A new pilot program that aims to loosen restrictions on food carts could create a more favorable business climate for operators. A collaboration between Tacoma/Pierce County Health Department, the city of Tacoma, Tacoma/Pierce County Chamber of Commerce and Go Local, the program is meant to reduce barriers for carts while still ensuring food safety.
About 50 such carts operate in the county. Most sell what are considered low-risk items, such as espresso. A few sell hot dogs. Strict health policies and expensive licensing costs have kept the number of carts low. Carts need to be within 200 feet of a food preparation site and a water source.
The health department is considering reducing the inspection fee for carts. Annual operating permits will be $235 for carts serving low-risk foods and $470 for high-risk foods. If a cart only operates between May 1 and Oct. 31, permit costs will be cut by 50 percent.
Another change would allow the sale of items such as soup, chili and hamburgers, as long as they are cooked elsewhere in an approved kitchen.
The pilot project would operate within the boundaries of the Business Improvement Area, which is between South Seventh Street to South 21st Street and 'A' Street to Market Street. This includes Tollefson Plaza, a city-owned public square where city officials have hoped to increase foot traffic and encourage public interaction.
The changes will still have a number of health requirements. No produce washing or food preparation, such as cutting or slicing, will be allowed on carts. No raw animal protein can be cooked on carts and no cooling of food will be allowed on carts. Carts must have proper coverage to protect food and equipment from the elements. They must have hot and cold running water. Carts must return to their approved commissary each night for cleaning and refilling water tanks.
"I think we have changed enough rules for this to succeed," said Steve Marek, environmental health division director for the health department.
Patricia Lecy-Davis, president of Go Local, is encouraged by the potential of the pilot project. "A lot of entrepreneurial opportunities have arisen," she said. Her husband co-owns a smoothie/coffee shop on Market Street and is considering having a cart out front, she noted.
City Councilmember Marty Campbell said Seattle is exploring a similar program, but that will likely take another nine months to get underway, while Tacoma's will begin this summer.
Another proposed change to city law would allow for carts selling arts and crafts. For more information on new rules for food carts, call (253) 798-6460.