Thursday, October 20, 2011

Navigating the Bureaucracy to Start a Food Truck

As they prepared for the lunchtime crowd, the owners of the Concrete Cuisine food truck in Detroit (pictured above) explained to the Detroit Free Press what it took to get their vehicle and food business licensed:

"The food truck owners started working to get their license from the Wayne County Health Department -- known for its tough standards -- in the spring. "It took us three or four months," says Kava, 32, of Livonia. "You had to come up with a plan review, the same as you would with a bricks-and-mortar restaurant. They wanted to see your whole layout. They wanted to know every single piece of equipment -- dimensions, specs, where you're buying it. You have to have a spec sheet for every single thing -- the exact model.

"They wanted to know your food sources and the entire flow of the food. ... We had to say we were getting the chicken, for instance, from U.S. Foods. And then it's, 'OK, you buy your chicken frozen. What's your thawing-out process? How do you cook it? How do you hold it? How do you serve it?' We had to go through every single menu item and do the exact food flow."

And those were only a few of the requirements.

"They say you have to do this, this, this and this," says Aquilina, 35, of Plymouth. "So you go back and do that, and keep redoing it. The final step was the lighting. We didn't have a lighting chart. They wanted to know where the lights are going to be and what's covering the lights."

"We were amazed at the amount of steps," adds Kava. Other people told them they should have gone to Oakland County, where the process is said to be easier. "But you know, it's cool, because once you actually receive the license, you have a sense of accomplishment."

MP: Yes, once it's all over, you might have a sense of accomplishment from successfully navigating the bureaucratic maze and getting a food truck license, but it's too bad that so much time, energy and money has to be spent on the mountain of paperwork required to start a small business to serve the public.  Well, at least it's creating a huge barrier to entry for the incumbent businesses, and will limit the competition from potential entrants who might be unwilling or unable to navigate the bureaucracy.  

20 Comments:

At 10/20/2011 5:17 PM, Blogger Jim said...

Licensing is a recurring topic on this blog.

At 20% structural unemployment, we wonder what the opportunity costs of licensing are for the unemployed and the economy in general. They can not make meals for their neighbors, use their car as a taxi, cut hair, or otherwise enter almost any business in order to put food on their table.

I believe it is a travesty.

Additionally, it seems irrational and yes, stupid to talk of tax cuts and stimulus and other macro policies and NOT talk about allowing the unemployed to start their own businesses.

 
At 10/20/2011 7:29 PM, Blogger Craig said...

We're from the government and we're here to make sure you can't make a living. It would only steal business from those who are currently working.

 
At 10/21/2011 6:33 AM, Blogger Zachriel said...

"They wanted to know your food sources and the entire flow of the food."

Heaven forbid the government trying to make sure food being served to the public is safe to eat.

 
At 10/21/2011 8:07 AM, Blogger Finbar said...

All of these topics in the licensing process seem like sensible things to think about when setting up a food truck.

If the government doesn't ask these questions, someone will need to. With restaurant chains, we rely on the corporation to do it. With individual food trucks, absent the government, we'd need market certification bodies to do it - and they'd ask about all this stuff too.

A lot of occupational licensing is BS. But some licensing is simply a government monopolization of a service that is actually needed - and would be needed even if the government didn't monopolize it.

Of course, a private provider might offer a smoother process.

 
At 10/21/2011 10:14 AM, Blogger morganovich said...

they have a name for that sort of sense of accomplishment:

Stockholm syndrome.

zach-

it's all a matter of degree.

hey, we'd be safer still if the tracked the food flow of each and every burger, start to finish, every time one is made.

do you support that as well?

i doubt it.

you are are committing a logical fallacy here.

hey, they government should be concerned with sidewalk safety too.

should we all have to wear helmets to walk up to the truck?

it would make us safer.

god forbid they should care about our safety, right?

the issue here is a matter of degree, not an absolute as you are trying to make it out to be.

i'd be willing to bet you that neighboring oakland county's food is no less safe by any measurable outcome.

i'd also bet there is more of it at better prices.

assuming one accepts the notion that food sellers need government approval (and i don't, it ought to be voluntary accreditation), it's still absurd to justify an standards, however draconian and of however little marginal benefit by claiming "they should care about safety".

they should care about other things as well like cost and the ability to start businesses.

 
At 10/21/2011 11:05 AM, Blogger Zachriel said...

morganovich: the issue here is a matter of degree, not an absolute as you are trying to make it out to be.

Oddly enough, many cities in the U.S. have stumbled upon similar licensing requirements for serving food the public.

morganovich: assuming one accepts the notion that food sellers need government approval (and i don't, it ought to be voluntary accreditation),

You do realize that inspections for food and other safety issues didn't just spontaneously occur, but were a reaction to lack of such voluntary efforts, starting with the meat-packing industry.

 
At 10/21/2011 12:17 PM, Blogger Ron H. said...

Z: "Oddly enough, many cities in the U.S. have stumbled upon similar licensing requirements for serving food the public."

Of course they have. It's a great source of income.

Your answer doesn't address whether or not there is actually a demonstrable need for such licensing.

"You do realize that inspections for food and other safety issues didn't just spontaneously occur, but were a reaction to lack of such voluntary efforts, starting with the meat-packing industry."

Yes, we have also read that fear mongering work of fiction.

You do realize that food vendors have a really strong incentive to avoid poisoning their customers, regardless of any licensing requirements. And that even with stringent adherence to all the rules, people still get sick from eating food prepared by others.

The major effect of the difficult process described in the original post is to discourage small business start-up, not an improvement in food safety.

It's absurd to assume that people who wish to provide food service to the public have no knowledge of how to, or desire to do so safely, without a license.

 
At 10/21/2011 5:23 PM, Blogger Zachriel said...

Ron H: Of course they have. It's a great source of income.

People have repeatedly demanded government take a role in insuring the safety of the food supply.

Ron H: Yes, we have also read that fear mongering work of fiction.

Teddy Roosevelt sent his own representatives to confirm the problem in meat-packing factories.

Ron H: You do realize that food vendors have a really strong incentive to avoid poisoning their customers, regardless of any licensing requirements.

Turns out many people will take chances in order to cut corners or out of ignorance.

In the real world—where everyone else lives—, the public demands that the government take some responsibility to prevent deaths from food poisoning *before* they occur. And when someone dies, then family members often become very active in convincing their neighbors to support protective laws.

Ron H: And that even with stringent adherence to all the rules, people still get sick from eating food prepared by others.

Yes, though more often when the rules aren't strictly enforced, such as with the resent listeria outbreak traced to poorly designed and maintained equipment. And yes, people demand the government take responsibility for determining the source of the problem when they occur. In this case, the market created the problem, but it was government, not the free market, that isolated the cause.

Ron H: It's absurd to assume that people who wish to provide food service to the public have no knowledge of how to, or desire to do so safely, without a license.

In the real world—where everyone else lives—, all sorts of people want to serve food to the public but don't the first thing about food safety. Turns out the farmers who caused the outbreak of listeria were not as aware as they should have been of sources of contamination. You don't think people are born with the knowledge of germ theory, do you?

 
At 10/21/2011 9:19 PM, Blogger Michael E. Marotta said...

Based on this data from The World Bank, Wayne County ranks near Bhutan for the days required to fill out paperwork to start a new business. John Stossel made the same point ten years ago, touting Hong Kong as the easiest place to go into business.

This is the primary reason that we moved from Ann Arbor to Austin. Michigan is dead. Like Gov. John Engler, Gov. RIck Snyder will have a fleeting and minimal affect on this structural problem.

Like Ann Arbor, Austin has people begging on the medians. But what sold me on Austin was the woman on the median selling bottles of ice water in the 100-degree heat. You cannot tell a bodega (drugstore, generically) from a used car lot because at the convenience store, even the owner's car is for sale. They all sell international phone cards; they all lend money; they all buy gold. Enterprise is in the culture here. There is no easy fix to create that for Michigan.

Michigan is a labor union culture because it is basically a place where people wanted to show up, punch a time card, get paid, and leave. That antedates the unions and it is the substrate which supports the unions.

Sociologically, that originated with the uneducated people who found "good paying jobs" in the automotive industry of Detroit for three or four generations. Teachers (also a huge union) wrung their hands because three or four generations of parents could not help their kids with their homework.

Well... that's all gone now...

It will take a philosophical revolution to transmute Starnesville into Galt's Gulch.

 
At 10/22/2011 2:14 AM, Blogger Ron H. said...

Z: "People have repeatedly demanded government take a role in insuring the safety of the food supply. "

People or politicians? Do you have any support for that assertion? That is, other than the inflamed passions you mentioned that resulted from an hysterical account by a writer of fiction.

"Teddy Roosevelt sent his own representatives to confirm the problem in meat-packing factories."

Heh. Yes he did. And he also said he considered Sinclair a "crackpot" and wrote "I have an utter contempt for him. He is hysterical, unbalanced, and untruthful. Three-fourths of the things he said were absolute falsehoods. For some of the remainder there was only a basis of truth."

"Turns out many people will take chances in order to cut corners or out of ignorance."

Yes, and those people don't stay in business long. It turns out, that most times, poeople want to get into a business they know something about, and are good at. Food servers are no different.

"In the real world—where everyone else lives—, the public demands that the government take some responsibility to prevent deaths from food poisoning *before* they occur. And when someone dies, then family members often become very active in convincing their neighbors to support protective laws."

And people *still* get poisoned, after all those rules, and all those inspections and licences.

In the real world, a vast majority of our readers understand that self interest is a much more effective regulator than government.

"Yes, though more often when the rules aren't strictly enforced, such as with the resent listeria outbreak traced to poorly designed and maintained equipment."

All that government! Impotent to prevent death by poisoning. So sad.

"And yes, people demand the government take responsibility for determining the source of the problem when they occur."

Hmm. Do you have something more substantial than your opinion to support that?

""In this case, the market created the problem, but it was government, not the free market, that isolated the cause."

But the government had safeguards in place to prevent this type of problem. What went wrong?

"In the real world — where everyone else lives—,"

That's funny. You pretend to understand the real world.

"all sorts of people want to serve food to the public but don't the first thing about food safety."

And they don't stay in business long. We pointed this out previously.

"Turns out the farmers who caused the outbreak of listeria were not as aware as they should have been of sources of contamination."

How is that possible with government rules and inspections in place?

"You don't think people are born with the knowledge of germ theory, do you?"

They probably aren't. What's your point?

You do understand, don't you, that relying on government to keep us safe takes that responsibility away from those who grow, deliver, and prepare our food. They need only comply with government rules, and pass government inspections.

 
At 10/22/2011 7:42 AM, Blogger Zachriel said...

Ron H: People or politicians?

The public raises an outcry. Politicians respond. For instance, the Pure Food and Drink Law of 1906 was passed due to public pressure. Generations of people, in the U.S. and in most developed countries, have supported food and drug safety laws.

Goodwin, The Pure Food, Drink, and Drug Crusaders, 1879-1914, McFarland & Company 1999.

Not sure why you would even question this.

Ron H: Heh. Yes he did. And he also said he considered Sinclair a "crackpot" and wrote "I have an utter contempt for him.

And he was predisposed to disregard claims about unsafe food processing—until he sent his own investigators to find out. Turns out that businesses will take risks with their customer's health and safety.

Ron H: Yes, and those people don't stay in business long.

That's simply not true. The meat-packing industry was thriving. People often don't know the source of food poisoning. More importantly, most people don't want to wait until large numbers are sick or dead before taking reasonable precautions.

Ron H: It turns out, that most times, poeople want to get into a business they know something about, and are good at. Food servers are no different.

They get into businesses they think they can make money at. Thought you understood basic market capitalism. Even if they are an excellent chef, they may not know much about how to run a large kitchen, or a food processing plant.

Ron H: And people *still* get poisoned, after all those rules, and all those inspections and licences.

That's right, but much fewer in number.

Ron H: In the real world, a vast majority of our readers understand that self interest is a much more effective regulator than government.

People have no way to know what's going on in the kitchen. In the real world, most people rely upon government inspectors to insure the overall safety of the food they feed to their children.

Ron H: All that government! Impotent to prevent death by poisoning. So sad.

Yes, which shows that food producers do not always know or care about the best procedures to ensure the safety of their product.

Ron H: But the government had safeguards in place to prevent this type of problem. What went wrong?

That more inspectors are needed.

Ron H: And they don't stay in business long.

They stay in business until people find out about the dangerous conditions. If there are no regular inspections or investigations of poisoning outbreaks, that could be years.

Keep in mind that unsafe conditions precipitated the laws. Business had failed to ensure the safety of the food supply.

Ron H: How is that possible with government rules and inspections in place?

Because no system is perfect, and because the system of food manufacture changes due to technology.

Ron H: It's absurd to assume that people who wish to provide food service to the public have no knowledge of how to, or desire to do so safely, without a license.

Zachriel: You don't think people are born with the knowledge of germ theory, do you?

Ron H: They probably aren't. What's your point?

Because you claimed that people who desire to work in food service necessarily have knowledge of germ theory. In fact, a great chef, or someone with a great recipe, may known next to nothing about food safety. They may be highly motivated to bring their product to the market. But to just let them start a food processing plant without safeguards is simply not going to be countenanced by the public as a whole.

 
At 10/22/2011 7:46 AM, Blogger Zachriel said...

Michael E. Marotta: Based on this data from The World Bank, Wayne County ranks near Bhutan for the days required to fill out paperwork to start a new business.

Where did you get the figure for Wayne County?

 
At 10/22/2011 1:23 PM, Blogger Ron H. said...

Z: "They get into businesses they think they can make money at. Thought you understood basic market capitalism."

Yes. And if they provide a good or service people want, they may be successful. That means not poisoning their customers. Not even government can shut down a food business faster than public mistrust.

"Even if they are an excellent chef, they may not know much about how to run a large kitchen, or a food processing plant. "

We began with a post about the difficulty of starting a food truck operation in Detroit, Something an individual with food prep experience might consider We doubt that very many people decide one day to open a large kitchen or food processing plant with no prior knowledge or experience.

"That's right, but much fewer in number. "

A specious claim. You are only guessing.

"People have no way to know what's going on in the kitchen. In the real world, most people rely upon government inspectors to insure the overall safety of the food they feed to their children.

Yes. People should be comforted by inspections, for example, of up to 35 chickens per minute.. They should be reassured that unlike in the past, these inspecters *are* familiar with germ theory, and can spot a listeria tainted chicken in under 2 seconds.

"That more inspectors are needed."

That might help, but wouldn't the necessarily higher prices harm poor people who might substitute for less expensive, but less safe sources?

At some level, the cost of additional inspectors must provide diminishing returns to the "public as a whole".

Ron H: And they don't stay in business long.

"They stay in business until people find out about the dangerous conditions. If there are no regular inspections or investigations of poisoning outbreaks, that could be years.'

Hmm. Taking years seems like an indication that there isn't much of a problem. In the real world - where everyone else lives, most people need only get sick once to avoid a particular food outlet, and to tell all their friends. No business can tolerate much of this negative publicity.

"Keep in mind that unsafe conditions precipitated the laws. Business had failed to ensure the safety of the food supply.:"

Yes, the public clamored, and politicians said "We're from the government, and we're here to help." They then imposed, and continue to impose, draconian restrictions and rules on businesses, whether they make any real sense or not, and in so doing
took away any responsibility from food preparers. After all, if it's USDA inspected, it must be safe.

 
At 10/22/2011 1:25 PM, Blogger Ron H. said...

Z: "Because no system is perfect, and because the system of food manufacture changes due to technology."

Oops, wait a minute. Did you mean to say that government regulations and inspections can't keep up with technology?

"Because you claimed that people who desire to work in food service necessarily have knowledge of germ theory."

Oh! There's a strawman.

We claimed that those who provide us with food at every level desire to provide a product to their customers on a continuing basis, and that failure to do so, means loss of business.

We can't help but notice the "USDA Inspected" notices prominently displayed on many food products. This reassures customers that the product is safe, even though we know that this can't possibly be true in every case.

Perhaps in the absence of government inspections, a private system of certifiers would fulfill that role.

" But to just let them start a food processing plant without safeguards is simply not going to be countenanced by the public as a whole."

"Public as a whole", "majority", collectives and aggregates seem prominant in your narratives. Individuals seem to play very little part. Why is that?

 
At 10/22/2011 7:39 PM, Blogger Zachriel said...

Ron H: At some level, the cost of additional inspectors must provide diminishing returns to the "public as a whole".

Yes, of course. But just because perfect safety isn't possible doesn't mean that increased safety isn't possible. You repeat this fallacy several times in your comment,.

Ron H: In the real world - where everyone else lives, most people need only get sick once to avoid a particular food outlet, and to tell all their friends.

In the real world, people didn't know the source of the listeria outbreak. That's because the modern food chain is highly complex, and unlike in pre-industrial economies, consumers are not in direct contact with food producers.

Ron H: Did you mean to say that government regulations and inspections can't keep up with technology?

It means that inspection technology has to change too.

Ron H: We claimed that those who provide us with food at every level desire to provide a product to their customers on a continuing basis, and that failure to do so, means loss of business.

Yes, businesses often fail. However, when food is improperly handled, it can mean sickness or death for many people. And you keep thinking people really know where their food comes from. They don't. Or what made them sick. That isn't always clear.

Ron H: Perhaps in the absence of government inspections, a private system of certifiers would fulfill that role.

Except when given the chance, they don't.

Ron H: "Public as a whole", "majority", collectives and aggregates seem prominant in your narratives. Individuals seem to play very little part. Why is that?

Um, because we're talking public policy.

 
At 10/22/2011 7:46 PM, Blogger Zachriel said...

To segue back to the topic, it is certainly possible that some regulations have become extraneous or otherwise detached from valid policy concerns; however, by claiming that the entire notion of policing food safety is not the proper role of government makes it difficult to find solutions and to make rules less onerous while still meeting public safety goals.

 
At 10/23/2011 2:14 AM, Blogger Ron H. said...

Z: "Yes, of course. But just because perfect safety isn't possible doesn't mean that increased safety isn't possible. You repeat this fallacy several times in your comment,."

We aren't sure how else to explain this, so you will understand. Increased food safety comes at a price, that may cost some people more in lost health benefits because they can't afford to buy healthy food, than it benefits others who don't get sick.

Ionizing radiation could provide near perfect food safety, as well as extended shelf life, but no one seems willing to pay the higher price of this treatment, meaning there's a limit to how much safety people are willing to pay for.

This, in addition to the question of whether current government rules and inspections provide better food safety than businesses would provide without government involvement. a specious claim you have made, but not supported.

 
At 10/23/2011 2:21 AM, Blogger Ron H. said...

Z: "It means that inspection technology has to change too. "

Does that mean that inspecting chickens for less than 2 seconds apiece may not be adequate? Would the additional inspectors necessary to protect us properly make the price of the product prohibitive?

 
At 10/23/2011 9:09 AM, Blogger Zachriel said...

Ron H: Increased food safety comes at a price, that may cost some people more in lost health benefits because they can't afford to buy healthy food, than it benefits others who don't get sick.

That's right. They are countervailing influences, with the best policy somewhere between neglect and rigid control.

Ron H: This, in addition to the question of whether current government rules and inspections provide better food safety than businesses would provide without government involvement.

Of course we've supported it. Food safety laws were precipitated by the failures of business to safeguard the food supply.

 
At 10/24/2011 11:42 AM, Blogger Ron H. said...

Z: "That's right. They are countervailing influences, with the best policy somewhere between neglect and rigid control. "

So, where would you place the current level of government intrusion on that sliding scale?

"Of course we've supported it. Food safety laws were precipitated by the failures of business to safeguard the food supply."

That's not a direct answer.

 

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