North Carolina Regulators Hound Food Trucks

Published January 10, 2012

North Carolina Pastor Michael King is trying to start a food truck ministry. He’s converting old buses his church bought into food trucks to employ the poor and homeless in Rowan County. The first truck—nicknamed the “Mac-Attack Wagon”—is ready to hit the road, but it has been stopped in its tracks by a state regulation called the “commissary rule.”

The rule requires “pushcarts or mobile food units [to] operate in conjunction with a permitted restaurant or commissary and [to] report at least daily to the restaurant or commissary for supplies, cleaning, and servicing.”

Food truck owners say the commissary rule is the most difficult regulation they must follow in order to run their small businesses. Restaurant owners are reluctant to rent out their kitchen space to would-be competitors, and in the rare cases they do, it’s at a high price.

Regulators Target Vendors

The Mac-Attack Wagon, which specializes in fried chicken, is not the only mobile food vendor slowed down by the rule. The owners of Café Prost haven’t been able to get their food truck off the ground in Raleigh for lack of a commissary agreement, and the owner of the Outlaw Dogs hot dog stand in Durham is fighting the commissary rule in court after being jailed twice for operating without such an agreement.

As with most mobile food vendors, for King it’s a matter of money. He went into the street food business because he didn’t have a lot of it. Instead of buying a restaurant and paying all of the associated taxes and fees, he bought an old bus and transformed it into a kitchen on wheels with his own two hands.

King says the commissary rule is defeating the purpose of his low-capital enterprise. It leaves him with two choices: find a restaurant that will rent space, or build his own commissary. So far, he’s been unable to find a restaurant willing to rent to him, and if he did, it probably would be too expensive. Now he’s looking into building his own commissary, but he’s finding that’s not going to be cheap.

Unnecessary Regulations?

What troubles King the most is that, in his eyes, a commissary is completely unnecessary. He says he has everything he needs on his truck: a grill, a deep fryer, a refrigerator, dry storage shelves, dishwashing sinks, a hand-washing sink, and counter space.

What he doesn’t have is a toilet, a permanent potable water supply, an approved place to dump his dirty water, or a place to clean his trash cans, said Larry Michael, head of the Food Protection Program for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

“These are all things a commissary is required to have,” Michael said.

‘Totally Unrealistic’

King argues he has no need for a toilet because his employees would spend most of their time on the truck, which could stop for bathroom breaks at public restrooms.

“A bathroom at a commissary is of no benefit to the mobile food truck that is out on its route anyway,” King said. “No one is going to drive all the way back to a commissary just to use a toilet. That is totally unrealistic.”

King said he also could use an office break room for dumping dirty dishwater at the end of the day, since the home cannot be used for dumping water. As for trash disposal, the grease from King’s fryers can be recycled and used as biodiesel. And the paper plates and plastic utensils end up in whatever receptacle his mobile customers use.

Still, Michael said, King needs a commissary.

Bureaucrats Decide Case by Case

Judy Daye, a regional environmental health specialist with the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources, told King if all of the cooking equipment on his truck was certified by NSF International, a nonprofit public health organization, his law office might serve as a commissary. Even so, King was told he’d probably have to install an expensive grease trap in the sewer line. And Michael suggested King might have to do more.

“We can’t lessen the standards for one person and not for the rest,” Michael said.

But Michael wasn’t clear on what exactly the standards are.

“At a minimum he needs a two-compartment sink,” Michael said, the only thing specified in the rules. But Michael said other things may be required on a “case-by-case” basis.

“There is a plan review process,” Michael said. “The local health department would have to decide.”

Push to Rewrite Requirement

Michael said a group of public health officials and industry representatives currently is working on revising the mobile food unit rules, which were written by DENR in 1985 and last revised in 1991. King originally contacted Rep. Pat McElraft, R-Carteret, who chairs the Joint Regulatory Reform Committee. McElraft said she is working with the Department of Health and Human Services to see if the regulation can be rewritten.

King, who worked as a lawyer for close to 20 years before becoming a pastor, says he has no intention of dropping the issue before it’s settled. He wants the commissary requirement removed altogether or at least rewritten so it’s clear exactly what is required of a commissary.

Sara Burrows ([email protected]) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal, where this article originally appeared. Reprinted with permission.