Think of Atlanta's street food regulation as a tattered, musty blanket in the back of a closet.
This Saturday, April 9, Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall wants to take it out and shake it out. He's hosting a public food summit with the Atlanta Street Food Coalition and Fulton County Commissioner Joan Garner from 10 a.m. to noon at Helene S. Mills Senior Center, 515 J.W. Dobbs Ave.
"I need to air all of this out," said Kwanza, who represents District 2 that includes Atlantic Station and West Midtown. Foodies, chefs, vendors, neighbors -- anyone is invited to suggest ideas for how Atlanta and Fulton County can improve permitting and regulation of street vending in a city that's already behind the curve nationally in the craze for food trucks.
On April 18, a proposal is going before the Atlanta City Council to update street vending ordinances. Currently, if a vendor wants to operate in the city, two sets of permits are needed: a health permit from Fulton County's Health Services Department and a vending permit from the Atlanta Police Department.
"Unfortunately, the two different sets of permits don't really jive together, and that is causing issues," said Greg Smith, a lawyer and founder of the mobile ice cream operation Westside Creamery.
As Rebecca Young of Yumbii (a food truck that frequents Atlantic Station) describes it, there's a lack of clarity in rules and a disconnect between administrative interpretation and documented law.
"There are some gray areas," she said. But she doesn't take issue with the city or county for wanting to regulate carefully. "If someone gets sick in a restaurant, who do you think gets their feet to the fire? The health department. They're very demanding. Their standards are high and they should be high."
Most of the trickiness in the current legal language goes back to the 1996 Summer Olympics. Fearing that a hoard of unruly bootleggers hawking knock-off purses and plastic tchotchkes would descend on the city to swindle tourists, the city laid down some strict rules about street vending.
Those rules don't fit so neatly 15 years later. Police are tied up by ordinances that "don't really contemplate mobile food service done in the way that folks like Yumbii are doing," Smith said. He's helping write the proposal going before council April 18, which would modify the ordinance if approved. "Once we get those changes in place, the health department can feel more comfortable granting more leeway to our operators."
Hall said he hopes these changes will revitalize the city as food trucks get permitted to set up shop in now-empty parking lots, on private property and on daily vending "routes" around Atlanta.
Street Food Thursdays
In the meantime, there's eating to do.
Street Food Thursdays starts this week outside Woodruff Arts Center and at the corner of 10th Street and Peachtree Street. Yumbii, King of Pops, the Pickle, Good Food Truck, Souper Jenny, Tamale Queen, Rattletrap Coffee and other vendors will be out serving from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. or the food runs out. A few trucks, including Westside Creamery and Yum Yum Cupcake, are sticking around for the remainder of the afternoon and a happy hour outside Woodruff Arts Center starting at 4 p.m.
The weekly event, organized by the Midtown Alliance and the Atlanta Street Food Coalition, also features a Pop-up Chef series at the 999 Peachtree Street plaza sponsored by Jamestown Properties. This Thursday's chef is Jonathan St. Hilaire of Bakeshop.
Future Pop-up Chefs include Steven Herman of HAVEN (April 14), Jay Swift of 4th & Swift (April 21), Zeb Stevenson of Livingston (April 28), Steven Satterfield of Miller Union (May 5) and Robby Kukler of South City Kitchen (June 23).
With or without easy-to-navigate regulation, Atlanta street food vendors are doing a bang-up business.
Nadia DeGressa, who started parking her Yum Yum Cupcake truck around Downtown and Midtown three weeks ago, said she's selling more and more cupcakes each time she goes out. It started at 50, and now she's moving 150 during a single lunch-hour rush.
"Every time, I bring out more cupcakes," she said. She'd like to see the permit rules change in a way that would allow her to pack up her cupcakes as she sells them, instead of being required to pre-package them individually in plastic. "It's just so much easier and effective that way."
Within a month, Yumbii will be operating a second truck, said Rebecca Young, whose son Carson started and oversees the business.
"It's grown beyond one person handling it. We're hiring people," she said. Hundreds have people have contacted Yumbii for advice on how to start a food truck, she added, and she and Carson are considering eventually buying more trucks from Hi-V-Co and leasing them out to street-vending startups.
For Hall, good business is what it's all about.
"I'm in the business of seeing more jobs created," he said. Freed from the hassle of navigating sticky legislation, he hopes Atlanta will see more "innovation in food."