Update: A commenter correctly points out that there's a state law governing this issue, so it's possible the county's hands are somewhat tied. That's true. The county will ultimately have to make the policy decision about stepping up enforcement, however.
There's one aspect of Wednesday's City Council hearing on regulating food trucks that we neglected to mention — and it's a significant oversight: The suggestion that food trucks may be required, as per county health regulations, to provide access to an up-to-code bathroom for employees, just like a restaurant.
The county, which regulates food safety, will take up the food truck issue next month. A county official we talked to after Wednesday's hearing seemed oddly detached from the reality of a bathroom requirement: Of the city's 4,000 mobile food trucks, a heckuva lot of them would be out of compliance and face sanctions or be forbidden from serving. Doesn't this seem a little crazy?
This is surely a tough issue. The county is tasked, and for good reason, with protecting the public, including the truck employees. There's a reason we regulate brick-and-mortar restaurants, so why shouldn't food trucks face the same scrutiny? It's a fair question. But on the subject of clean hands…it's easy to see where at least some of the energy of this push to regulate food trucks is coming from — the restaurant lobby. Indeed, before Wednesday's City Council Transportation Committee hearing, Andrew Casana, of the lobbying firm Englander Knabe & Allen, said the traditional restaurant proprietors merely seek a “level playing field.”
But what does a “level playing field” mean in the context of forcing trucks to have bathrooms? Trucks don't have bathrooms. Some vendors have regular spots and relationships with host businesses, such as gas stations, clubs or even restaurants, through which they could comply.
But what about the truck that pulls up to a construction site or a working class neighborhood? It's easy to see where this could be headed: Food truck haves vs. have nots.
Clement O. Shoola, a chief environmental health specialist for the county, explained the importance of sanitary working conditions on the trucks. He speculated that the vendors would form relationships with restaurants. We pointed out to this kind gentleman that it is the restaurants who are pushing regulation of the food trucks because they view the trucks as skating in a more lax (and thereby cheaper) regulatory regime. We also pointed out that restaurants aren't likely to open their bathrooms to food truck employees that they view as competitors. He conceded this could be true. That this wasn't obvious to him was a tad concerning.
Look: We're not espousing Ayn Rand here (the philosophy is sophomoric, the literature dreck), but still, the prospect of shutting down hundreds of mobile food trucks because they don't have access to a county approved bathroom seems like a cartoonish version of California style nanny-state liberalism the rest of the country mocks. (You can hear the snickering: Must they also compost?)
And wait until they attempt to enforce this new regulation of businesses that are mobile. Go ahead and try enforcing the regulation. It will be funny watching them try, if nothing else. But generally speaking, regulations that are unenforced or unenforceable are bad for the civic fabric and a waste of resources.
Certainly, it's hardly fair that the food trucks operate within a fairly loose regulatory structure while brick-and-mortar restaurants have to spend significant time and money on compliance.
So again, it's not an easy policy choice. But there's widespread consensus the city has been enriched by the food trucks. Shouldn't that be the starting point of the discussion, rather than bathrooms?