Restaurant Review - Atlanta food carts take it to the streets

The latest food craze sweeping the nation's major burgs is having trouble squeezing its foot in Atlanta's door

Although Atlanta rates well in the ranks of America's top restaurant cities, our primary shortcoming is one of tardiness. From high-gravity beers and gastropubs to farm-to-table cooking, and, most recently, the password-entry speakeasy, Atlanta usually embraces culinary and beverage trends long after they've already become familiar to residents of our coastal megalopolises.

The latest food craze sweeping the nation's major burgs, however, is having trouble squeezing its foot in Atlanta's door, not because of consumer ignorance, but because of a maze of outdated laws and, depending on where you live, bureaucratic indifference.

Still, Hayley Richardson is so eager to overcome the legal barriers that prevent her from selling sandwiches on the street from her "treat trike" that she can almost taste it.

"I've lived in Philly, New York and L.A.," says the bubbly twentysomething, who moved to Atlanta about 18 months ago. "I'm used to an active urban environment with a mix of intoxicating smells on the street from people selling tacos, samosas, Thai food, burgers ... ."

Visit San Francisco's Mission District, for instance, and you can find street vendors selling curry, soup, crab cakes, even crème brulée. Manhattan, of course, is famous for a street food culture that offers everything from the dependable hot dog to such ethnic delights as falafel, dosas, gyros and Bratwurst.

Recently, Portland, Seattle and Austin have emerged as street food heavyweights, and hungry Los Angelinos are all a-Twitter over Kogi Korean BBQ Taco, using their smartphones to find the nearest vending truck.

But here in Atlanta, you won't be seeing such mobile diners without a few changes to state and city regulations.

"The rules in Georgia that developed over the past 50 years or so haven't been updated for the gourmet food-truck movement," explains attorney Greg Smith, who joined Richardson in starting an advocacy group, the Atlanta Street Food Coalition. Since its launch early last month, the group has collected more than 1,200 online signatures for its pro-street food petition.

Under state law, "mobile food units" – be they trucks, trailers or pushcarts – can't roam the streets. Instead, they're permitted for no more than two specific locations, the better to track them down for surprise health inspections. Also, raw food must be cooked in a licensed, stationary, commercial-grade kitchen before it goes on the truck or cart, where it can only be reheated.

But wait, you ask – what about the fried catfish for sale at last year's Inman Park Festival? Or the pulled-pork plate from the mobile smoker at the Chomp & Stomp? Frankly, that's the product of a long-standing double standard: Food served at special events sponsored by a state-approved nonprofit corporation is exempt from the above regulations. Vendors at festivals, fundraisers and other such gatherings can sell food under a blanket event permit – presumably because local authorities can hold the event organizers responsible if someone gets sick from tainted food.

And what about the makeshift barbeque stands that pop up on Saturdays in church parking lots, next to gas stations and even in vacant lots? It's a good bet that many of the street-corner vendors you see around town are deliciously illegal.

Making things even trickier, however, is Atlanta's vending ordinance, which states: "No vehicle shall stop or stand on public property and do business for more than 30 minutes." Because city officials have long grappled with trying to rein in street vendors selling knockoff handbags around Five Points, it's likely that Atlanta's rules were written with little thought given to food trucks.

So, if the state says mobile food units have to stay put, but Atlanta requires them to keep moving, what's an aspiring street food vendor to do?

Get the laws changed, of course.

"We're trying to convince people that it's possible to cook clean, healthy food on a truck," says Smith. Last month, he and Richardson co-wrote an AJC op-ed arguing that food carts could help bring economic development to Atlanta by enlivening "dead spaces" – the many half-empty parking lots in and around downtown.

On March 26, the Coalition and other supporters put on a well-attended street food fair outside the Sweet Auburn Curb Market – after obtaining a special-event permit, of course (another "urban picnic" is planned for April 30). Along with swarms of other diners, Mayor Kasim Reed and Councilman Kwanza Hall, who represents the district, showed up to grab lunch.

"I want to help these entrepreneurs to overcome the legal hurdles so Atlanta can have more access to great, inexpensive food choices," says Hall.

Reed likewise tells CL he'd like to know what he can do to make it easier for street food vendors to do business around the city.

It only makes sense for city leaders to support street food, says Christiane Lauterbach, longtime editor of Knife & Fork newsletter, who recently started the advocacy website www.atlantafoodcarts.com.

"Cities with a rich street life have a better chance of developing a street food culture," Lauterbach says. "And it can work the other way: Having street food can create a more active street life. It's more fun to walk to a food vendor than it is to eat lunch in your office."

While Atlanta officials are eager to welcome food vendors, Richardson, Smith and others say the folks with the Fulton County Health Department, which enforces the state regulations, have shown little interest in finding ways to make life easier for food carts.

"Fulton wants to follow the letter of the law and doesn't seem to want to take on any new responsibilities," Smith says.

Over in Athens-Clarke County, on the other hand, Olivia Sargeant was met with enthusiastic support from elected officials in her efforts to launch a mobile food business. Sargeant is general manager of Farm 255, a farm-to-table restaurant that currently serves lunch out of a charming trailer parked on its own property.

She'd like to be able to take it in other locations around town, but Athens only has 15 vendor permits for the entire city – permits that typically get used only on game days.

But after talking to Mayor Heidi Davison and county health officials, Sargeant is confident the local rules can be changed in time to allow her to take to the streets by summer.

"The state law is the same everywhere across Georgia, but it's administered differently by different counties, usually depending on the number of inspectors they have," she says.

David Waller, a partner in Taqueria del Sol's catering business, Sol, says he now sticks to private events because they require the least legal red tape, but he'd like to get into the street food business. "We want to be able to set up in a funky location and have people walk to us," he says.

Lauterbach, among others, envisions an Atlanta where clusters of food carts bring new life to the city's streets and vacant lots. She offers a prediction: "Open-air food courts will be the wave of the future, but it's up to the entrepreneurs to keep pushing – the government isn't just going to roll out the red carpet."

For the time being, the pushing will continue.