A lot of new food truckers are always wondering if the law mandates them to get a Commercial Driver’s License or CDL for them to be able to operate in the United States. Well, when it comes down to it, you don’t really need a CDL to operate a normal food truck. A standard Class D driver’s license that issued by the state you live is usually sufficient to legally drive and operate a food truck in the United States.
Federal law defines the basic commercial driver’s license classes that states may issue. Specifically, a Class A license allows the driver to operate vehicles weighing 26,001 or more pounds, as well as tow vehicles of more than 10,000 pounds GVWR, or gross vehicle weight rating.
Class B licenses authorize the driver to operate vehicles in excess of 26,001 pounds or more, but no towed vehicle can be rated at more than 10,000 pounds. Class C licenses are for large passenger vehicles and vehicles containing hazardous materials. There are of course always exceptions to this general guideline. There are rare situations where a mere drivers license will not be allowed for a food trucker.
If you are unsure of where you fall into, you will do yourself and your business a lot of good if you contact the Department of Motor Vehicles in the state you plan to operate your food truck for more information and guidance. Requirements for CDLs vary slightly from state to state so it’s important to understand the local laws.
Situations Where You Would Need a CDL to Operate a Food Truck
There are certain situations that would predispose a food truck owner or driver to get a commercial drivers license. These situations include;
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a. Weight of Truck
If you plan to operate a food truck with a gross combined weight rating (GCWR) of 26,001 pounds or more then you will need to obtain a CDL. The total weight of a unit includes the mobile kitchen equipment and employees that are expected to be on and operate the unit.
Although food trucks are heavy, a typical food truck won’t come close exceeding the 26,001 pound weight limit. Since the weight of a food truck is dependent on the size of the unit and equipment installed, the final weight will vary. But based on experience and research, a typical food truck will weigh 12,000 – 16,000 pounds.
If you plan to convert a school bus into a food bus, you’ll want to keep weight considerations in mind and may actually need a CDL. Depending on the type of school bus you acquire it may fall under or over the weight requirement depending on the size. Some larger school buses weigh approximately 30,000 pounds when you include seating so this is a scenario where you might need to obtain a CDL.
If you have a food trailer that you plan to tow to events that is over 10,000 pounds, a CDL will also be a requirement. Even large 22″ food trailers weigh about 8,000 pounds so most vendors will fall well below the threshold.
b. Passengers on board
You are required to obtain a CDL regardless of vehicle size if you plan to transport 16 people or more in your food truck. Have it in mind that this 16 person limit includes the driver also.
Taking cognizance of food trucks that have been operational since the start of the mobile food business, you can agree that it has never been seen a mobile food truck that carries more than 16 people on board. When you get more than five people working inside a larger sized food truck, you’ll hit a threshold where there are literally too many cooks in the kitchen to operate comfortably.
Other Certificates You Need for your Food Truck Include
1. Employer Identification Number
Food trucks typically require several employees. To operate within the boundaries of the law, you need an employer identification number (EIN). An EIN is used by the IRS to identify your business and collect the appropriate taxes from you, and employees. You can apply free for your state EIN by mail, fax or online by visiting the IRS website.
2. Business License
Every food truck business must get a business license to operate. Depending on the city and state, and scope of services provided, you may be charged a percentage of your gross sales or a yearly fee, along with the license fee.
3. Vehicle License
Because your business is on wheels, you’ll have to make sure the truck itself and its drivers are properly licensed. Depending on the length and weight of the vehicle, certain states may require a commercial driver’s license to operate your food truck. This is very important.
4. Seller’s Permit
In some states, food truck owners need to apply for a seller’s permit so you can purchase food and other goods at wholesale prices without paying sales tax.
5. Food Handler’s Permit
Some cities and states require one or more employees of a food truck to get a food handler’s permit. The city or state may require one or more employees to take a food safety class before the permit is issued. Protect your food truck business by making sure you have someone with a valid food handler’s permit be on the truck during open business hours.
6. Health Department Permit
Just as any restaurant is required to be inspected by the health department, your food truck (and commissary) will also need to. The review and approval of your local health department will verify that the food you prepare is being maintained and created in a safe manner.
7. Fire Certificates
The fire department will undoubtedly inspect your food truck if you’re using cooking equipment on board. They’ll educate you on the regulations you need to follow, and they’ll do routine inspections on your food truck fire suppression system.
8. Commissary Letter of Agreement
Some cities and counties will require that starting each service day at a commercial kitchen. Where required, this commissary letter must be signed by your commissary or commercial kitchen. This agreement proves that you have access to a facility used as a supply for fresh water, trash and waste water disposal, food preparation and storage.
The food truck licenses and permits of any area are subject to change, so you may want to join your local restaurant or food truck association to stay informed on the changes in laws especially as it concerns the smooth operation of your food truck.