Trucks get graded

The food truck pictured above is one of the thousands to soon be graded by the Los Angeles county department of health. Photo by Amanda Lewis.

It’s that time of day again: the lunch rush, and like always, it’s a chore deciding where to eat. What do you choose? Among the thousands of eateries throughout the city, it’s most likely that you’ll eat at a restaurant with a gleaming “A” placed noticeably in the window.

But what about the taco truck parked around the corner? Does its lack of a letter grade deter you from purchasing your lunch there? If it does, or has, it’s your lucky day, because beginning mid-November, all of your favorite food trucks will broadcast their cleanliness for the world to see, as they all will be graded just like their restaurant competitors.

The food truck craze is sweeping the nation and changing the local food scene. Particularly in the City of Angels, food trucks are growing in popularity, especially as they have the ability to travel to their customers. However, their prominence in the city has driven the city government to treat the trucks like other food providers. On Oct. 19, the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors ruled in favor of new ordinance Title 8, which mandates twice-yearly inspections of the nearly 6,000 food trucks and 3,500 food carts currently serving food in the greater Los Angeles area. Beginning Nov. 18, food inspectors will inspect and rate the trucks, presenting them with letter grades like their restaurant counterparts.

The trucks must score a “C” or above to avoid closure, just like other “brick and mortar” restaurants. While this idea may seem daunting, many food vendors said they are welcoming this new regulation, as they feel it may bring their line of work a new legitimacy.

“I think it lends a validity to an industry that’s emerging,” said Chris Peralta, owner of local meatball truck Great Balls on Tires. “People can have the same feeling of comfort about the trucks as they do restaurants.”

The trucks, though, will not automatically be presented with their letter grades. Tough inspections will hopefully ease customers’ doubts about the cleanliness within the trucks.

“This regulation represents what’s inside our trucks,” said Mike Cho, Co-founder of Komodo, a fusion food truck that takes pride in serving 100% natural ingredients. “Even I’m skeptical of eating from a truck that doesn’t seem clean. Now, letter grades will show customers if the truck is valid enough to eat at.”

Food trucks will also have to file route maps with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health to expedite the inspections. The maps will be filed in the health department so inspectors can easily find the trucks and carry out at least one additional, unannounced inspection per year beyond the required, planned annual inspection. Although customers will not have access to these maps, some said that the existence of these routes will detract from the independent, unpredictable nature of food trucks.

“I think this takes away the novelty of the trucks,” said one frequent food truck patron. “It’s the thing to do nowadays, checking Twitter and being surprised by the spontaneity of our favorite trucks’ whereabouts. Premeditated locations kind of take away the fun.”  Customers aren’t the only ones unsure about the unintended effects of these new changes. Although most truck owners are embracing the new regulation, there are some hesitations about the new ordinance, especially regarding the effects of the letter grades on older trucks.

“It concerns me how the original taco trucks will be affected, because they are the ones who have paved the way for all of us,” Peralta said.

Taco trucks have been serving Los Angeles for as long as anyone can remember. Sometimes referred to as “roach coaches,” these trucks laid the foundation for the recent gourmet food truck movement.

“Some trucks have a hard time with cleanliness because they’re so old,” said Wa’el, Co-Owner of Kabob N’ Roll. “But the older they are, the harder they become to change.”

Molly Taylor from the Sweets Truck, which specializes in cupcakes, imagines different obstacles for the older taco trucks.

“We are a rolling restaurant, and because of that we are already inspected by the LA County Health Department. I am not sure that the new regulations will have a major impact on my business, but I do think that they may have an impact on more traditional trucks.”

Gerardo, the owner of Mi Clavelyta Catering, said he has had served food from his taco truck for 18 years and has seen the growth of gourmet food trucks. He was alerted to the new regulation by a local health official after the ordinance was passed, and looks upon it positively.

“I think it’s good,” he said, regarding Title 8.  “We drive to companies to serve food, and care about our customers. We may be old, but we are clean.”

Gerardo’s only concern, however, is that upholding the truck’s cleanliness will be difficult when serving so many people, especially when the food inspectors will be making spontaneous and brief trips to each truck.

“They’ll step in and then step out,” said Cho, on what to expect from the inspections. This way the trucks, like most restaurants, will be examined under everyday circumstances.

According to Cho, most food truck owners are excited about the leveled playing field. Gerardo said he hopes that customers will feel comfortable choosing between all trucks that have A’s, even if one is gourmet and another is not. Others, though, are concerned about the added regulation and fees attached to doing business.

“I do not have a problem with the letter grades,” said Taylor of Sweets Truck. “There is a common belief that food trucks just fly under the radar and don’t pay taxes or have business licenses, and just come in to a community to make money and then leave, and that is simply not true. Because of the misinformation that is out there, my concern is that the people will rally behind further regulation on an already regulated industry.”

Terrance Powell, Acting Director of Environmental Health at the Los Angeles County Department of Health, is optimistic about the new regulations and said he expected nothing but positive results from all types of food trucks serving throughout the county.

When letter grades were first introduced to restaurants, the University of Maryland conducted a study that showed facilities that earned “A” ratings showed increased revenue after the ratings appeared. Because of this, the Department of Health expects the same outcome from the food trucks.

“My expectation is that all trucks will rise to the occasion,” Powell said. “The hygiene of facilities will be higher, and I do expect that we will improve food service overall.”