Wanted: Food Carts & Trucks

Why is Atlanta missing out on a major national trend? Recent reports in the New york Times, the Wall Street Journal, and on many of the networks have helped spread the word about the rise of branded food carts and trucks offering anything from organic hot dogs to crème brûlée and astonishingly good ethnic food. Cities as diverse as Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Portland, Seattle, Washington, DC, Austin, and Minneapolis support–or at least tolerate–one version or another of a cultural phenomenon we have yet to throw ourselves into.

During a recent Pecha Kucha cultural event at Octane billed as an open letter to the next mayor of Atlanta, we whipped a sizeable crowd into a frenzy by showing them juicy slides of pedestrians buying Thai street food, Czech “schnitzelwitches,” and waffles folded like tacos over bacon and eggs drizzled with maple syrup. “You no longer have to eat gummy sandwiches at your desk or kill yourself eating fast food…there is a wonderful alternative,” we told the audience, eliciting a chorus of “Where, where?” We let the message sink in while showing contrasting pictures of a bleak downtown with cracked, empty parking lots. “Portland, Oregon: 373 food carts and counting; Atlanta: barely any,” we answered, entering in evidence the Orleagian Snow Ball truck (retired for the season) and the guy who sells basic groceries and candies out of a truck at the corner of Lake Avenue and Krog Street.

Go to pretty much any local festival and you will see food vendors. Some of them are connected to brick-and-mortar restaurants or catering outfits. Most aren’t. Private events and sports meets sometimes bring in mobile kitchens such as Andy  Grimes’s cheerful green van, The Pickle, often described as “a party on wheels.” The 1975 GMC Palm Beach has a colorful past (it was used in the movie Stripes) and a kitchen built to restaurant codes. “Events are their own niche,” Grimes told us, but if he wanted to participate in a regular, walkable gastroscene, “like Buford Highway without the miles,” he couldn’t sell his freshly cooked chicken and green chile quesadillas, Bayou-style étouffée, and fish tacos on a parking lot or street corner because of a web of permitting issues meant to prevent such businesses from taking root.

While Sundown Café morphed into a Taqueria del Sol, Chef David Walbert dispensed terrific breakfast burritos and other goodies from a taco truck set in front of the restaurant on Cheshire Bridge Road. This turned out to be forbidden as well. The fully equipped vehicle rented from Randall Eric Forth’s company, Out of The Pan, had to be retired. Forth, who sells, rents, staffs, and maintains a variety of mobile units, knows the difference between vending (a no-no) and subcontracting (permitted at work sites, movie shoots, disaster relief centers), and he is mad as a hornet over the limitations imposed by a city unwilling to see gastronomy on wheels as beneficial.

Rebecca Young, the perky, blonde owner of a Buckhead fashion boutique, doesn’t look like your average putative street vendor. In an effort to start a business with her son, Carson, who is hearing disabled, she has spent thousands of hours researching the viability of mobile operations such as the Kogi trucks in Los Angeles. Here, everyone keeps telling her that she “can’t serve hot food from a truck.” Her fat notebook keeps getting fatter, but neither the Fulton County Health Department nor the City of Atlanta, which regulates Licensing and Permitting, are willing to give her the thumbs up.

Dianne Reinhardt, owner of the Magnolia Bread Company,  wants to bring “organic, local, eco-friendly, and healthy foods” to your corporate work place with a vehicle that runs on vegetable oil. Her mechanic thinks that “he can divert heat from the engine through heat plate exchangers to keep soup heated to appropriate and safe levels.” Her menu is almost complete, and as soon as she is am certain that the van is ready, she is going to talk to the contact person at the CDC first. We’d like to see her and The Green Van in all sorts of public locations selling the kind of street food (sandwiches, salads, and dessert bites) that showcases ethical local producers.

Young entrepreneurs such as Hayley Richardson of Artichoke Bliss, who is already posting pictures of her fresh cart at artichokebliss.com, and April Leigh, who started the Hot Lunch Ladies in East Atlanta, are dying to get in the game. Seasoned restaurateurs such as Jennifer Levison of Souper Jenny, Kevin Rathbun of Rathbun’s et al, Hector Santiago of Pura Vida, and at least one bona fide real estate mogul (George Rohrig) see wonderful opportunities in street food. We also heard that Delia Champion, the co-founder of The Flying Biscuit, is ready to partner with a bio-fuel entrepreneur and launch a line of sausage carts. Even Josh Hiller of Road Stoves, the truck food outfitter and commissary that serves, among others, the Kogi trucks in L.A., is said to be interested in Atlanta as a market.

Meanwhile, the taco trucks set outside gas stations all over Gwinnett County have been chased away. Marietta has its own taco truck on the corner of Pat Mell and Favor Roads, and Don Pedro operates on upper Buford Highway, but the closest Atlantans can get to gourmet street food is the city of Athens, where a burgeoning scene includes the farm cart of Farm 255 (255 W. Washington St.) selling vegetarian banh mi, broccoli soup with butter croutons, and various farm vittles out of a retrofitted industrial cargo trailer set on their patio. Other classic city concepts include an empanada cart downtown, La Fonda Dawgs, and a mystery cart rumored to sell steamed carrots on a bun.

Anyone who wants to sell food on the street (or, more likely, on privately-owned parking lots and campuses) will have to follow rules concerning waste disposal, sanitation, safe temperatures and the like, but too much protection of the consumer squelch a scene we feel is ready to roll. Let the revolution begin!

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