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San Diego County Restaurant Grading Systems Expands To Food Trucks

San Diego Surf Cuisine; Epic Eatz food truck on Carlsbad's Tamarack Beach.
Patty Lane/KPBS
San Diego Surf Cuisine; Epic Eatz food truck on Carlsbad's Tamarack Beach.
Maui Wowi Food Truck
SD County Restaurant Grading Systems Goes Mobile
GUESTS:Heather Buonomo, Supervising Environmental Health Specialist, County of San DiegoTroy Johnson, dining critic and editor-at-large at San Diego Magazine

CAVANAUGH: Food trucks have undergone a renaissance in recent years. Many have gone gourmet, and they've become the chic place to eat. But one thing they haven't been is graded by the health department! San Diego County announces the start of letter grading for food trucks, just like the grades for restaurants. My guest, Heather Buonomo is supervising health specialist for the county of San Diego. BUONOMO: Thank you so much. CAVANAUGH: And Troy Johnson joins us, dining critic, and editor at large at San Diego magazine. JOHNSON: Good afternoon. CAVANAUGH: Have food trucks been health regulated in any way? BUONOMO: Yes, absolutely. Since they've existed, and since we've done inspections, they have been inspected. CAVANAUGH: Are the grades going to be handed out in exactly the same way as they are for restaurants? BUONOMO: Yes, that's correct. Just like in grade school, you have an A, B, and C, you get a grade. Just the food trucks and food carts, if they're cooking something, blending, they will be graded. CAVANAUGH: And how many trucks do you expect? BUONOMO: Here in the county, about 550. CAVANAUGH: 550, that actually serve food? BUONOMO: Correct. CAVANAUGH: And the difference gonna the trucks and the carts? The carts are the ones that have wheels on or stationary? BUONOMO: Correct. Ones that have wheels. Well, they could be stationary carts or carts that move. So you'll see these carts at special events throughout the county or outside of an office building. CAVANAUGH: And what kinds of food trucks or cars do not have to have that letter unspection? BUONOMO: That would be the ones that are preopinioned. So maybe an ice cream cart. They would not be graded because they don't any open food. CAVANAUGH: That's like a coffee cart with doughnuts and stuff like that. Food trucks have come a long way from that nasty term, roach coaches. JOHNSON: well, it started in other places. Hawaii was one of the first to make roads fish trucks, really popular. And people thought of just this bucolic kind of way to eat on the side of the beach. And LA, New York. And you didn't have to invest in a brick and mortar restaurant. You could buy this truck, which they are very extensive. If you get a nice truck, up to $100,000. But it's not as much as signing a 10-year lease on a restaurant or paying rent every single month. So it allows the really good young chefs to hit the road. CAVANAUGH: So even though there's this rather allergy initial investment, you don't have to pay monthly rent or hire wait staff? JOHNSON: absolutely. And I can follow the people. If the people aren't coming into my restaurant, I can go hunt them down. All you need is it a lead foot on the gas pedal. CAVANAUGH: Give us a sense of the range of the food trucks that you'll find around town. JOHNSON: the guys from the miho gastrotruck, they opened up their own food truck, and they do really good accident responsible, hormone-free meat. You've got bon mi sandwiches, a new masstive sausage truck. In OB, a fish monger from pike's place fish market from Seattle. You've got everything. CAVANAUGH: And part of that just around the corner from where I live, in the parking lot of a convenience store every single day selling $0.99 fish tacos, and this place is crazy busy all the time! I haven't eaten there. Ir was going to ask you. Have you ever felt safe -- have you always felt safe eating from food trucks? JOHNSON: here's the thing. I don't Ned the government to tell me when my food is safe, to be quite honest. I don't think there's anything wrong with the government coming in and making sure that the food is being kept at the right temperature and the cutting surfaces are sanitary. But for me, food trucks have always been a little bit of a dodgier experience, but that's part of the thrill! [ LAUGHTER ] JOHNSON: from going through every sense yell experience! Whether it be drink, you've got your dive bars and really nice club. Every sensual experience has its kind of shadier part of town. And that's part of the thrill for me personally. CAVANAUGH: I have a feeling, heather, you do not necessarily agree with that! BUONOMO: No, I think that food trucks are safe. They have been safe, we have been inspecting them for a long time. And what's exciting about this is now the consumers are going to know that it's safe. That card in the window allows them to make the educated choice. CAVANAUGH: Are there special safety concerns when it comes to food trucks? To does seem to me that restaurants come in all shapes and sizes, I know that, but there's a certain lack of space when it comes to a food truck, and maybe that increases the necessity for a certain amount of cleanliness and organization. BUONOMO: I wouldn't say it's a concern, but it's more of a challenge that that chef or cook needs to address when they build their business plan. JOHNSON: and what about the bathrooms? You know, I know that L.A. has a code where you have to use it in 200 feet of a bathroom. BUONOMO: Correct, that's California health and safety code. CAVANAUGH: So food trucks answer to make sure that they park themselves close to a public restroom? BUONOMO: If they're going to be parked there for an extended period of time, then yes. And we have our operators sign a restroom letter of agreement. So if they have a business nearby that they can go in, use the restroom, wash their hands, and go back and serve the food safely. CAVANAUGH: What do these letter graders actually stand for? BUONOMO: An A and 90-100%, and a C and 80% or below. CAVANAUGH: What does that mean in terms of a construction? BUONOMO: What we look for are major risk factors that would be associated with causing a food-borne illness. So they would have a higher level of score than some of your retail practices. CAVANAUGH: In practical life though, and Troy, please weigh in on this as well, there can't be many people who actually go to a restaurant where a C is posted. Maybe you do, Troy! I don't know! [ LAUGHTER ] JOHNSON: to be quite honest with you, I eat at establishments that deserve a C or possibly a Z, but I'm fine because I'm not getting sick. We've got to remember that people who are food purveyor, they have a natural designer to keep their food as safe as possible because if you get sick, your not going toa come back and get that taco. But the A, B, and C, it does make people feel better. And it's going to open up these food carts. So a whole new audience who are a little bit scared of food trucks are now going to feel more comfortable eating there. BUONOMO: I agree. And on the flip side of things, when we do our inspections, if we do find a major violation, the inspector makes sure that is corrected on site before they leave the food facility. So it's not going to exist moving forward for any of the diners that choose to eat there. CAVANAUGH: So why would somebody get a C if it's already been corrected? BUONOMO: It's a reflection of the score they earned that day and to inform the public of their operating procedures. It's that educating dining choice fors consumer. CAVANAUGH: How long is it going to take to inspect the food trucks around the county? BUONOMO: It'll take approximately two months to get thru all of the trucks. So by May, you should be eating a card in all of the trucks. CAVANAUGH: Do you need to do different things in order to inspect the facilities on board a food truck or cart than you would in a restaurant? In other words if you have a check list, it must be longer for restaurant, but is it also different for food carts or trucks? BUONOMO: The major check list questions are the food risk factor, and the code is a state code, so it's not necessarily for food trucks or restaurants. The challenge of locating the truck, on the truck, making sure that we're not impacting their business while we're completing our inspection. So those are some of our challenges. CAVANAUGH: Do you expect we'll seed if truck prices go up because of the inspections? JOHNSON I'm not exactly sure how much these inspections are going to cost the average operator. BUONOMO: It will be a small increase. I believe it's approximately 5%. Because there's going to be a little bit of additional time going into the inspections now with the grade, explaining the process, and finding them in the field. JOHNSON so maybe your $0.99 tacos are going to be about $1.20. Adam Smith said the invisible hand of economics, this is the invisible hand of health inspectors. And if you keep an always invisible boogie man, not boogie man, but somebody that could do some drastic repercussions to their business to make it clean. CAVANAUGH: Remind us if you would about the range of price points in food trucks around San Diego County. JOHNSON that's the great thing. Because they don't have the concerns of the core, the electricity, the overhead that the brick and mortar restaurants do, you're looking from a buck to $8. If you're going $10, you're at one fancy food cart. You just discovered the French laundry of vehicles. CAVANAUGH: Now, remind us again, if someone visits a food truck in the next couple of weeks and does not see a letter grade, should they start asking questions? JOHNSON: run! [ LAUGHTER ] BUONOMO: They can certainly ask when their last inspection was, but it's going to take us about two months to work through all the trucks. If after May they don't, that would be a great time to ask. CAVANAUGH: And since you've had this feeling about the marvels of unregulated food truck, is this a sign that your little food trucks are growing up? JOHNSON: it is a sign. I think it's a necessary and good thing. I also feel like it's the Glen Miller orchestra sanctioning the Sex Pistols, it takes a little bit of the sexy off of it for me. There is an element of foodingly your life in danger which is why fugu in Japanese cuisine is a delicacy that excites us. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And heather is here to make sure nobody needs to take that risk. [ LAUGHTER ]

San Diego County Restaurant Grading Systems Expands To Food Trucks
San Diego County will become one of the first in the nation to expand the grading of food service to cover the growing food-truck industry. Today Supervisor Ron Roberts issues the first food-truck grade.

Food trucks have undergone a renaissance in recent years. Their numbers have exploded. Many have gone gourmet serving everything from Chinese food to crepes - becoming the chic place to eat at trendy events around town.

But one thing they haven't been is graded by San Diego County's health department. Today that changes, as San Diego County announces the start of letter-grading for food trucks, just like the grades handed out for restaurants.

The move makes San Diego County one of the first in the nation to expand the grading of food service to cover the growing food-truck industry.


Heather Buonomo, the supervising environmental health specialist for the County of San Diego, told KPBS that food trucks have always been safe.

"They have been safe, we have been inspecting them for a long time," she said. "And what's exciting about this is now the consumers are going to know that it's safe. That card in the window allows them to make the educated choice."

But Troy Johnson, the dining critic and editor-at-large at San Diego Magazine, said for him, "food trucks have always been a little bit of a dodgier experience."

"But that's part of the thrill!" he said.

He added that the letter grades could make more people eat at food carts because they'll feel safer.


"So a whole new audience who are a little bit scared of food trucks are now going to feel more comfortable eating there," he said.

Rosie and Chris Garret own a San Diego Maui Wowi, a food cart that serves smoothies and coffee. They received one of the first letter grades from the county.

"The events that we're at are mobile events and you walk by and you're not sure, how good is this stuff, how safe is it," Garret said. "You see the A on my cart, you know I've been inspected by the health dept and you know you can feel comfortable coming to me."

The county inspects around 1,100 mobile food operations in the region, of which 550 sell to the public, but the opearators were not previousl required to display the results, Supervisor Ron Roberts said in July when the ordinance was passed. Restaurants generally display their blue letter grade on a placard in a front window.

Under the ordinance, the food trucks will receive decals instead of cards so the grades can't be transferred among vehicles.

San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts came up with the proposal about a year ago.

"We had some concerns being expressed and we saw some operators that we didn't think were necessarily doing it with a best practices approach," Roberts said.

Letter-Grading For Food Trucks

Corrected: February 22, 2024 at 6:47 AM PST
Claire Trageser and City News Service contributed to this report.