When state regulators show up at a food truck event for a surprise inspection, Monsta Lobsta owner Kurt Andreaus says things can get hectic.
Long lines, sweltering heat and small spaces always put pressure on the one or two people inside the truck, but it gets tougher when you add an inspector checking for food temperatures and cleanliness.
But Andreaus says he welcomes the inspections because food truck owners are battling to fight a common perception of food trucks as "traveling roach coaches." They want show that the new generation of moving eateries are just as clean or cleaner than stationary restaurants, he said.
State inspectors apply the same food safety standards to food trucks as they do other restaurants, checking each at least twice a year for cleanliness, proper temperatures and sanitation.
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"It's actually better when inspectors do show up at an event because it shows everyone that food trucks have the same standards as everyone else," said food truck even promoter Mark Baratelli, who posts inspection reports for companies he works with on his TheDailyCity.com website.
From June 2014 to now, mobile food vendors in Central Florida were cleaner than other types or restaurants, according to data from the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation.
Inspectors issued inspection warnings to about 10 percent of food trucks compared with 17 percent of all other types of restaurants, records show. However, food trucks were shut down at nearly the same rate as other restaurants, about once per every 200 inspections.
Trucks have been cited for violations such as lapsed permits, insects, food kept outside of safe temperatures, lack of water and employees failing to wash their hands.
Food trucks are a growing challenge for inspectors who have seen the ranks of mobile food vendors grow to 634 operators as of September in Orange, Seminole, Lake, Osceola, Brevard, Indian River, Lake, St. Lucie and Volusia counties. Since 2005, the number of mobile food vendors in Central Florida has increased by 204, a 47 percent increase.
Inspections are supposed to be unannounced, so state regulators have to be creative to surprise food trucks during operating hours, said DBPR spokeswoman Chelsea Eagle.
"Sometimes the inspectors will follow them on social media or the Web to find out where food trucks will be," Eagle said. "There are a lot of big food truck events, so sometimes one of our people will show up there."
Food trucks do have their own unique challenges to keeping up with code. For example, they need water tanks for hand-washing and cleaning, Eagle said. Operators also need to keep food cold during transport.
Andreaus said there is coordinated effort among food truck operators to keep the entire industry clean.
"Nobody wants to be a truck that gets a bad inspection because it can hurt everyone," Andreaus said. "You can work as a team. You are basically protecting the industry."
Monsta Lobsta has had several perfection inspections, even though the truck was dinged for one infraction on its last visit.
"There was a little slit in a cutting board," Andreaus said. "Sometimes no matter how hard you work, something will go wrong."
At a food truck show in Lake Mary on a recent night, 27-year-old nursing student Jackie Mullett ordered shrimp jambalaya from the Voodoo Kitchen food truck.
"I think I actually trust a food truck more than I would a restaurant," Mullett said. "I've worked in restaurants before and have seen how dirty they can be."
David Gospodarek, 28, of Lake Mary moved to the area earlier this year from Philadelphia and said he has been eating at food trucks for years without any problem.
"I don't think I've ever worried about how clean they are," said Gospodarek, who ordered a cheese steak from the Philly's Best truck.
The food truck industry in Central Florida underwent a radical shift two years ago when Orlando and other municipalities adopted rules that prohibited mobile eateries from setting up business on streets and operating in residential areas.
Those rules have given birth to food truck events across the area several times a week.
Some cities have their own rules, such as a ban on Styrofoam serving containers in Orlando. In Winter Garden, operators say it's very difficult to have a permit for a food truck approved.
But many food truck rules are similar across Central Florida, and operators have adapted a one-size-fits-all approach for the entire area, Baratelli said.
Inspectors shut down mobile eatery The Swat Truck at an event at Avalon Park last year when the vehicle ran out of water. It was re-inspected later that evening and reopened, according to state records.
"It was a busier evening than we thought, and we were caught off guard," said owner Curtis Bright, who said he forgot to refill his tank between events. "It looks bad on paper, and we learned a lesson."
Many food trucks, such as The Crepe Co., prepare food at a commissary, which is also inspected. Crepe Co. owner Lisa Martek said she tries to do as much work at the commissary as possible, including mixing crepe batter, to make running the truck smoother.
The Crepe Co. truck can also expect to see inspectors at certain events, Martek said.
"There always seems to be in inspector at Avalon Park since there are so many trucks there," Martek said. "You have to stay on top of the rules."