Maryland food trucks look to streamline licensing process

This bill could make it easier for Maryland food trucks to roam the entire state.

If Dave Pulford wanted to serve sliders from his food truck anywhere in Maryland, he would have to obtain 24 licenses — one for each of the state's counties and Baltimore City. A new bill in the General Assembly would mean he would only need one to operate across the state.

Pulford, owner of the Upslidedown Dave food truck and president of the Maryland Mobile Food Vending Association, is one of the major proponents of a piece of legislation that would streamline the process by which food trucks are licensed. Instead of requiring the trucks to be licensed separately in every county in which they operate, it would only require food trucks to be licensed and inspected once in one jurisdiction to operate throughout the state.

It's a measure food truck operators say would save them time and thousands of dollars annually, and one that could help develop the sector, which has ballooned during the past few years from just a handful of trucks to more than 300, Pulford estimates. But the measure has raised concerns, including local health departments' worries that changing the licensing process would adversely affect food inspection.

As written, the bill would allow health departments in any jurisdiction to inspect food trucks, wherever they are licensed, and report findings to the trucks' home counties. There's no guidance as to what happens if inspectors outside a truck's home county encounter violations, though.

"We have a right under this law to do inspections, but the disconnect will be if we find an issue," said Bert Nixon, director of Howard County's Bureau of Environmental Health Services. "Right now, there's no mechanism that I see that allows us to handle that, so it's unclear what the ramifications would be."

Nixon, who is also a member of the Maryland Conference of Local Environmental Health Directors, said it's possible that the inspection process could be standardized across the state — something his group did for septic haulers, who were once also inspected county by county. That process took a couple of years to streamline.

"There's a variety of different nuances that make it a challenge to do," Nixon said, noting some jurisdictions have different priorities when it comes to inspections, although they're operating under the same law. "I think there's some good intent, but it's a difficult process to kind of work through all of those details, if you will, and then come up with a process that's consistent as you would like it to be."

Monique Lyle, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore County Department of Health and Human Services, said in an email that her department feels the bill would adversely affect food inspection because jurisdictions would no longer know which food trucks were operating within their borders. She added that it would compromise the accountability of the owners and "allow such facilities to pay the least costly license and avoid the Food Manager Certification regulations/statues of five Maryland counties."

Baltimore City and Baltimore, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties all require food service facilities to have certified food service managers on site at all times when they're open.

Pulford said the bill, drafted by Del. Warren Miller, a Republican representing Howard and Carroll counties, isn't about skirting inspections or safety regulations. "We're not trying to do that by any stretch of the imagination," he said.

The intent is to save food truck owners time and money. License and permitting fees vary from county to county, but Pulford said it costs about $1,000 per county per year. Each health department inspection, though it lasts only two hours, takes Pulford's truck off the road for the day — another cost. The inspections are typically conducted in the morning, during time he would otherwise be preparing food. By the time the inspection is complete, around 11 a.m., it's already lunchtime, so he's unable to serve customers for the day.

"It's just cumbersome to have to go through all that," said Joann Calwell, who owns the Jolly Pig food truck. "It's not just the money; it's the time."

She has licenses to operate in Baltimore City and Baltimore, Howard and Anne Arundel counties, and she mostly operates at the invitation of private property managers in office parks instead of setting up on the street.

Food truck operators say the change would let them compete equally with restaurants that provide catering — restaurants are licensed at their brick-and-mortar locations but allowed to cater across the state. But the Restaurant Association of Maryland argued it would have the opposite effect.

"Under the way this bill has been proposed, there is no local registration with the county health department," Melvin Thompson, the restaurant association's senior vice president of government affairs and public policy, said at a Senate Finance Committee hearing Thursday. "It's unclear to us how a local authority could shut down a food truck that is operating in violation while in their jurisdiction."

Eric King, the association's chair, said that as written, the bill would give food trucks an advantage over brick-and-mortar restaurants. Restaurants are required to be inspected several times per year, and the bill would require food trucks to be inspected only once annually.

Restaurants and food trucks are held to the same standards under state law, although some counties, such as those with the certified food service manager requirements, have adopted their own, stricter health codes.

"If a food truck is licensed in one of the jurisdictions ... and they choose to operate in a jurisdiction with stricter health codes, they need to follow those stricter health codes," King said.

State Sen. Thomas Middleton, a Calvert County Democrat who chairs the finance committee, said he would convene a working group of stakeholders to address those concerns. That group will also address how food trucks found in violation of health codes outside their home counties will be penalized, as well as the impact of the bill on local health departments' revenue — issues not currently spelled out in the legislation.

The Maryland Mobile Food Vending Association represents about 50 food trucks, a fraction of the state's food truck population. There are 72 licensed trucks in Baltimore City alone, and Pulford estimates there are more than 300 food trucks statewide. Streamlining licensing would help the food truck segment grow and help existing operators expand their businesses.

"One of the biggest hurdles to my growth has been having to turn down work in other counties because of the process of trying to licenses for each county," David Chapman, who owns the Green Bowl food truck, said at Thursday's hearing.

Chapman's truck is licensed in Baltimore City and Baltimore County. He said requiring only one license "would make it so much easier for me to turn my part-time employees into full-time employees and be able to hire and expand."

Pulford is another operator who stands to benefit from the change. He is now licensed in Baltimore City, Howard County and Montgomery County, but he's held back on adding Baltimore County and Anne Arundel County because of the costs associated with doing business there, about $3,000 annually for licenses and permits, he estimates.

"The current regulations can be a barrier to these food truck guys," Miller, who wrote the bill, said. "I think it's a good pro-business bill."

State Sen. Gail Bates, a Howard and Carroll Republican who sponsored the bill in the Senate, agreed.

"They can operate in multiple counties, but they shouldn't have to be licensed in all of those counties," she said. "It just removes another burden."

smeehan@baltsun.com

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