As a food city, Seattle is known for many things: its locavore movement, a surfeit of shellfish and authentic pizzerias. One thing it’s not known for is a good street food scene. That is all changing this summer, and with it come a few questions about food safety.



Monday, the Seattle City Council passed new regulations that grant more freedom to mobile food vendors. Up until now, city sidewalk vendors could serve only hot dogs, popcorn and espresso. If they wanted a more varied menu, they had to get a permit and rent space on private property.  


The new rules approved by the City Council make it legal for street vendors to actually park on the street. Curbside trucks will pay $2.25 per hour for a four-hour time slot per week. They have to stay away from residential neighborhoods, high schools and keep at least 50 feet from restaurants. The Seattle rule that may continue to be most challenging is that food trucks must be parked within 200 feet of a restroom; employees must have access to a  restroom and if a vendor offers seating for customers, there must also be restroom access for patrons.

But Seattle’s mobile food sellers will have the opportunity to expand their menu options. The Seattle-King County Department of Health will use the same risk-based approach in approving food permits for curbside truck vendors and sidewalk carts as it already does for food trucks on private property. 


So what exactly is changing? Well, in the past if Seattle street-cart vendors wanted to offer pork chops, they simply couldn’t — it was against regulations. But now, under the new rules, they will be permitted to sell meat dishes if the meat is pre-cooked in a commissary kitchen — a health-department approved, licensed “mothership” — such as a commercial kitchen or the kitchen of an existing restaurant.

Other wheeled vendors, like those that serve pastries and ice cream, have to do their baking and preparation in the mothership as well.

One Seattle street food vendor, Ashley Penhollow, spoke very highly of the safety and preparation of the food served in her cart, a baked goods cart called “Street Treats.”  


“Everything is pre-made,” said Penhollow. “We don’t touch anything in here,” (referring to the baking process). Penhollow also vouched for the sanitation of mobile vehicles in general, saying, “We have everything a restaurant has — a kitchen, a sink, a refrigerator.”

King County Senior Health Investigator Phil Wyman says the constraints of some mobile vehicles can’t be overlooked, and do warrant some special considerations — such as prohibiting food carts from saving leftovers. “Because of the small size of food carts, all of these food handling processes are more complicated, so that’s why there are special safety rules in place for food carts,” Wyman said.  “Handling raw meat on a cart is one of those just too risky food handling issues, and therefore cannot be allowed.”


So if street-cart vendors want to sell hamburgers, for example, they have a few options. They can either cook raw patties back in their mothership kitchen or they can buy pre-cooked patties.

Specifically, this risk-based approach, as Wyman puts it, means “the code is more concerned with the handling of foods that are known to present a higher risk of foodborne illness, like meat. Cross contamination from raw meat to ready-to-eat food is one area of potential risk … Another issue is proper cooling of cooked foods; and a third area is safe holding of hot or cold foods.” 

Wyman, who is in charge of code enforcement, said vendors with “low risk” menu items, such as hot dogs and espresso, are inspected once a year.  Slightly higher-risk menu items like pre-packaged fresh meat and seafood, or ice cream require two inspections a year. A food truck offering the highest risk menu items, such as raw meat or seafood that require preparation in the “mothership” kitchen, would get three visits a year. The formula is simple: the higher the risk, the more inspections. The health department posts inspection results, for brick-and-mortar restaurants as well as for food carts and trucks, on its web page.


In Portland, with its bustling street food scene of more than 580 food carts, street vendors have a lot more opportunities than in most cities.  Portland allows curbside vending, but it also has many groups of carts or “pods” on private property. The website does a nice job of documenting the phenomenon. In Portland, some food carts are allowed in parks and on the sidewalks. Some food carts even offer bicycle delivery.


Another big city, Chicago, is similar to Seattle with tightly controlled regulations — vendors can only serve pre-prepared foods on the street. Although new mayor Rahm Emanuel has said he wants to improve the city’s mobile food scene, the New York Times reported this week that any new rules will likely restrict food trucks from parking within 200 feet of restaurants.

Seattle’s move toward a more vibrant street food scene has been gradual and evolutionary.  Now that the City Council has moved forward to allow food trucks to occupy public property and sell from the street, it will be interesting to see if this is yet another way that Seattle resembles its Northwest counterpart, Portland.