Food - Biting through red tape

Progress isn’t always pretty. Take, for example, Atlanta’s street food movement.The push for food trucks to offer an alternative dining experience, one that boosts street life, builds community, and provides jobs, is thriving in Atlanta despite consistently being tripped up by red tape.

In addition to passing a Fulton County health inspection, food truck operators must jump through various hoops, including obtaining a business license and vending permit for each location where they plan to conduct business. And to obtain those clearances, vendors are often sent through a frustrating, pinball-esque trip through city permitting departments.

“The police are asking for 19 documents and requirements when someone gets this permit,” says Greg Smith, president of the Atlanta Street Food Coalition. “It’s unnecessary, holding up the permitting process, and keeping the food trucks from doing business.”

City officials insist they’re not trying to be killjoys and want the scene to prosper, but they need to (understandably) keep the public safe. Still, the bureaucratic maze and fee structure has kinks. Plus, a past mayoral administration’s decision to outsource Atlanta’s sidewalk vending program several years ago makes it unlikely that we’ll find street food anywhere else than the festivals, parties, art events, or the daily happenings on private parking lots around town.

Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall, whose food-truck legislation last year helped cut some of that red tape, plans to gather city officials, the Atlanta Police Department, and food truck vendors in July to sort out the issues. Possible fixes include creating a one-stop shop for permitting and clarifying fees, some of which cost more than $100 per location where food trucks operate.

One issue that most likely won’t be resolved anytime soon: When will Atlanta’s food trucks start dishing out cupcakes and burritos on the street rather than having to relegate themselves to private property?

“Our goal from the beginning has always been to park and serve from city streets, just like food trucks in other cities across the country,” says Carson Young, the owner of Yumbii, which now comprises two vehicles.

Unfortunately, Young, his peers, and the office workers, tourists, and everyday Atlantans who’d like to buy a tofu burrito or slider on the corner rather than traveling to a parking lot to do so will most likely have to wait.

In the summer of 2009, the city OK’d a deal with General Growth Properties, one of the country’s largest mall operators, to manage Atlanta’s motley public property vending program. The first phase of that experiment — which required vendors to rent “kiosks” for more than $1,000 a month if they wanted to hawk handbags, scented oils, and candy bars — rolled out in October 2009 around Woodruff Park and has since expanded. City officials estimate the program could net the city $125,000 each year for the extent of the contract, which lasts until 2029.

The deal raises cash for the city but comes with a price: the surrender of public rights of way to a private company, a move which creates a tricky legal realm for city attorneys and street food vendors, and halts any immediate hopes of food trucks operating along Atlanta’s busiest thoroughfares.

“The city has given unprecedented discretion and a monopoly to a single organization,” says Yasha Heidari, an attorney representing two t-shirt vendors who are suing the city over the private vending program. “GGP is acting as a gatekeeper with unorthodox power, threatening the sanctity of all vendors, including food vendors. The GGP contract applies to all public property vending.”

“That’s the killer for food trucks right now. The contract is pretty unclear on what rights GGP has to prevent people from getting permits for vending on public streets. There are some murky issues there,” explains Smith.

So visions of a coffee truck occupying a parking space in downtown for 30 minutes to give nearby employees an option other than Starbucks — or office coffee — is a no-go. At least until the contracts run out. If only the food truck craze started a year or so earlier.

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