How to Start a Food or Ice Cream Truck Business in New York

Giselle Ayala Mateus, Esq.

Starting a food or ice cream truck business in New York can be an exhilarating and promising endeavor! The vibrant streets and diverse population offer a fantastic opportunity for your mobile business to thrive. To ensure a smooth start and successful operation, it is advisable to seek guidance from a knowledgeable business attorney who can provide valuable legal advice and assistance tailored to the specific requirements of your food or ice cream truck venture in New York. Here is a guide on how to kickstart your food or ice cream truck business with the support and expertise of a trusted business attorney.

Now, before we proceed, let’s clarify what a mobile food truck or “vending unit” as it is called in new York. A mobile food vending unit is a food service establishment within a cart or truck that is used to store, prepare, display, serve or sell food — or distribute it free of charge — to eat in a place other than in or on the unit. A mobile food vending unit can be operated indoors or outdoors on public, private or restricted space.

Create a Business Plan

First and foremost, it is crucial to develop a comprehensive business plan, you can create a great business plan with the assistance of a knowledgeable business attorney. This plan should detail the type of food you intend to serve, identify your target audience, and outline strategies for differentiating your food truck in the market. Additionally, consider your financial resources and explore various options for financing your food truck venture.

Get a Business License

To successfully operate any business in New York, it is imperative to obtain a business license. This crucial step can be facilitated by submitting an application through the New York Department of State. It is essential to ensure that all necessary paperwork is meticulously organized and prepared, encompassing vital details such as your business name, tax information, and any other pertinent documentation. Seeking guidance from a knowledgeable business attorney can also prove invaluable in navigating the intricacies of the licensing process and ensuring compliance with legal requirements.

Choosing whether to operate as an individual or form a legal entity like an LLC or corporation is a big step. It’s important to consider the pros and cons of each option.

Operating as an Individual:

  • Simplicity: Running your business as a sole proprietorship is straightforward. There’s no need to file separate taxes for your business.
  • Direct Control: You make all the decisions without needing to consult with partners or shareholders.
  • Ease of Change: If you want to switch up your business model, you can do so easily without lots of paperwork.
  • Responsibility. As an individual your assets will respond in full for all obligations and debts of this new venture. 

However, operating as an individual means you’re personally liable for any debts or legal issues your business encounters.

Forming a Legal Entity (LLC or Corporation):

  • Limited Liability: Both LLCs and corporations provide a shield for your personal assets. If your business runs into trouble, your personal savings and property are typically protected.
  • Tax Benefits: Corporations can benefit from tax options that aren’t available to sole proprietors. LLCs offer flexibility in how you’re taxed.
  • Credibility: Having ‘LLC’ or ‘Inc.’ after your business name can boost your credibility with customers and partners.

It’s wise to consult with a legal advisor to help you decide which structure aligns with your business goals and needs. They can guide you through the complexities and ensure you’re making the best choice for your situation.

Employment Identification Number

An Employment Identification Number (EIN), also known as a Federal Tax Identification Number, is an essential component for nearly all businesses, including your food truck venture. This number is used by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to identify a business entity for tax purposes. Here are several reasons why obtaining an EIN is important for conducting your food truck business:

1. Tax Administration: The EIN serves as your business’s unique tax identifier, making it easier to file your federal taxes. It’s essentially the social security number for your business and is required when reporting employment taxes or providing tax documents to employees.

2. Business Accounts: When you’re setting up a bank account specifically for your food truck business, banks will typically require an EIN. This helps in keeping your personal and business finances separate, which is crucial for managing your business’s financial health and simplifying accounting processes.

3. Hiring Employees: If you plan on hiring employees to help run your food truck, an EIN is mandatory. It’s needed to set up payroll because it’s used to report taxes at both the federal and state level for your employees.

4. Legal Compliance: Depending on your state, having an EIN may be a legal requirement for obtaining business licenses and permits. Since a food truck often requires various permits to operate, such as health department permits, parking permits, and others, having an EIN is a step towards compliance with these regulations.

5. Building Credit: A business EIN allows you to build credit under your business name. This can be beneficial if you ever need to take out a loan or enter into lease agreements for equipment or the truck itself.

6. Vendor Relationships: Some wholesalers and suppliers may require an EIN before they do business with you. It’s a way to prove that you’re a legitimate business, which can open doors to better trade credit terms.

7. Preventing Identity Theft: Using an EIN instead of your personal social security number for business transactions can provide an extra layer of protection against identity theft.

In summary, an EIN is not just a regulatory requirement; it’s a fundamental tool for the professional and legal operation of your food truck business. It facilitates smoother operations, helps maintain your business’s legal standing, and contributes to the overall credibility and growth potential of your culinary enterprise.

Driver License

Obtaining a driver’s license is an absolute necessity if you are considering entering the world of food truck businesses. It’s quite likely that you have previously acquired this essential piece of documentation, as it is a basic requirement for driving any vehicle on public roads. While your culinary skills are paramount when it comes to preparing and selling food from your truck, they will not help you when it comes to relocating your mobile eatery from one place to another. In truth, holding a valid driver’s license might seem like a given; however, it is crucial to emphasize its importance.

Food Truck Registration

Just like you need a driver’s license, your food truck must be registered. Most states ask you to register your personal car. But for a food truck, you might need a commercial registration. Vehicle registrations prove that your truck is up to standards and that you own it. It’s also smart to insure your food truck. Insurance is important for a regular car, but for your food truck, which makes you money, it’s vital. It helps you avoid the risk of losing everything. You can even get business insurance for your food truck business. This could help you keep earning money if there’s an accident or fire and your truck needs repairs.

Mobile Food Vending License

Obtaining a Mobile Food Vending License is essential for food or ice cream trucks looking to operate legally. This permit grants you the authority to prepare and serve food on the go in compliance with health regulations.

The Mobile Food Vending License is issued to an individual who will prepare and/or serve food from a permitted mobile food vending unit (truck or pushcart). The license is issued by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) as a photo ID badge. The Mobile Food Vending License is only issued to individuals not businesses. This means that you was the owner will be the one applying, whether you form a legal entity or not to conduct other business matters related to your new venture. 

This license is required prior to applying for a Mobile Food Vending Permit. An application for a new license must be submitted in person by the applicant. The New York City Health Department will not accept application by mail or by a representative of the applicant. You must make an appointment with the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (DCWP) to submit your license application. To schedule an appointment, either email licensingAppointments@dca.nyc.gov or call 212-436-0441.

Additionally, all applicants must register and pay for a mobile food vending food protection course at the time they apply for a license. Successful completion of the food protection course is required to obtain a Mobile Food Vending License.

You will receive your license in the mail in about a week after passing the final exam. You may not begin working on a mobile food vending unit until you receive your license.

Proof of Address

You must provide proof of home address when you apply for this license. You may provide one of the following if it has your name on it:

  • Valid driver’s license or non-driver’s photo identification
  • Recent bank statement, credit card statement, or utility bill (dated within 90 days of the application date)
  • Valid/current lease

If you do not have acceptable proof of your home address, you must submit a completed affidavit of home address form with your license application.

Social or ITIN

You will need to provide your Social Security Number (SSN) or an Individual Taxpayer ID and also a valid government issued photo ID (e.g., driver’s license, passport, employment authorization card).

Clearance by the New York City Environmental Control Board

As part of the application process you must be cleared by the New York City Environmental Control Board to ensure you owe no outstanding fines. You can submit a Food Vendor Request for an Invoice to the Office of Administrative Tribunal and Hearings and they will notify you if you owe any fines. You must pay any outstanding fines before you can submit an application.

Fees

  • $50.00: Full-term (2 year) license fee (debit or credit card, check or money order). License Code H05
  • $53.00: Fee for Mobile Food Vendor Food Protection Course (debit or credit card, certified check, government check or money order). Payment for the course must be submitted separately from the payment for the license application or any violations of the Health Code or Administrative Code.

Clearance by the New York City Environmental Control Board

As part of the application process you must be cleared by the New York City Environmental Control Board to ensure you owe no outstanding fines. You can submit a Food Vendor Request for an Invoice to the Office of Administrative Tribunal and Hearings and they will notify you if you owe any fines. You must pay any outstanding fines before you can submit an application.

Mobile Food Vending Permit

The number of street food vendor permits New York City can issue is limited by law. The Health Department has different types of permits, each has a different number available.

Year-round (full-term) permits, valid for a two-year period:

  • Citywide permits
  • Citywide permits for U.S. veterans and people with a disability
  • Non-Manhattan permits that allow vending in NYC boroughs except Manhattan
  • Borough-specific permits that allow vending in one borough (Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, or Staten Island)
  • Green cart permits that allow vending of fruit, vegetables, plain nuts, and water in certain neighborhoods.

Seasonal permits, valid April 1 to October 31 each year:

Seasonal and green cart permit applications are offered to people on waiting lists.

Mobile food vending permits are valid for up to two years and must be renewed before the expiration date. A renewal application form and instructions are mailed to each permit holder at the address of record three months prior to expiration. 

Restricted Area Mobile Food Vending Permit

Restricted Area Mobile Food Vending Permits allow for vending on private property or on NYC Department of Parks and Recreation property under an agreement between the vendor and the property owner. This type of permit does not allow the unit to vend on the public sidewalk or street. There is no waiting list for this permit and no limit on the number of permits available.

Most businesses that operate or generate revenue on NYC parkland are considered concessions and must obtain a permit or license from NYC Parks. These permits allow vending year-round and are limited to operating at the curb around a NYC Park if they are 30 feet or more away from any park entrance.

The Ice Cream License (Frozen Desserts, License to Handle Wholesale)

Businesses need this license to sell or distribute frozen desserts in New York State. This license is issued by the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets.

Frozen desserts include:

  • ice cream;
  • frozen custard;
  • ice milk;
  • freezer-made shakes;
  • sorbet;
  • frozen confections; and
  • all similar products, with or without dairy.

Commissary Letter of Agreement

A commissary is a food establishment with a health permit that services mobile food facilities as required under the New York State Sanitary Code, Subpart 14-1:

14-4.95 Commissaries.
(a) All mobile food service establishments and pushcarts are to be serviced only at a commissary operated under a valid permit issued under Subpart 14-1 of this Part or operated under license or permit of an appropriate regulatory authority at a frequency necessary to maintain the sanitary conditions of the mobile unit or pushcart, and in any event at least daily for pushcarts and every 72 hours for mobile food service establishments.

    Sale's Tax

    Food trucks are legally obligated to collect, file, and pay sales tax. For most states and cities, food trucks are treated the same as restaurants when it comes to sales tax obligations.

    Heated  Food

    In New York, restaurants or stores that sell heated food are subject to sale’s tax, no matter where the customer eats it. This rule applies to food sold in grocery or convenience stores for eating on the spot. If the food is hot, there’s a tax, even if the store also sells it cold and packaged. Also, any prepared food handed to the customer ready to eat is taxed in New York. It doesn’t matter if it’s hot or cold or meant to be eaten at home. Additionally, if the seller puts the food on a platter or in a box and the customer does not need to do anything else to it, the seller has to charge you sales tax.

    Cold Foods

    New York doesn’t tax certain food as long as it is unheated. The food must be sold like it is in a grocery store and meant to be taken away. Cold buffets and salad bars get taxed too, whether the customer eats at the place or takes them away.

    Ice cream is also taxed if the customer eats it at the store but not if it’s packed. If there’s an ice cream machine or drink dispenser those sales are taxed.

    In New York, packaging decides if to-go food gets taxed. If it’s packed like in a store, you can buy it without tax. But, if it’s heated or made for eating right away, you’ll need to pay sales tax.

    Employee's Food Handler's License

    Having a Food Handlers license for all your employees in a food truck business is super important for several reasons:

    1. Safety First: The license shows that your team knows how to handle food safely. This means they understand how to avoid cross-contamination, proper cooking temperatures, and how to store food correctly. Keeping customers safe from foodborne illnesses is a top priority.

    2. Legal Requirements: In many places, the law requires anyone who touches food as part of their job to have a Food Handlers license. If you don’t follow these rules, your business could get fined or even shut down.

    3. Customer Trust: When customers see that your food truck has licensed handlers, they feel more confident eating your food. They know that you take their health seriously and are more likely to come back or recommend your truck to friends.

    4. Quality Control: A well-trained staff will make fewer mistakes. This means less wasted food and money. Plus, good practices lead to better tasting food, which is great for business!

    5. Professional Development: Employees with this license may feel more professional and valued. It can also help them in their future careers in the food industry.

    6. Insurance Benefits: Sometimes, having licensed employees can lower insurance costs because it reduces the risk of something going wrong.

    In conclusion...

    Embarking on the journey of launching a food truck business is indeed a thrilling adventure. It’s a path that requires not just a passion for culinary arts, but also an unwavering commitment to hard work and meticulous planning. As you dive into this venture, keep in mind that every step you take should be deliberate and well thought out.

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