Hawaiian Food Truck Ordinances

Ask any two lunch wagons on Oahu what the truck ordinances are and you get different answers.

As I discussed in my last post on Hawaiian Lunch Wagons, the food truck culture has grown up over decades from a way to get meals to fields and construction sites to a modern mixture of old style lunch wagons and new style gourmet trucks. Along with this sense of tradition is the "hang loose" mentality of Hawaiians. This has created an "anything goes" approach to the truck scene which has both good and bad points to it.

What you don't really see in Hawaii are trucks roaming the streets. Almost every truck I saw was parked on private property. In this regard, Oahu is more like Portland than Sacramento or San Francisco. In some cases you will even see them set up with awnings, tables, and chairs for patrons to eat their meals at. So far this is by choice of the trucks themselves versus a perk thrown in by the property owners like is often seen in Portland.

What you will also see is that the trucks will park on these property lots semi-permanently. They park in the lots overnight, for days straight, and rarely move at all. When I asked if they had to go to a commissary to park overnight like required by California law, the answer was wishy-washy. In California all trucks must park in a commissary overnight. The commissaries often provide amenities such as ice machines, grease cleanouts, water and propane, and regular and cold storage. Very few also have certified commercial kitchens for food preparation. In fact, California trucks that are cooking fresh food to order must be certified as commercial kitchens themselves. For instance, Drewski's Hot Rod Kitchen is a certified commercial kitchen and so Drew does all of his baking of mac 'n cheese, braising of short ribs, and other preparations for his sandwiches on his truck.

In Hawaii a commissary seems to simply mean a commercial kitchen. All trucks must be associated with a certified commercial kitchen for the preparation of their food, but they are not required to park overnight at a commissary facility.

When I asked why I didn't see more trucks on the public streets, I was told it was because they actually have a 15 minute rule. (I guess Sacramento should feel a bit of relief that they get 30 minutes.) The Hawaiian trucks would much rather just find a lot to park on and stay put. Yet I found this a bit strange in the cases of the trucks I saw parked in downtown Honolulu. Each day I went on my truck scouting missions I went during lunch hour, supposedly the busiest time of the day. I hardly saw any customers at the trucks.

I stopped to talk to one truck operator along Kapiolani Blvd. He said that he paid $1300 per month for his spot in the lot. Kapiolani is a major thoroughfare that I traveled down numerous times over the week. Never did I see a customer at his truck. I wondered how they could possibly make enough to pay the space rental let alone make a living off of. It might be easier for them to stay put in a lot spot, but the counter argument is that if you have a truck that roams, you can move when a location gets slow or dead (one of the benefits that restaurants hate and often argue against). Plus, you aren't having the additional cost of rent.

The couple of trucks that do operate on the streets don't move unless asked to do so. The 15 minute rule is rarely enforced. Most trucks will stay put in a spot until they are told to move only because they received a complaint from a nearby business or resident. The only neighborhood that is off limits for them is Waikiki itself. This makes sense because of the heavy traffic from tourists, tour buses, taxis, etc.

What about health inspections? Turns out there are only about 5-6 health inspectors for the entire island of Oahu. That means that often trucks, and restaurants for that matter, are lucky if they get inspected once a year. Some people told me it could be even less than that. Unlike Sacramento, restaurants and trucks don't have inspection signs posted visibly.

The Sacramento trucks have plans to form the Sacramento Food Truck Alliance. In Honolulu, Danny Auyoung has been trying to do the same thing by forming the Association of Lunchwagons and Vendors. He hasn't been as successful in getting the lunch wagons to come together as an association. We talked for a while about our two cities and it soon became evident to me that it was because the two cities were at opposite ends of the spectrum. Sacramento has very strict ordinances and enforcement. The trucks need an alliance so they can come together and have a voice in discussions with the City and restaurants regarding the changing of ordinances. In contrast, Oahu has looser ordinances and enforcement. The lunchwagons see no reason to rock the boat when life is so easy for them.

Meanwhile, the looseness of the truck culture does mean that there are some people trying to skirt the rules. I heard from a few people that there are a fair number of unlicensed trucks and trucks that try to buy an association to a commercial kitchen when they are really cooking the food at home. One truck owner who owns several trucks and his own kitchen facility told me he gets approached to use his kitchen on their permits, but not for actual cooking. He is a truck owner that would appreciate more vigilance by the authorities. After all, he's playing by the rules, so should they. It will take him and others to get together to create an association to get people to play fair and to have a voice with their Hawaiian government to make changes or enforce more.

Next up: Eat the Street