Many people ask us how to start a food cart, so here is a page to help you start the entrepreneurial journey—at least in Bloomington, Indiana. There are basically two permits to get, but they require several other things, and it's best to get the ball rolling on as many different parts as you can. To get a business permit, you need a health permit, to get a health permit you need a commissary kitchen, to get that you need insurance, and so on. Here is the basic order in which I did it, working backwards with the first thing to do at the bottom of the page, because usually to get one thing, you need the previous thing.
Business Permit: Jason Carnes is at City Hall and will answer questions about the details of the permit, from where you can set up, to your signage, etc. And if he doesn't know the answer, he'll give you the right contact for someone who does. The business permit does have a checklist of to-dos, which looks overwhelming but really isn't too bad, just a lot of paperwork and emailing to do. Head to: http://bloomington.in.gov/business-licenses
Health Permit: Sandy Wallace deals with all the mobile food licensing and is really great to work with. Start with an email to set up a meeting, because their walk-in office hours are pretty short. This permit also has a checklist to help guide you through, and will require fairly detailed plans of what you plan to make and how, how you will store it, clean, etc. Find Sandy's email here: http://www.co.monroe.in.us/tsd/Community/HealthDepartment.aspx
Commissary Kitchen: This will be the biggest and most important challenge for a food cart in Bloomington. "Commissary" is just another word for an approved kitchen with lots of stainless steel appliances, and it's where you'll be required to prep and clean all of your food items. The Health Department might help you find one, but they are not always easy to come by. I was fortunate to find a commissary that rents by the hour, One World Commissary, and fortunately for new food-related businesses, they are expanding to a new, larger location in the spring of 2016—and will allow more clients then. Another good bet is to find an existing restaurant and use their kitchen in the off hours (this will likely mean late late nights). The big kicker in Bloomington is the infamous "grease interceptor"—it's a big expensive device (like $15,000) that must be dug into the ground to stop grease from entering the city sewers. A lot of restaurants are grandfathered in, but any new restaurant must have one according to City Utilities (it's not a Health Dept. regulation). Even a business like mine—with only coffee and water for dishes—has to use a grease interceptor, and that's the main reason that we need a commissary at this point.
General Liability Insurance: The May Agency helped me figure this out. You might be able to do it online but I prefer to work with people in real life, especially when it comes to important business stuff like this. You'll often need a new insurance rider made out for different events, just with the event's address or something, and my agent has always been really quick about this.
Bank Account: I went with Chase Bank, simply because I figured bigger was better if I ever expand beyond Bloomington. I have a checking account and basic checks, and a business credit card, and the people are all very nice. I'm sure a local bank would be great, too.
Federal Tax Identification (FID number): I filled this out from my phone while getting a bank account. It's some paperwork through the IRS to announce that you're a business and will be paying taxes.
State Tax Idenfication (TID number): Do this through the Indiana website, also doesn't take too long.
Type of Business: You'll have to decide between sole proprietor, LLC, etc. I chose LLC because basically if anything ever goes wrong, the business can get sued for all it's worth, but not you personally. It also leaves room for partners (which I have never had). Sole proprietorships may make sense for some types of businesses, but LLC seemed like the best fit for food.
Name of Business: When you register your LLC or whatever you choose, you'll have to have a name for it. The state website can check to see if your name is still available, and then go from there. It also isn't super important, because you can also file a "DBA" (Doing Business As) later. For instance, my LLC is actually Uel Works, LLC, DBA Uel Zing. Start here: https://secure.in.gov/sos/online_corps/name_search.aspx
That's everything I can think of off the top of my head. I have always had a very DIY approach to entrepreneurship, but there are also lots of resources to help you get started, like Bloomington Economic Development and grants and stuff. I usually err on the side of asking too many questions to be sure I'm in the clear with permits and especially tax stuff. I am only now thinking about getting an accountant, though I would probably recommend having at least one meeting to learn how to use Quickbooks or some sort of accounting software that will then help with taxes at the end of the year.
If you have any more questions, feel free to email iced(at)uelzing.com. And good luck!
Making coffee/drinking coffee, Uel