Melinda Grenier serves patrons at her coffee truck called Hay Girl Coffee during the third annual Arlington Pride event in Arlington, Washington on Sunday, June 2, 2024. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Melinda Grenier serves patrons at her coffee truck called Hay Girl Coffee during the third annual Arlington Pride event in Arlington, Washington on Sunday, June 2, 2024. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Hidden costs, delays crush hopeful food truck owners in Snohomish County

Melinda Grenier followed her dream to open Hay Girl Coffee. Thousands in fees later, it has cost her more than she bargained for.

ARLINGTON — Melinda Grenier quit her job at Amazon in April to follow a lifelong dream: starting her own mobile coffee stand. But with unforeseen costs and permit delays, it’s starting to feel more like a nightmare.

Grenier, of Arlington, spent months looking for the right trailer. She finally found “the one” on Craigslist and revamped it within six weeks. She attached a neon sign reading “Hay Girl Coffee” to the trailer, now pink and cow print thanks to her three children’s eye for design.

In all, Grenier invested about $100,000 to launch Hay Girl Coffee.

On April 30, Grenier submitted her $855 application to the Snohomish County Health Department for an annual permit, excited to join 120 mobile food vendors permitted in Snohomish County. Normally, the process takes about three months, according to the county website. Application reviews are first come, first served.

Melinda Grenier, left, and Audrey Blomberg, right, serve patrons at Hay Girl Coffee during the third annual Arlington Pride event in Arlington, Washington on Sunday, June 2, 2024. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Melinda Grenier, left, and Audrey Blomberg, right, serve patrons at Hay Girl Coffee during the third annual Arlington Pride event in Arlington, Washington on Sunday, June 2, 2024. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Grenier then got to work looking for her first few gigs. She didn’t expect much, but was soon booked for events all summer.

“The business took off,” she said.

But on May 3, the health department emailed Grenier and others waiting for their permits. Due to staff turnover and an influx of applications, the wait for plan reviews was almost five months.

Strict regulations, high costs and “huge wait times” make Snohomish County’s mobile food vendor permitting process a burden for small businesses, said Lori Johnson, director of the Washington State Food Truck Association.

“We are trying to speak up on behalf of these very small businesses,” she wrote in an email last week, “who are being overburdened by unnecessary and costly regulation.”

Melinda Grenier serves patrons at her coffee truck called Hay Girl Coffee during the third annual Arlington Pride event in Arlington, Washington on Sunday, June 2, 2024. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Melinda Grenier serves patrons at her coffee truck called Hay Girl Coffee during the third annual Arlington Pride event in Arlington, Washington on Sunday, June 2, 2024. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

For now, Grenier must pay thousands in temporary permit fees for the events she booked. That’s on top of her usual operating costs, the $100-or-so event vendor fee and the $500 she pays each month for access to one of the few commissary kitchens, also known as commercial food kitchens, in the county.

Often, events only last about five hours, leaving limited time for Grenier to sell enough coffee to make the event worth it.

“I quit my job, I put my life savings into this,” she said. “The health department is going to drown me.”

‘Punished because the department is short-staffed’

More than 80 mobile food vendors were waiting for a county permit as of this month, health department spokesperson Kari Bray said. Last week, staff were reviewing applications submitted in December.

“We have made some internal staffing changes to get more support for plan review,” Bray wrote to vendors. “You will receive an email notification when your application is assigned to a plan reviewer.”

On June 3, Health Department Director Dennis Worsham sent a memo to the County Council about the backlog. The health department’s plan review team has faced “limited capacity and resources” since last year, Worsham wrote. The department is reassigning other staff members to help get through reviews.

Meanwhile, when Grenier works a public event, she must pay $90 per day for a temporary permit. If she applies within two weeks of an event, the department tacks on a $65 late fee.

“I feel like I’m being punished because the department is short-staffed,” Grenier said.

By May 21, Grenier had spent about $800 on temporary fees. She emailed the department about reimbursement. After weeks of pressing, Grenier got a call from Tony Colinas, assistant director at the county’s environmental health division. He declined to waive, reduce or pay back temporary permit fees.

“It was either shut my business or pay for the fees,” Grenier said. “I put $100K into this business. How do you expect to sit for six months?”

Greg McKnight has worked with food trucks nationwide since 1994, and now works for the food and facilities program in King County. He called the situation “unfortunate,” but he sees both sides.

“The times posted are based on ideal plan review periods,” he said. “When you submit plans before you start a business, I would definitely check and make sure those times are real.”

Permits in King County take about six weeks, as long as the applications are complete. But it’s not uncommon for wait times to push several months, McKnight said.

King County has a food vendor advisory board and regular events to help mobile food vendors find resources. McKnight’s advice to hopeful food truck owners?

“Do your research.”

‘Right now it’s a challenge’

To get their first annual permit in Snohomish County, mobile food vendors must pay a $855 fee, along with providing several pages of step-by-step plans for their business. This includes their trailer layout, supplies and equipment, as well as wastewater dumping and daily operating procedures.

Before applying, vendors must have a contract with a commissary kitchen as well as advance parking approval from event sites. Vendors must also have a sticker of approval from the state Department of Labor and Industries, a process that can take up to six months.

If someone makes a mistake on their application, they may have to get back in line for another review. This is especially troublesome for residents whose first language isn’t English, said Ericka San Juan, staff member at the Latino Educational Training Institute in Lynnwood.

For the past three years, San Juan has provided application help for Latinos, who make up about 28% of permitted mobile food vendors in Snohomish County. The health department has provided more permit documents in Spanish the past few years, San Juan said, but some forms still don’t have that option.

“We want to empower them to complete the application themselves,” she said. “But right now it’s a challenge.”

Jason Bauer, of Arlington, said he researched for months before opening Warpig Smokehouse in 2021. He found a truck and spent about $40,000 retrofitting it to the county’s specifications. He even paid $130 to have a county employee provide a preliminary inspection.

Jason Bauer, of Warpig Smokehouse, chats with some customers while taking orders at the Lake Stevens Farmers Market on Wednesday, June 12, 2024, in Lake Stevens, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Jason Bauer, of Warpig Smokehouse, chats with some customers while taking orders at the Lake Stevens Farmers Market on Wednesday, June 12, 2024, in Lake Stevens, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

But like Grenier, Bauer had to fork over hundreds for temporary permits while waiting for his review. He called and emailed the department over and over, he said. As it often goes with food trucks, Bauer said, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.”

Bauer, whose truck is often parked at the Lake Stevens Farmers Market, said a lack of commissary kitchens is another major problem. The Kitchen Door, an online commercial kitchen locator, lists two available spots in Snohomish County. One, in Everett, charges $1,000 for 36 hours of kitchen time per month. The other, in Marysville, does not list a price.

Meanwhile, King County has an online dashboard of 24 kitchens.

‘The squeaky wheel gets the grease’

As Grenier navigated the red tape of her application, she struggled for weeks to find a commissary kitchen. She didn’t need a kitchen for food prep, but the county requires one for wastewater dumping. Bauer guessed about 85% of local food truck owners only use their kitchen for dumping.

“Snohomish County does not permit the use of a commissary kitchen in another county,” according to the health department website.

Contrary to the website, however, Bray said vendors aren’t denied their permits if they contract with kitchens in other counties. That could change, however. At some point, the county may require all vendors to have kitchens within county limits, even if they already have another kitchen elsewhere.

Zach Meyer, who owns Gusto Wood Fired Pizza with his wife Lindsay, throws a Margherita pizza into the oven while cooking at the Lake Stevens Farmers Market on Wednesday, June 12, 2024, in Lake Stevens, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Zach Meyer, who owns Gusto Wood Fired Pizza with his wife Lindsay, throws a Margherita pizza into the oven while cooking at the Lake Stevens Farmers Market on Wednesday, June 12, 2024, in Lake Stevens, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Linsday Meyer, who owns Gusto Wood Fired Pizza with her husband Zach, said good commissary kitchens are coveted. After months of searching, the only kitchen they could find was in Stanwood. They love it, Meyers said, but it’s a 45-minute drive from their home in Marysville.

Finding a kitchen is often a matter of connections, Bauer said. He pays $1,000 per month for unlimited hours in one kitchen, he said, while other kitchens charge $500 per day. Eventually, Grenier found a kitchen through a fellow business owner who charges her $500 per month — considered a steal — to dump her wastewater.

Earlier this year, the Latino Educational Training Institute announced plans to open a commissary kitchen in Everett for Latino caterers and food truck owners.

San Juan and Grenier both described the county’s mobile food vendor permitting proccess as “backwards.” Investing thousands in contracts and renovations, as well as a large application fee, to then be expected to sit and wait for months “makes no sense,” Grenier said.

The health department plans to clear the permit backlog by August, according to the June 3 memo. Afterward, the goal is to keep wait times at or below six weeks.

As of June 14, the wait time for mobile food permits is listed as 12 weeks on the health department’s website. No wait time is posted for other food health permits, such as restaurants and catering.

Sydney Jackson: 425-339-3430; sydney.jackson@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @_sydneyajackson.

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