Diary of a New Food Truck Owner, Part 7: I Curse Thee, Health Department

Diary of a New Food Truck Owner is an ongoing series where we talk with Meg Hilgartner, co-owner (with Siri Skelton) of a fledgling San Francisco mobile soft-serve ice cream business called Twirl and Dip. In this installment, Meg and Siri learn why restaurant gossip about the Health Department is usually accompanied by a string of four-letter words, and why photographs on eBay are not a good indicator of what something actually looks like. Read all the installments.

Last week kicked my ass.
We had a friend who's opening a restaurant, American Grilled Cheese Kitchen, and she contacted us hoping we might want to sell ice cream on her patio on baseball game days, starting on May 31. She didn't realize we had a truck. She thought we had a little cart. We didn't. But we really liked the idea, so we bought one.

We couldn't just pull the truck up and sell from that. If there were a way we could park on her patio, we'd be in a spot zoned for selling food, and all we'd need is a sticker from the Health Department saying we were approved to do that. But if we park in front, it's public property and that's an entirely different proposition.

So with this vision of us selling ice cream on summer days, we went on eBay and bought an ice cream cart for $1,500. The photographs online made it look only a little bigger than one of those carts that vendors push around the parks. That's what we wanted. So we ordered it, and there was free shipping if we had it shipped to a business address, so I arranged with my employers to have it delivered there. The day of the delivery it was raining, so there I was, waiting in the parking lot of the catering company.

When the guy with the truck pulled up, he said, "All right, you got a forklift?" Um, weren't we just going to roll it down a ramp? I got a look at the size of the thing. Oh, my God. This was no cart. This was like a grocery store freezer on wheels. The guy with the truck said, "OK, I'll come back later with a truck that has a hydraulic lift in it," and took off. And we had to go to a bar and do some shots of Knob Creek, because if we didn't we were going to cry. Did they photograph the cart with a woman who was nine feet tall? How could this have happened?

Meanwhile, the guy's back with the freezer and now we have a 250-pound cart on a pallet. Siri had called a friend with a minivan, and he had come with a makeshift ramp made out of a white picket fence, I kid you not. So we're trying to shove it up this ramp, the three of us, plus we're in the way of the caterers, who want us to get it out of there, like, yesterday, because they have a party for 300 people tomorrow. So we ended up turning the refrigerator on its side to get it into the van. You're not supposed to do that because of the Freon lines. But we did it anyway, and we got it into my garage and plugged it in, and then I could have my nervous breakdown.

I melted down for about three days. I couldn't even talk to anyone. What was wrong with us that we buy this giant ice cream truck and this giant ice cream cart? Why can't we do anything in a way that makes sense; why do we making all these mistakes? What is wrong with us?

So let's see, that takes us up to Thursday, which I'd blocked off to talk to the Health Department about getting approved to sell at the restaurant. There's one woman who deals with all the trucks and carts in San Francisco. Before we'd even bought the truck, I'd called her to see what kinds of codes we needed to worry about and she'd said, pretty laid-back, "Just read the website and make sure the truck you buy meets all the requirements." Great, cool, I read the site. I got some help from the San Francisco Cart Project, which is a guy named Matthew who has a crusade to encourage more mobile food in San Francisco. So I figured, getting the sticker for the cart would be no problem.

Ha ha ha ha ha. I called the health department woman again—by the way, her office hours are 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. I told her we'd talked before, we bought a truck and a cart, and the vibe is totally different this time. "Which website did you go to? Because there are two and one of them is wrong." What? Why do you have two websites? Why would one of them be incorrect? Why did you tell me to rely on it for my information if there's wrong information out there? Why did you lead me to believe getting approved wouldn't be a problem and then change the story just a few months later? She said she needed a schematic of the truck and the cart and the menu, and she'd look at all of those things and see if San Francisco could give us permission to sell. That was Thursday, and we got the information to her on Friday and now it's Tuesday and it's not looking good. We signed a contract with Eclectic Cookery to rent kitchen space. We don't even know if we need that now.

I'm feeling really discouraged. Even if we get permission from the Health Department, which isn't looking likely, we still have to figure out how we're going to get this giant cart into Siri's dad's pickup truck, and then to Eclectic Cookery to fill it up with product, and then off the truck and into the restaurant patio, and then back on the truck and into my garage. And that's the best-case scenario! If the Health Department decides not to approve us at all, that's it, we're locked out of San Francisco. And then we'll have to decide what to do next.