Seattle's Mobile Food Vending Survey of 2016

(Download the 50-page survey report below.)

This research project, Insights into Seattle’s Mobile Food Vending, (conducted by Pacific Lutheran University) is the second phase of a study previously conducted for the City of Seattle’s Office of Economic Development (Restaurant Success). It explores current mobile food vendors’ impressions of the Seattle & King County Public Health permitting process required to start their businesses, location preferences (particularly in public spaces permitted by Seattle Department of Transportation), how vendors finance their business, and important factors that make for effective marketing. This study also includes an experiment to determine factors that may contribute to effective social media marketing for mobile food vendors. The goal of this research is to provide recommendations, resources, or other tools that can be implemented to better assist people looking to start a street food vending business within the city limits.  The survey and interviews were conducted from April 25, 2016 to May 10, 2016. Responses were collected from approximately 200-vendors.


Here are some data highlights:

In 2015, data from the Seattle & King County Public Health showed 296 mobile food vendors received annual inspections, which more than tripled the vendors that were present in 2006.

From the data received, the one step that stood out as the most difficult was the “Plan Review Application for a Mobile Food Service”. 66.7% of respondents felt it was either “very difficult” or “somewhat difficult” and no respondents indicated it was “very easy”.


The city does allow mobile food vendors to operate on public space, but the public curbside area has to be designated by the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDoT) as a food-vehicle zone, and a Street Use Permit authorized from SDoT is required to operate in these food-vehicle zones.  There are currently only 45 already approved zones across Seattle, however only 13 of those are currently available two or more days a week for new applicants.


Previous research suggested that vendors are very concerned with operating on public property in Seattle. The data collected indicated that around half of the vendors never conduct business on city property (46.2% for curb space and 51.3% for city parks), while over 60% are operating on private property at least once a week. Upon presenting these results to Restaurant Success, they believed they could enhance their services by uncovering why vendors are never operating on public property. The new study dived into multiple possibilities for this. One can question if the high cost of obtaining the Street Use Permit to sell in the limited amount of available locations potentially being major factors.


Regarding the sources of funding for new vendors used to start up their businesses: results showed the majority, 61.5%, of respondents paid for their businesses, at least in part, with cash; while interestingly, only 5.1% of respondents used a bank loan.


Original research found a major source of frustration vendors had, was with the Street Use Permit from SDoT.  And, on average respondents rated finding a commissary with proper offsite parking as the most difficult aspect of the Plan Review.


Notably, nearly all vendors surveyed talked about their frustration with the Mobile Food Unit Permit being assigned by counties, instead of a cooperative multi-county or statewide system. Most vendors do catering as a way to generate some guaranteed income for a day, but those type of operations typically require them to change where they will operate, and those locations can range from Olympia, Tacoma, Port Orchard, and Everett, all of which are in different counties from Seattle. This means they would need five different, yet very similar, permits to operate across these major cities along the Puget Sound. Second, the vendors also suggested that Public Health create a designated “mobile food operations” personnel who handle all the questions and concerns about the Mobile Food Unit Permit for any mobile vendor. They made this suggestion on the basis that they are currently getting different information from different people within the Health Department or having people unsure about all the regulations for mobile food vendors. 


The interviews also gave some insights about the attitude toward the Street Use Permit being very risky due to it being an annual permit. Interviewees said that they would be taking a risk to lock down a location on public property for a full year without knowing what sort of revenue can be generated at that location. They have to pay for a full year’s usage, and if the location is determined to be a bad location after two or three months then they are at a loss. The survey asked if the vendors would want to see the annual permit be broken down to a smaller time frame. The data shows that quarterly was the average for all the respondents. It was also discovered that the vendors who rarely operate on the public right of way, less than once a month, would like to see the permit broken down to smaller time intervals, such as monthly, in comparison to vendors who do use the public space, more than once a month, would prefer longer lengths of time allowed by the permit.


The results show that that most vendors are under estimating the costs for the permits that they will need to operate. 72% indicated that the actual cost of the permits was either more or much more than they had anticipated. An aspect that Restaurant Success wanted us to specifically look at was the liability insurance. Results indicate that half of the vendors are over estimating the cost of it and half are under estimating the cost of it.


All of the vendors who were interviewed mentioned that word of mouth was the most important marketing tool for their businesses. Most notably, vendors for whom catering was a significant part of their businesses said word of mouth was essential for bringing in new customers. The level of vendors’ online involvement varied from having a Facebook page that was seldom updated to having multiple social media accounts and a custom website complete with professionally taken photographs.  The results of the experiment show that the inclusion of images in posts did have a significant positive effect on both the appeal of the posts and the respondents’ likelihood to visit the business. The take-away from the experiment is that when images of food are included in social media posts, the posts are better received by their audience.


Survey Recommendations:

·        Since vendors felt that finding a restroom within 200 feet of operation location was the most difficult part of applying for the Mobile Food Unit Permit, the city may want to look into ways to remedy the issue.


·        One of the most common frustrations expressed by vendors was the necessity to acquire separate health permits for each county in which they wanted to operate in. Most of the vendors did not operate their businesses solely in the city of Seattle or even just King County. One vendor mentioned Montana as a good example of a place where a single health permit is valid for the entire state. This suggestion would likely require some form of involvement from state authorities, by raising awareness to the issue, and a dialogue with governing bodies, potentially leading to a statewide policy change. If a statewide permit is not feasible, another option could be to create a multi-county cooperative agreement, between a few counties such as King, Pierce and Thurston counties.  (This is a subject the Washington State Food Truck Association is willing to discuss with a more active membership.)


·        The results from the survey and the interviews suggest that there is a lot of risk associated to the annual Street Use Permit. Vendors who do not operate on public property frequently have a perception that the permit is too expensive and would like to see the annual length of it broken down into smaller lengths of time. The suggestion here is that vendors lobby for some changes in the SDoT Street Use Permit. By offering a quarterly, good for 90 days, permit the city could see more vendors operating in this space.


·        The county could provide examples of how much different components of the startup process are estimated to cost. These examples can be averages of multiple vendors or actual testimonials of current vendors who agree to make their expenses public. Overall, by providing actual estimates to possible new vendors, they should have a better idea on what to expect cost wise when starting their business.


·        Another suggestion is that the Grow Seattle website provide examples of completed or filled out documents that are required to be submitted to different agencies. While conducting the phone interviews a few interviewees mentioned that they had to resubmit paperwork due to their paperwork having small problems in the information they included in their original submissions.


·        Have an “ambassador” who bridges the gap between government and vendors, to open dialog about policy reforms.  This is where the Washington State Food Truck Association has stepped in and has become the central conduit of communication.


The Final Note:


“We want to express our thanks to the City of Seattle’s Office of Economic Development for the unique and meaningful opportunity to work on this study. Notably, we would like to extend our personal gratitude to Jennifer Tam for her partnership throughout both phases of this year-long project. A common theme in the conversations we had with vendors was how appreciative they were of the City of Seattle to have a dialogue with them and listen to their opinions and suggestions. We also would like to thank Lori Johnson at the Washington State Food Truck Association for her support to help distribute our survey to vendors who operate in Seattle. A final appreciation is to be made to the business owners who completed our survey and especially the ones who took the time out of their day to do the interviews with us. Mobile food vending has grown to become an amazingly rich community for both vendors and diners alike. We sincerely hope that this research leads to this community growing even stronger and more vibrant in the years to come.

Further Insights Into Seattles Mobile Fo
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