In 2016, Ali Moradi decided to sell the Mediterranean restaurant he’d owned in Alpharetta for six years to focus on his food truck. He was done spending long hours at the brick-and-mortar only to clock out and still constantly have it on his mind. The truck offered greater flexibility. He’d see his family more, scaling back during slow seasons or even taking a couple weeks off without harming the business.
Gyro Chef Mediterranean had first hit the streets in 2014, offering popular dishes from the restaurant—Greek salads, Mediterranean platters, pita sandwiches—at a weekly event at 12th and Peachtree. But it wasn’t until Moradi started to expand the food truck’s footprint that he encountered the hassles well-known to full-time operators. With each county he sold in, he needed a different mobile food unit permit. With each city, he needed a new business license. Just to operate around metro Atlanta today, Moradi has to have seven county permits and 13 city business licenses—which add up to about $3,700 in annual fees, plus the related paperwork. It’s a lot to keep track of.
Costs and red tape—plus strict municipal regulations about where food trucks can do their business—have conspired to stifle the growth of the industry in the Atlanta area, keeping trucks at the fringes of the dining scene. Some operators have found it easier to just go ahead and open a restaurant: Howard Hsu, for instance, launched Sweet Auburn BBQ as a food truck over 10 years ago with his sister, Anita, but the regulations, unpredictability, and costs pushed them to turn the business into a Poncey-Highland brick-and-mortar. “If you’re not going to make it accessible, then you’re really limiting that industry for our city,” he said. Hsu, who uses his trucks nowadays for catering, said he doesn’t see mobile vending as a viable long-term business model in Atlanta—at least the way things have been going. Some relief, though, is on the horizon.
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In theory, the benefits to running a food truck are straightforward: Because such businesses require less capital than brick-and-mortar establishments, entrepreneurs can enter the dining landscape at a more affordable level, and trucks can be a kind of dry run for those who have their eye on a permanent space. When they started showing up in Atlanta around 2010, though, food trucks could get permits to operate only on private property, not city streets. In 2014, the City Council cracked open the door by creating a four-block area near City Hall where operators could vend in the public right-of-way. There, they competed for the attentions of a relatively narrow customer base of government employees and downtown workers (and competed with cars for parking).
Since hitting the modern U.S. dining scene around 2008, food trucks nationwide have faced regulatory inequalities and tight restrictions—how long they can stay in one spot, where they can sell. But other cities have found ways to accommodate them. Austin, known for its vibrant food truck scene, has an estimated 1,200 mobile food vendors, both scattered across the city and concentrated at multiple food truck parks. Portland, another haven, has about 500 trucks operating citywide at any given time. They cluster in “pods” across town, creating hubs with an array of options, though individual vendors can also be found around the city.
“For a city the size of Atlanta, we are way underdeveloped relative to other markets,” said Tony Harrison, president of the board of directors for the Food Truck Association of Georgia (FTAG). “There are markets that are a fraction of the size of Atlanta that have two, three, five, 10 times as many food trucks as we do.” Instead, upstart chefs in Atlanta have turned more to pop-up, takeout, and delivery businesses. And rather than find trucks streetside, diners have had to seek them out at events like concerts in parks and on private property—breweries, office buildings, and a couple of specially created food truck parks, such as Triton Yards in Capitol View.
When the pandemic hit, many of those opportunities evaporated, and the long-standing inconveniences faced by food truck operators became apparent to city planners. “Early Covid laid that out in a way that we hadn’t really seen before,” said Joshua Humphries, the director of the Office of Housing & Community Development, which is part of Atlanta’s Department of City Planning. DCP started meeting with food truck owners to see how they could expand public right-of-way vending opportunities beyond downtown and, last year, helped author an ordinance to refresh the city’s guidelines. The City Council passed it in April 2021.
The new approach eliminates rigid geographic restrictions and allows for the designation of new vending locations. It doesn’t make all public parking spaces fair game but provides a formal way to convert certain public on-street parking areas into food truck zones. So far, six locations—requested by either Community Improvement Districts or neighborhood and business associations—have gone online, with more in the works. Now, you might find food trucks serving cheesesteaks on Peachtree Street across from the High Museum, or Caribbean food outside the MARTA Midtown station.
The refreshed program also helps food trucks do business by, for instance, creating designated spots—and a reservation platform to claim them—so they’re not competing with cars for parking. That’s a relief to operators like Moradi, who’d previously find himself circling a given area until a space opened up. He also sees potential in the new locations. “Mostly, City Hall is going to be catered to the employees of city administrations,” he said. “But in Midtown, it’s going to be both the residents and offices, which makes it more appealing for the food trucks.”
Corinna Jones, who operates two trucks—Love at Wurst Sight and Sofishticated—mostly sticks to private-property vending and corporate catering. She didn’t seriously consider selling on city streets in the past because of the limited options. But the pandemic has reduced demand, as more office workers now work from home. The new rules, she said, could offer new opportunities: “If I went and set up near Centennial Park or Woodruff Park or Grant Park or near some office buildings downtown during lunch, I think it could be a win-win—for the business and for all the people down there.”
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Still, that’s just one hurdle. In Georgia, food trucks need a mobile food service unit permit from the board of health of each county they operate in—even though they all follow the same state guidelines. “It puts us at a huge competitive disadvantage versus traditional brick-and-mortar,” said FTAG’s Harrison, who also owns a food truck and two restaurants. The advocacy group, as well as individual operators like Jones, have pushed for a single statewide permit. “You get one inspection,” Jones said. “Because at the end of the day, each county requires the same thing.”
Founded in 2016, FTAG has worked with legislators to create a bill to make that happen, introduced in the Assembly this year as HB 1443. The measure drew bipartisan support, plus backing from the Georgia Restaurant Association and the Department of Public Health, and passed both chambers in March. At press time, it awaited the governor’s signature. “It’s clearly a game-changer for our industry,” Harrison said. “It’s just going to make the lives of food truck owners so much better and easier.” FTAG’s next focus will be to advocate for the streamlining of other redundant procedures, such as individual fire inspections per city, and for changes to the City of Atlanta permitting process.
Making Atlanta more hospitable to food trucks can energize the city’s food scene in multiple ways, supporters say—not just by giving diners an expanded menu of options but by promoting foot traffic and lively streetscapes, which could even have the effect of drawing business to existing restaurants. “I think food trucks are a great community builder,” Hsu said. “It’s a great way to incubate small businesses, small restaurants, chefs, pop-ups.”
This article appears in our June 2022 issue.