Every year, Dan Tang has an important date with the city food inspector, who checks out his food truck for health violations.
But this year during inspection season, the food inspector never visited Sugar Philly, the cheery dessert-slinging truck that Tang co-owns. Without passing his annual inspection (conducted by the city), Tang couldn't get his mobile-vending license renewed (by the city).
After he realized that he'd never been inspected, Tang called the Health Department's Office of Food Protection to say, hey, I've been waiting for you guys.
He called over and over, for months. Finally, an inspector came out. Tang thinks that this happened only because he got in touch with a food-protection supervisor.
Tang says that his business interactions with the city have left him frustrated and discouraged. The main lesson that he said he's learned: Nothing gets done without the help of higher-ups.
He's not the only one with a bone to pick. Several proprietors of food trucks say that city bureaucracy makes their line of work - one that's growing in popularity - more difficult than necessary.
The problem? As Philly's food-truck industry expands from traditional cheesesteak trucks to cupcake and fresh-pasta trucks, the city is scrambling to keep up.
Shinjoo Cho, outreach manager at the Commerce Department, said that the food-truck industry has "definitely outpaced us, and we're painfully aware of that."
Some of the truckers' complaints are specific to their industry, like the intricate list of prohibited streets for trucks or that there aren't separate regulations for food distributors on wheels.
Truckers also have more general complaints, like the perception that regulations are enforced arbitrarily. One trucker said that the only way to understand the regulations is to get them wrong: "You learn by getting slapped on the wrist."
Tom McCusker, who runs a taco truck called Honest Tom's Tacos, said that dealing with the Health Department is "like the DMV - you know it's gonna be a pain in the ass," though, ultimately, it made his business better.
Others are not so forgiving. Take Scott Schroeder, chef at the South Philadelphia Taproom and the recently opened American Sardine Bar, who owns a hot-dog cart called Scott Dogs. An inspector took issue with his cart because it lacked an overhead ventilation system.
Seems fair - until you look at Schroeder's cart. It's an open-air cart, not an enclosed truck with a roof overhead.
The city's food-safety regulations state that you need a ventilation system to prevent grease and condensation from dripping onto food and equipment. But what if you're boiling pre-made hot dogs on a cart that's completely open?
"Common sense should come into play," Schroeder said.
Although there are no plans to create a specific set of rules for mobile units, Palak Raval-Nelson, director of Environmental Health Services, which oversees the Office of Food Protection, said that she would gladly discuss regulations with truck owners.
The Office of Food Protection is charged with a weighty job. Food-borne illness is no joke. With roughly 39 food inspectors, including supervisors, and about 375 food trucks (this number includes newspaper stands; Licenses and Inspections spokeswoman Maura Kennedy said that it was the best number she could give us), not to mention all the brick-and-mortar food businesses in the city, the office has a lot on its plate.
One fix may be to do away with "inspection season." The type of inspections that Tang was waiting for get stacked up in the spring. Steve Horton, who works with small businesses at the Enterprise Center, suggested that the city stagger inspections, so that inspectors aren't hit with an unrealistic workload.
Raval-Nelson said that that's a great idea - but the Office of Food Protection has no control over it. It's Licenses and Inspections that decides when mobile-vending licenses expire. Kennedy said that Licenses and Inspections agrees that staggering license expiration dates would be helpful, but that it can't happen until the department's systems get updated.
It'd be great if the Health Department and Licenses and Inspections could get chatting about these types of things.
Meanwhile, if you run a food truck and you're having trouble with the Health Department, call Raval-Nelson (215-685-7489). She said that she investigates every complaint she receives.
Food-truck owners can also find support within the Commerce Department's Office of Business Services (215-683-2100), which Cho proudly said is always "answered by human beings." The office, devoted to helping businesses navigate the city's regulations, is a hidden gem. Take advantage of it.