Food Trucks Taking a Bite out of Restaurants
Roving wagons drawing customers, wary eye of neighborhood eateries, restaurateurs
ATLANTA, GA - Matt Coggin, owner of D.B.A. Barbecue in Virginia-Highland, can track the arrivals of food trucks in his neighborhood by the drop-off in his business when the trucks pull up near Dark Horse Tavern less than a mile away. Wednesdays have become D.B.A.’s slowest days of the week.
“It’s significantly impacted my business,” said Coggin.
In early 2010, a group of activists coalesced into the Atlanta Street Food Coalition to try to change “obsolete and draconian” regulations that treated food trucks like “roach coaches.” The new generation of food trucks could serve grass-fed beef hamburgers, noodle bowls and dessert crepes while revitalizing dead spaces and giving entrepreneurs an avenue into the food industry, they said.
In response, Atlanta streamlined its licensing requirements for food trucks after decades of making it difficult or impossible for the mobile deli counters to operate. That newly welcoming attitude, somewhat rare among cities in the Southeast, puts Atlanta in the company of other food truck epicenters — Chicago, Seattle, New York, Austin, San Francisco and Portland, Ore., advocates say.
The response from the public has been dramatic. An estimated 1,500 to 2,000 people show up on Thursdays for a gathering of food trucks in Midtown.
But in some cases, the trucks have brought controversy along with gelato, tamales, Venezuelan corn cakes and char-grilled hot dogs. They have lower overhead than restaurants and — some restaurateurs suspect — tenuous allegiances to particular neighborhoods and their existing businesses. In a tough restaurant market, is that an unfair advantage?
“My main issue is, how are they helping the community?” said Coggin, who noted that his restaurant is hit up for charitable donations every week and wonders if food trucks are also asked. “Are they just making a buck and leaving? It’s like poaching.”
The “Art Stroll” in Castleberry Hill became the focus of the food truck debate earlier this year when the trucks got a special exemption from Atlanta to park in a public area. Local restaurateurs complained that the trucks were siphoning off business on the biggest night of the month, without paying their dues in the neighborhood. One restaurant owner made sarcastic T-shirts in which wearers could complain that they went to the Art Stroll and got only a cold taco.
Food truck boosters say they’ve learned from that episode to not send food trucks that compete directly with nearby restaurants — a taco truck in the close vicinity of a Mexican restaurant, for example.
“The restaurant business is a really tough business,” said Greg Smith, president of the Atlanta Street Food Coalition. “We ask [food truck operators] to be as conscientious as they can be.”
Advocates of food trucks say they can co-exist with restaurants, and that both can thrive. Indeed, the two can merge into each other — several Atlanta restaurants or their chefs have launched food trucks. At least one food truck project, Sweet Auburn BBQ, developed into a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
“It’s not a competition thing,” said Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall, whose district includes Centennial Olympic Park, Sweet Auburn Curb Market, Atlantic Station and Inman Park.
Hall predicted that the trucks would help make Atlanta a laboratory for food entrepreneurs. They could also create back-kitchen jobs at the kitchens and restaurants that prepare the food for the trucks.
“People are going to be innovative,” Hall said.
The regulations governing local food trucks are still stringent. They are required to set up shop at least 200 feet away from stand-alone restaurants selling similar food. (The buffer zone used to be 1,500 feet). The trucks generally must park on private property, not city lots or public streets.
Operators also have to make the food at a licensed and health-inspected kitchen or commissary. Operators have to get a food service permit from Fulton County’s environmental health department before getting a vendor license from Atlanta.
Truck operators have to inform regulators where and when they will sell food. The regular schedule and a list of participating trucks are on the Atlanta Street Food Coalition’s website.
Restaurateurs note that food trucks have lower overhead costs, since only a handful of people — usually three — work in a typical truck. Through rent, the food trucks would pay at least some of the property taxes of the kitchens that make their food. And the truck itself has to get a permit from local health departments, which can run about $500. Compared to what a restaurant has to go through, it’s the “same process, same fee,” Smith said.
The Georgia Restaurant Association stressed that it wanted street food to follow all state requirements governing the “service of safe and wholesome food.” The association said food trucks can help restaurants set down roots in unusual or unconventional places.
“It is an approach that restaurateurs can take to try a new concept or take their current concept and put it on wheels and market to new consumers,” said executive director Karen Bremer.
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