Thinking about passing up that gourmet food truck in the parking lot for the cleaner restaurant down the street? Think again.
Commonly known on the streets of Tucson as “roach coaches,” food trucks are just as sanitary as restaurants, a Star analysis shows.
Pima County health inspectors visited gourmet food trucks, taco carts and coffee stands 1,763 times in the past three years, giving a passing grade 97 percent of the time. Restaurants passed 99 percent of the time.
Inspectors keep a close watch over food trucks, inspecting them in two places, monitoring their locations on Facebook and offering advice to them about how to meet requirements.
The Health Department treats a food truck as “a restaurant on wheels,” said program manager Jeff Terrell.
Food trucks are required to follow the same regulations as restaurants, and, depending on the food they serve, they may face even more restrictions. There are four levels of rules to cover the range of mobile kitchens, from a Popsicle pushcart to a big truck with restaurant-quality cuisine.
Food truck chefs who serve gourmet menu items such as freshly made pizza, salads or tandoori chicken are not allowed to prep food in the truck. Instead, they’re required to visit a commissary kitchen where they must sign in — and inspectors check logbooks to make sure they’ve been there. At the commissary they prepare their ingredients, chop veggies, cut up and marinate meat and load their mobile restaurant for the day.
“So they’re actually running with two kitchens,” said health inspector Fernando Silvas, and either can be inspected at any time.
While certain commissaries accommodate multiple food trucks, some food truck owners work with the owner of a restaurant who will let them have a spot in their kitchen, Silvas said.
Commissaries are inspected as often as food trucks, and out of the 287 inspections during the last three years, health inspectors issued just two failing grades.
The idea that a food truck is unclean is a stigma food truck owners are trying to get rid of.
“The term ‘roach coach’ — we’re changing that as food truck owners,” said Kristine Duke, owner of Kadooks! Caribbean Cowboy, which serves up creative fusion dishes. “We want people to look in and see shiny and clean.”
Inside The Twisted Tandoor, an Indian food truck, owner Mukhi Singh has a hand-washing sink, a three-compartment sink, two refrigerators, a full stove burner and a grill — almost all of which can be seen by customers ordering at the window. With customers peering in, “you can’t have a dirty kitchen,” Singh said. “The food trucks now in Tucson, at least the ones that I know — they are spectacularly clean.”
A full-service food truck such as Singh’s is inspected as often as a restaurant – three times a year. Hot dog carts are inspected twice and ice cream trucks once, Silvas said.
Inspectors might measure hot and cold holding temperatures, look to see whether employees are washing their hands at the right times, and check whether they’re cross-contaminating food by using the same tools to prepare raw foods and ready-to-eat foods, among other factors, Silvas said.
“And those are the same things we look at when we go to a restaurant,” he said. They also check the general cleanliness of the facility, “and we’ll look for any kind of rodent or insect infestations, things like that.”
Because food trucks are always on the move, Silvas monitors them on Facebook. “That’s how they advertise,” Silvas said. “They put it on Facebook. We monitor Facebook … we know where they’re at.”
The health department also reaches out to them. “And I think that has helped us keep that regulation going and know where everyone is at and where they’re working,” Silvas said. “They call us with problems, questions; we give little classes once in a while, and we assist them where we can beyond the inspection.”
When Singh first opened his window 13 months ago, he said, he appreciated that health inspectors helped him learn the rules. He said the department has such a forward-thinking concept on food trucks, it invites trucks to its headquarters to serve food to its employees.
Now it’s just a matter of losing the roach-coach reputation, and slowly people are making that transition, he said.
“To me they (food trucks) feel fine,” said Damian Edrington, a senior at Tucson High School who frequents RobDogs, a hot dog truck set up on Fourth Avenue. “I love this specific vendor. ... Their food is really good.”
Even Silvas, the health inspector, agrees that the “roach coach” reputation doesn’t hold up. “There’s more to food safety than just what it looks like,” he said. “I’ve never seen a roach and I’ve never seen a mouse on a food truck.”