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