Muriel Vega: Give Our Food Trucks More Freedom

One of my favorite parts about exploring a big city is when you’re walking to your destination and turn a corner only to find a food truck. Maybe it’s got Korean tacos, delicious crepes, or mouthwatering BBQ. There’s a simple joy that comes with walking down the street and encountering a surprise snack.

It’s not news that Atlanta struggles with pedestrian-friendly initiatives, but we do have loads of greenspaces that are great for hanging out. How much nicer would those spaces be if they all had a few food trucks alongside them?

During the pandemic, I hoped the city—once we finally figured out masks, smh—would give a pass to food trucks. After all, we’d found other ways to adapt: increased work-from-home policies for office workers, to-go booze from restaurants, etc. It stood to reason that we could make the most of our added outside time, give food truck owners some much-needed income, and test out some temporary regulations.

But instead, many people’s food trucks sat in parking lots or at their homes, unused. Others still risked the pandemic to keep their businesses afloat. The added downside to this at the time, of course, was that most of Atlanta’s so-called “dedicated food truck areas” were near empty office buildings. 

Food trucks have struggled since day one in Atlanta, bogged down by confusing regulations, costly permits, and ongoing charges for commercial kitchens. Atlanta can and should have a thriving food truck scene. But for that to happen, we need simplified fees and processes for food truck owners to be able to operate throughout the city. There’s no reason why the road for these entrepreneurs should be expensive and complicated. It’s time for the city to update policies and help food trucks feed us and the local economy.

In Austin, food trucks have helped revitalize underutilized parking lots and bring much-needed pedestrian activity to overlooked streets. There are more than 1,200 food trucks in Texas’ capital. Elsewhere, Montgomery, AL, used the same tactic to bring interest to its downtown and attract more commercial activity.

I’ve talked to several ATL food truck owners in recent years. One of them, who shifted her business to e-commerce and catering, told me, “Atlanta is not Austin. Atlanta is not California or New York. You can’t pull up at Piedmont Park on a Friday at 3pm and say, ‘I will be here from 3-7pm.’ They do that in other cities, making it easier to run a food truck business.”

Currently, the Atlanta Food Truck Park, one of the first permanent food truck sites in ATL, only has weekend hours. Every Thursday, you can find food trucks parked at 12th and Peachtree or Triton Yards or breweries. There aren’t many clusters around the city. Moreover, it’s hard to find food trucks beyond specific hours.

I’m a huge fan of Buena Gente. Give me a guava pastry any day of the week. Last summer, I talked to Manny Rodriguez and Stacie Antich, owners of the Cuban bakery and sandwich shop. They brought their pink camper to various food truck events around the city, slinging cortados and empanadas. But then they stopped. 

“There’s a misconception that food trucks are much cheaper to run, and that’s not always the case,” Antich told me. “We won’t be taking the food truck out for a while.” After more than five years of trying to make it work, Buena Gente opened a permanent location off Clairemont Road.

At the beginning of 2020, the Food Truck Association of Georgia (FTAG) and the Street Food Coalition estimated that there were 200-plus food trucks in the metro Atlanta area. The number has fluctuated due to high permit costs, quickly changing regulations confusing food truck owners, and the pandemic.

In Atlanta’s pre-COVID times, the most significant initial challenge for a food truck was finding a commissary kitchen. As a food truck in the city, you must rent one to operate, and there are two main commissary kitchens in the city. PREP, in Doraville, works best for food trucks that require little food prep and cook most of the food in their truck. J’s Kitchen, also in Doraville, works best for heavy prep as you can use their equipment and access a storage area.

The second challenge is even thornier: food trucks must learn the myriad differing regulations and permits of every city and county in Georgia where they might want to sell their product. One food truck owner can easily hold 5-7 city permits and at least a few county permits. Not to mention that every permit costs money, much the same way that every lunch event or festival charges a fee ($50-100) to sell.

Creating a mobile food vendor program with specific steps, easy-to-follow regulations, and flat fees for specific permits can help simplify a lot of the red tape that food truck owners experience. The city just doesn’t have clear guidelines to follow, with last-minute changes that are often not announced.

Atlanta’s emerging talent is currently spread across restaurants, including those that function as incubators for pop-ups. But what if we had another way to encourage creativity? To give more access to people who want to cook? To bring more options to food deserts around the city? There’s no reason why Atlanta can’t equip itself and adapt as Austin, New York City, or Portland have with street vendors.

If this essay series has taught us anything, it’s that Atlanta is often the main thing holding back Atlanta. But we’re slowly moving in a positive direction after a long policy stall on food trucks. In April 2021, the city council approved a measure to designate new vending locations and a reservation system. This will help food truck owners convert specific public parking spaces into food truck sale areas.

Jace Whitsey, owner of Let’s Taco Bout It and the creator of some of the best birria tacos I’ve had in the city, hasn’t used the reservation system yet. But he has heard that it’s a nice experience from folks in the food truck community. Whitsey started his food truck back in 2016 and currently runs his kitchen from PREP in Doraville.

“Initially it was hard to find information from each county to be permitted,” Whitsey says. “Different rules for different cities and counties. It was hard also finding and coordinating events because food trucks were a relatively new thing when we started.”

In May 2022, the Georgia State Legislature passed House Bill 1443, with support from the Georgia Restaurant Association, the Georgia Department of Public Health, and FTAG. Thanks to the legislation, which goes into effect in January 2023, food truck owners can apply for a single statewide health permit. Before this bill, food trucks had to apply for health permits in every county they operated in, despite those counties having the same rules.

Whitsey thinks HB1443 will have a big impact in the local food truck community. He stays within the metro Atlanta area since it’s more difficult to get permitted in smaller counties around the state. These new regulations will change that.

“I really feel like it will allow everyone around Georgia the opportunity to try different food trucks,” Whitsey says. “It will also help with the amount of paperwork and back and forth with multiple counties.”

These are commonplace regulations that should help ATL’s food truck scene. The baby steps needed for us to start catching up with food truck hot spots all over the country. But the question remains: how will we build on them?

Muriel Vega

Muriel Vega is an Atlanta-based journalist that writes about tech, food, and culture. During the day, she’s a product manager at a local startup. She also works on content with companies like Mailchimp, Patreon, Punchlist, Skillshare, and Rent. All she wants is to turn a corner and unexpectedly run into a taco truck.