How to Start a Food Truck Business in Iowa

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Please note that this information pertains mostly to additional licensing needed to start a food truck in Iowa. If you haven’t already, please review the Start a Business Guide for additional steps you may need to take to start your food truck.

With increasing popularity, food trucks are pocket-friendly options for both business owners and customers. With the help of a food truck, businesses can expand, try out catering opportunities, or explore new local markets. No matter your reason for starting this foodie-friendly business-on-wheels, use our guide to jumpstart your business while complying with Iowa’s regulations.

Classifications of mobile food units

The state of Iowa classifies four types of mobile food units based on menu.

Class I: Non-Refrigerated Vending Units:

  • These units can serve only intact, non-potentially hazardous commercially prepackaged food and drinks. No preparation or assembly of food or drinks may take place on the unit. These units DO NOT require a permit to operate but may require an additional warehouse license.

Class II Refrigerated or Hot Vending Units:

  • These units serve potentially and non-potentially hazardous commercially prepackaged foods. No preparation, assembly, cooking, or open packages of food or beverage on the unit is allowed. The food items may be prepared commercially or in the permit holder’s licensed restaurant or commissary.

Class III

  • These units serve potentially and non-potentially hazardous packaged foods and unpackaged foods with limited assembly. Preparation, assembly, or cooking of raw animal foods is not allowed on this unit. Commercial or Commissary prepared foods may be reheated on the unit. Self-service by customers of unpackaged food is not allowed.

Class IV

  • These units serve potentially and non-potentially hazardous foods that are prepared, cooked, cooled, or reheated, and assembled on the unit using pre-cooked and/or raw products. The menu is unlimited, but processes must be reviewed at a pre-operational inspection.

A mobile unit can serve menu items within its classification number or below. For example, a Class III unit may also sell items allowed in a Class II and Class I. A mobile unit cannot serve menu items from a higher classification number. Example, a Class III unit cannot serve menu items from a Class IV unit.

State of Iowa Food Truck Requirements

Before you jump in head-first, take a moment to browse Iowa’s mobile food unit requirements: 

  • A non-mobile unit, or structure, cannot be licensed as a mobile unit. The intention is to be mobile and not a permanent fixture. For example, a temporary food establishment set up using tables and tents cannot be licensed as a mobile unit.

  • All self-contained mobile units and pushcarts, Class III and IV, must have a hand washing sink equipped to provide water at a temperature of at least 100*F through a mixing valve or combination faucet. Sinks must be stocked with hand washing soap and disposable towels or other approved means of hand drying.

  • A mobile food unit can serve at a temporary event lasting 3 or less days without the issuance of a separate permit.

  • Additional coolers (igloos) that are not attached to the unit may ONLY be used to store bottled drinks and ice.

  • Cleaning supplies and soiled utensils may be stored in additional tubs or containers that are non-absorbent, covered and stored in a manner as to prevent contamination or infestation.

  • A smooth and easily cleanable table may be assembled next to the unit ONLY for the purpose of serving condiments, napkins, and straws. This table must be visible from inside the mobile unit so it can be visually monitored.

  • Mobile units must be positioned to keep the general public away from the food preparation and cooking areas of the unit.

  • Mobile units do not include automobiles, trucks, or vans not designed for food preparation (this includes the trunk of your car). No food products may be stored in your vehicle such as extra supplies of breads, packaged hotdogs in a cooler, or prepared foods stored in insulated units. You may be required to return to your commissary several times a day.

  • Class IV Mobile Food Units may cook on a covered grill or smoker that is set up outside of the unit. No other outside cooking equipment or food preparation is allowed.

Funding your Food Truck

Depending on the type of truck or cart you are looking for, prepare to spend some pocket change on the right vehicle for your business. A food truck costs much less to purchase and renovate than a physical location, and if you’re lucky, it may even come pre-established. Although this may be pricey, operating costs are substantially lower than a conventional restaurant operation.

Potentially, you can start a food truck for $50,000, but $50,000 is still the lower end of the spectrum, according to OpenTable. Iowa’s costs for permitting, staffing, renovations (if needed), utilities, and the truck itself can quickly add up. At some point, you might find yourself needing food truck loans to get started. For further information on funding, view our Fund Your Business guide.

SBA Loans for Food Truck Owners

Food truck owners are eligible for SBA loans to start a food truck so long as they have a vested financial (or time-spent) interest in a U.S.-based business and they exhaust all other financing options. The SBA loan program reduces the risk to both lenders and borrowers seeking small business loans to start or expand a business. While the SBA doesn’t technically lend the money, it can help borrowers find appropriate lenders whose loans meet their strict guidelines. Small business loans make sense for food truck operators who were unable to access more conventional small business loans. An SBA loan can help you avoid risky financial obligations through a guaranteed and vetted loan provider. SBA Loans are covered in further detail our Funding guide.

Food Licensing Information

A license is required for all Class II, III, and IV units, and costs $250 annually. Before a Mobile Food Establishment is licensed, it must go through a plan review and pre-operational inspection. Completed license applications and documents must be submitted to the Iowa Department of Inspection and Appeals at least 30 days prior to the anticipated opening date, so be sure to file the necessary paperwork early in your planning process. A separate license must be applied for at each location where food production, sales or service take place.

Apply for a Food License

The DIA’s online food licensing system allows those operating food and lodging establishments, food processing operations, and food-related events in Iowa to easily complete license applications and renewals online. Licensing guides are available for each license type. For general instructions on creating an account; submitting a license application for a new business, please view the DIA’s guide for new food licenses. If you already have an account, apply for a license. If you do not have an existing account, you can create one.

Inspection/Regulatory Authorities

Food safety inspections and foodborne illness/complaint investigations are conducted by State employees working for the Food and Consumer Safety Bureau, as well as inspectors working for local health departments under contract to the Department of Inspections and Appeals. Locate your food safety inspection agency.

Additional Resources

Read complete guidelines for mobile food unit operation in the Iowa Department of Inspection and Appeals Food and Consumer Safety Mobile Food Unit Operation Guide.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do you have questions about setting up your online store? You should consider checking out our Resource Navigator. It houses the contact information of 400 of our most helpful partners from across the state who provide free to low-cost assistance to Iowa entrepreneurs and small business owners.

Q: What kind of licensing do I need to start a food truck?

A: A great place to start is the Start a Food Truck step within IASourceLink’s Start a Business Guide.

Q: Is a food truck the same as a restaurant?

A: Yes and no. A restaurant is typically an eating establishment that stays in a singular location (non-mobile). A food truck on the other hand, can be moved to virtually any location the owner(s) desire. Licensing is virtually the same, but there are differences.

Q: What license do I need to sell food at farmers markets?

A: The Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals, who administers most of the licensing required to operate a food establishment within Iowa, has a helpful section on farmers markets and what is required to sell your food when attending them.

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NOTICE: The information included on this website is to be used only as a guide. It is not intended to cover all provisions of the law or every taxpayer's specific circumstances.


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