What’s holding back food trucks in Atlanta — and what’s being done about it

Ali Moradi, who owns Giro Chef Mediterranean

photo by Growl

In 2016, Ali Moradi decided to sell the Mediterranean restaurant he had owned in Alpharetta for six years to focus on his food truck. He’s finished spending many hours in bricks and mortar just to shut it down and he’s still constantly thinking about it. The truck offered greater flexibility. He’d see his family more, back off during the slow seasons or even take a two-week vacation without hurting the business.

Gyro Chef Mediterranean debuted on the streets in 2014, serving popular dishes from the restaurant — Greek salads, Mediterranean dishes, and pita sandwiches — at a weekly event at 12 and Peachtree. But it wasn’t until Moradi began expanding his food cart footprint that he ran into the known troubles of full-time operators. With each county he sold, he needed a different permit for a mobile food unit. With each city, he needed a new business license. Just to work around Metro Atlanta today, Moradi must have seven county permits and 13 city business licenses — which adds up to $3,700 in annual fees, plus related paperwork. There is a lot to keep track of.

Costs and red tape—plus strict municipal regulations about where food carts can operate—have conspired to stifle the growth of industry in the Atlanta area, keeping trucks on the fringes of the food court. Some operators have found it easier to go ahead and open a restaurant: For example, Howard Hsu launched Sweet Auburn BBQ as a food truck more than 10 years ago with his sister, Anita, but regulations, unpredictability, and costs have led them to convert the business to a brick-and-mortar Poncey Highland. . “If you’re not going to make it available, you’re really limiting this industry to our city,” he said. Hsu, who nowadays uses his trucks to deliver food, said he doesn’t see mobile vending as a viable long-term business model in Atlanta — at least the way things have been. But some relief is on the horizon.

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In theory, the benefits of operating a food truck are straightforward: Since such businesses require less capital than traditional businesses, entrepreneurs can enter the dining scene at a lower cost level, and trucks can be a kind of dry run for those. Who set their eyes on a permanent space. When they started showing up in Atlanta around 2010, food trucks could only get permits to operate on private property, not on city streets. In 2014, the City Council opened the door by creating a four-block area near City Hall where operators could sell at the right of way. There, they vied for the attention of a relatively narrow client base of government employees and downtown workers (and competed with cars for parking).

What's holding back food trucks in Atlanta — and what's being done about it
Upon launching Gyro Chef Mediterranean in 2014, Ali Moradi faced high costs and various parking restrictions. The new guidelines enable it to extend its scope.

photo by Growl

What's holding back food trucks in Atlanta — and what's being done about it

photo by Growl

Since hitting the modern restaurant scene in the United States around 2008, food trucks nationwide have faced regulatory inequality and severe restrictions — how long they can stay in one location, where they can sell. But other cities have found ways to accommodate them. Known for its vibrant food truck scene, Austin has an estimated 1,200 mobile food vendors, spread across the city and concentrated in its many food truck yards. Portland, another haven, has about 500 trucks operating throughout the city at any given time. They congregate in “capsules” across town, creating hubs with a range of options, although individual vendors can also be found all over town.

“For a city the size of Atlanta, we are relatively behind compared to other markets,” said Tony Harrison, chair of the Food Truck Association of Georgia (FTAG). “There are markets that are a fraction of the size of Atlanta that have food trucks that are two, three, five or ten times as big as we have.” Instead, junior chefs in Atlanta have turned more to pop-ups, fast food, and delivery. Rather than finding trucks on the side of the road, diners had to search for them at events like concerts in parks and private properties—breweries, office buildings, and two specially built food truck parks, such as Triton Yards on Capitol View.

When the pandemic hit, many of those opportunities evaporated, and the long-term harassment faced by food truck operators became apparent to city planners. “Early Covid demonstrated that in a way we hadn’t really seen before,” said Joshua Humphreys, director of the Office of Housing and Community Development, part of the Atlanta Department of Town Planning. DCP has begun meeting with food truck owners to see how they can expand sales opportunities in the public right of way outside of downtown, and last year, it helped author an ordinance to update city guidelines. Passed by the city council in April 2021.

The new approach removes strict geographic restrictions and allows for the designation of new selling locations. Not all public parking spaces make it fair game but it does provide an official way to convert some public street parking areas into food truck areas. So far, six sites—requested by community improvement districts or neighborhood and business associations—have been contacted online, with more in the works. Now, you might find food trucks serving cheese slices on Peachtree Street across from the High Museum, or Caribbean food outside the MARTA Midtown station.

The updated software also helps food trucks do business, for example, creating custom places – and a reservation platform to claim – so they don’t compete with cars for parking. This is a relief for operators like Moradi, who previously found himself spinning around a certain area until a space unlocked. He also sees potential in new locations. “Mostly, City Hall will be provided to employees of city departments,” he said. “But in Midtown, it will be both residents and offices, which makes it more attractive to food trucks.”

Corinna Jones, who operates two trucks — Love at Wurst Sight and Sofishticated — mostly sticks to selling private property and catering to businesses. You haven’t seriously considered selling on city streets in the past due to limited options. But the pandemic has dampened demand, with more office workers now working from home. She said the new rules could provide new opportunities: “If you go and stay near Centennial Park or Woodruff Park or Grant Park or near some office building downtown during lunch, I think it can be a win-win for everyone – for business and for all the people out there.”

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However, this is just one hurdle. In Georgia, food trucks require a mobile food service unit permit from the Board of Health in every county in which they operate — although they all follow the same state guidelines. “It puts us at a very competitive position compared to traditional bricks and mortar,” said Harrison of FTAG, who also owns a food truck and two restaurants. The advocacy group, as well as individual operators like Jones, pushed for one statewide permit. “You get one checkup,” Jones said. “Because at the end of the day, every county requires the same thing.”

What's holding back food trucks in Atlanta — and what's being done about it
Triton Yards is one of two specially built food truck parks that have popped up in Atlanta in recent years.

photo by Growl

Founded in 2016, FTAG worked with lawmakers to create a bill to make this happen, introduced in the assembly this year as HB 1443. The measure attracted bipartisan support, as well as support from the Georgia Restaurant Association and the Department of Public Health, and passed both houses in March. And I waited until the time of publication of this news the signature of the governor. “It’s obviously a game changer in our industry,” Harrison said. “It will make the lives of food truck owners so much better and easier.” FTAG’s next focus will be to advocate for the simplification of redundant procedures, such as individual fire inspections for each city, and for changes to the city of Atlanta’s licensing process.

Proponents say making Atlanta more food truck-friendly could revitalize the city’s dining scene in multiple ways — not just by giving diners an expanded menu of choices but by boosting foot traffic and lively street views, which could have an impact in Attract business to existing restaurants. “I think food trucks are a great community builder,” Hsu said. “It’s a great way to embrace small businesses, small restaurants, chefs, and pop-ups.”

This article appears in our June 2022 issue.