck, but the owner had to produce the report if anyone asked to see it.
The county considered revising its rules when food trucks exploded in popularity. Indeed, cities like Carlsbad and Oceanside saw their first food truck gatherings in the last year. To give consumers a better idea of the cleanliness of mobile kitchens, the county decided to apply the familiar letter-grading system to food trucks, Conaughton said.
North County cities took very different approaches to the food truck craze moving in on their areas. Regardless of which cities food trucks park in, the owners must conform to the letter-grading system.
Inspections, which are twice every year, look at everything from safe food handling to whether foods are the appropriate temperature to employee hygiene — just like a traditional restaurant. More serious violations like contaminated food surfaces translate into greater point deductions.
A score of 90 to 100 results in an “A” inspection. A “B” means the food truck can operate, but the owner needs to address any problems, while a “C” is below satisfaction. Food truck owners that receive a “B” or “C” must get an “A” within 30 days, or they risk suspension, revocation of their health permit or immediate closure, according to county rules. The county has the power to shut down food trucks with a score less than a “C.”
The inspection results will be online at eatsafesandiego.org.
The county raised its annual health permit fee for some types of food trucks in order to pay for more inspections. Full food preparation trucks must pay $469, which is $20 more than the previous year.
San Diego is one of the first counties in the nation to approve the grades. Los Angeles implemented a similar system in 2010.
Matt Geller, the CEO of the SoCal Mobile Food Vendors Association, said the grades have helped the food truck industry in L.A.
“The grades drove the public to food trucks,” Geller said. “They show the same standards are in place at both restaurants and food trucks, erasing any line.”
Geller said the industry welcomed the letter-grading rules. However, he said that there were a few hiccups with the new system. Most notably, an old ordinance in L.A. demanded food trucks had to be inspected any time they frequented certain community events. This resulted in what Geller called “tedious inspections.” But these no longer happen after enough food truck owners objected.
“It was a growing pain for the industry,” Geller said.
Like in L.A., the new rules mean San Diego food trucks can’t freely roam throughout cities. Food truck owners are required to report their driving routes to the county so they can meet up with health officials once it’s time for an inspection. This rule too has made food trucks more accountable and “more a part of the community,” Geller believes.
“Food trucks are entering the mainstream,” Geller said.