Food Trucks: Becoming a Licensed Mobile Food Vendor
If you’re steering into the food truck business, or becoming another type of Mobile Food Vendor, the road ahead may be trickier than you think. From licensing to regulations, here’s what you need to know to get started.
Type of Business
First things first, as a general business matter, it’s always a good idea to speak with a small business lawyer about formally creating a business. Forming a business entity protects you and your personal assets should the venture go south (perish the thought!). Without one, you can be held personally liable for the costs if something goes wrong. LLCs and corporations are the most common types, but you should talk to an attorney to figure out which structure will work best for you.
Type of Food Truck
Not all food trucks are the same! The ordinance regulates “Mobile Food Vendors,” which come in a few different varieties: mobile food dispensers (MFDs), mobile food preparers (MFPs), produce merchants, and mobile desserts vendors. MFDs and MFPs are the most common – here’s what you need to know about these two classifications.
- Mobile Food Dispenser refers to any person who travels and serves pre-prepared food packaged for individual sale; coffee and other beverages; or whole, uncooked fruits or vegetables from a wheeled vehicle. An MFD license is $700. (CMO 4-8-010 and 4-5-010).
- Mobile Food Preparer refers to any person who travels and prepares food from a mobile food truck. An MDP license is $1,000. (CMO 4-8-010 and 4-5-010)
There are several licensing requirements for both types of food trucks, outlined in CMO 4-8-036.
First, you must provide the name and address of the commissary where the vehicle will be cleaned and serviced and, if it’s not stored there, the name and address of its storage location. (CMO 4-8-36(a)(1))
Second, you must consult the health department so they can review your proposed business practice (including the menu), the vehicle and equipment to be used, and food safety operations, which must comply with Chapters 7-38 (sanitation) and 7-40 (care of food) of the Chicago Municipal Code. At the time of your consultation, you must also show that you, or an employee that will prepare the food, have completed a Food Service Sanitation Manager Certification program and obtained a certificate. The Illinois Department of Public Health no longer issues these certificates, but there are a number of private services that offer certification (more info here).
In addition, if you’ll use a propane tank or natural gas in your vehicle, you need insurance meeting several requirements (CMO 4-5-010), including:
- It must contain limits of not less than $350,000 per occurrence of bodily injury and property damage.
- It must be issued by an insurer in Illinois.
- It must name the City of Chicago as an additional insured.
- It must include a provision requiring 30 days’ advance notice of cancellation or lapse of the policy.
If you plan on using a propane tank or natural gas, you’ll also need to consult with the Chicago Fire Department about the safety of your equipment.
Health and insurance documents, as well as your Mobile Food Vendor License, must be visible to the public at all times. (CMO 4-8-045)
In addition to the standard ordinances governing all food establishments, food trucks are subject to a number of special regulations. Here are a few particularly salient restrictions:
- Mobile Food Vendors are required to get a GPS device so that the city can ensure that they are not operating in prohibited zones. Such areas include bike lanes, private property (without permission), and in proximity to restaurants, crosswalks, stoplights, and stop signs.
These restrictions are currently contested in the Illinois courts, with the Supreme Court expected to rule on their constitutionality later in 2019. Read our analysis of the case for more info.
- MFVs are not allowed to have anything that amplifies sounds on the truck or to play music. (CMO 7-38-115)
- All food that has been prepared and wrapped must have certain information on the wrapper (CMO 7-38-105). Individual utensils, such as forks and straws, must be individually wrapped as well (CMO 7-38-100).
This is not an exhaustive list. For all applicable requirements, you can look at the following Chapters of the Chicago Municipal Code:
- Requirements for all Food Establishments and Food Truck Vendors (CMO 7-38-001 to 7-38-128, and 7-40-005 to 7-40-390.)
- Requirements for Mobile Food Dispensers (CMO 7-38-130 and 7-38-13.)
- Requirements for Mobile Food Preparers (CMO 7-38-134 to 7-38-138)
For More Information
For more information on obtaining a Mobile Food Vendor License in Chicago, the city’s Business Affairs & Consumer Protection (BACP) website provides a lot of helpful tips about what to include in your application. They provide a useful list of checklists and fact sheets at the bottom of the page.
Though running a food truck may seem like a fly-by-night entrepreneurial exercise, it’s a serious business! It deserves your full attention and care. Get your gambit in gear and talk to an attorney today.