Food Trucks Face Same Health Codes As Brick and Mortar Cousins

Ajumama, owned by Laura Lee, offers Korean food in a mobile setting. Food trucks are popping up all over Central Ohio. They must meet the same health code standards as traditional restaurants.(Photo: Mandie Trimble, WOSU News Reporter)
Ajumama, owned by Laura Lee, offers Korean food in a mobile setting. Food trucks are popping up all over Central Ohio. They must meet the same health code standards as traditional restaurants.(Photo: Mandie Trimble, WOSU News Reporter)

Food trucks have become a lot more sophisticated since the first hot dog and pretzel carts. Today’s mobile food trucks offer anything from comfort foods such as grilled cheese sandwiches to more exotic vittles. But do these on-the-go restaurants face the same regulations as their brick and mortar cousins?

They may be on wheels and more informal that a fancy steak house or even the corner pizza parlor, but food trucks must comply with the same food safety regulations as restaurants that don’t move.

“When we come in we look at things such as general cleanliness. We also look at the repair of the equipment, making sure it’s up to code and the coolers have good seals,” Kelly Dodd said.

Dodd is a Columbus Public Health food inspector…specifically she inspects food trucks. Since Columbus Public Health does not allow visitors during inspections, Dodd conducts a mock inspection of Ajumama, a Korean food truck.

On this day, Ajumama is parked out front of some corporate offices on Gemini Parkway.

“Things that we really hone in on in mobiles is temperatures of food. We’re looking at that,” Dodd said. “I mean, they’re in a lot more of a hot environment, so we kind of focus on that.”

Laura Lee, who’s the owner and head chef of Ajumama, pulls a plastic container of pre-cooked vegetables from the cooler. Dodd places a thermometer inside them.

“It should be 41 degrees Fahrenheit or below. So as I poke the thermometer in here it’s reading about 39 degrees Fahrenheit. So she’s within the food code limit. Her food cooler looks like it’s working pretty good,” Dodd said.

Since space is limited in food trucks, owners sometimes have to get creative with storage, which can lead to cross contamination if they’re not mindful.

“She has her raw eggs on the bottom shelf, and that’s exactly what we’re looking for,” Dodd noted. “We wouldn’t want it stored on the top shelf because that could get on the ready-to-eat foods.”

Lee has worked in traditional restaurants for years. She has a culinary degree and a degree in hospitality and restaurant management. But her food truck presents her with unique issues.

“Things that you wouldn’t think move, but do move. Every once in a while the drip pan from the griddle will shimmy its way out,” Lee laughed. “I have to make sure everything is nailed down so that it’s not up in the front with me, as well as when I get there that I haven’t lost product or caused a spill that’s going to cost me extra time.”

With all of these challenges it might surprise you that Columbus Public Health officials say local food trucks are just as, if not more, compliant as traditional restaurants.

Rob Acquista, who oversees the city’s restaurant inspections, said food trucks face more scrutiny.

“Due to the fact that they’re going out to Red, White and Boom or Jazz and Rib or arts festival. And we have inspectors out there that are constantly looking at the trucks and the temporary operations to make sure they’re safe,” he said.

And so-called “surprise inspections” are not out of the question just because the food trucks are not always parked in the same place. Acquista said the recent food truck and cart festival Downtown is an example where public health inspectors can get an unannounced look at the mobile bistros.

“So I guess maybe they might know we’re coming just because it’s a big event. But we don’t tell them we’re going to be there,” Acquista said. “We don’t tell them a time when we’re going to be there. So they’re getting a surprise visit just like a restaurant.”

And since more food trucks are popping up, Acquista said inspectors are more vigilant. Coming across a truck that’s unlicensed, he said, is “hit or miss.”

“Sometimes they may just stop and say, ‘are you licensed?’ if they’re not familiar with the truck. If it’s a truck they’ve seen and they inspected, they may just go in and just kind of pop in and make sure they have water and make sure everything is working,” he said.

Laura Lee has only been operating Ajumama since the spring. So far, she said, the experience has been positive, allowing her to be her own boss and executive chef.

And as far as misapprehension of food trucks, Lee invites skeptics to have a look – and taste – for themselves.

“It forces people to be exceptionally organized, exceptionally neat because it is out there on display. And because we are under such scrutiny from people who had that kind of bad misconception of mobile food,” Lee said.

If you’re still skeptical, look for a green inspection sign on the truck; that means the truck has met food codes. Inspection history also can be viewed on Columbus Public Health’s website.

Comments
  • Andy

    Good article!

    One thing I’d like to add is that when it comes to inspections, *all* mobile food vendors get the same treatment. Some people have been concerned about the taco trucks specifically because they assume they aren’t getting the same scrutiny or are somehow flying under the radar, but rest assured that Public Health is very aware of them and they are inspected regularly.

    The green sticker tells all.

  • http://twitter.com/dconeil Dave

    Great story, Mandie!