Atlanta: Food Truck Owners Seek Room to Grow

The Yumbii truck serves people in front of the Prominence building on Piedmont Road. The Atlanta Street Food Coalition is appealing for friendlier rules for the mobile businesses. Johnny Crawford

By Leon Stafford | The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The Yumbii truck serves people in front of the Prominence building on Piedmont Road. The Atlanta Street Food Coalition is appealing for friendlier rules for the mobile businesses. Johnny Crawford

Advocates for Atlanta’s burgeoning street food scene say it has the potential to grow five to 10 times its current size and could become an economic driver that puts hundreds of local residents to work.

But to do so, they’ll need a friendlier permitting process, more favorable small business loans and regulations that open up areas in which to operate.

“Atlanta has the capacity for 100 trucks and to create 300 to 400 jobs,” said Greg Smith, president of the Atlanta Street Food Coalition. “Atlanta is an ideal place for trucks to operate.”

Carson Young, who operates the popular Yumbii truck, said business has been so successful that he plans to launch a second truck this spring and possibly a third in the summer.

“From our standpoint, in meeting with other people who plan to launch trucks here this spring and summer, Atlanta is about to explode on the gourmet food truck scene that has become a national phenomenon and obsession,” Young said.

Smith is taking such optimism to the city’s business community in hopes of drumming up investment in the nascent dining segment and to encourage modifications to health department and municipal permitting rules to make it easier for the trucks to operate.

Food trucks are mobile kitchens that sell everything from burritos to vegetables to ice cream. Between three and four people work on the 10 to 15 trucks that operate in Atlanta, Smith said. Los Angeles, by comparison, has about 250 trucks.

The trucks have created a following in metro Atlanta by utilizing social media such as Twitter and Facebook. The trucks usually tweet where they will be on any given day and followers flock by the dozens, creating long lines.

For instance, the King of Pops tweeted in late January, “Selling pops on a beautiful January day for the kids. Interpret kids loosely.”

The challenge for food trucks in metro Atlanta, advocates said, are regulations that prohibit the trucks from operating in rights-of-way and a labyrinth of departments from which to get permits.

Cost is another barrier to entry. Trucks cost around $40,000, but many small business loans are capped at $30,000, Smith said. To operate a truck effectively, an owner needs about $100,000 to pay for the vehicle, staff and food.

And while free-standing restaurants such Taqueria de Sol operate food trucks of their own, most truck operators have been careful not to tread on the turf of dining establishments, Smith said.

Lyn Menne, Decatur’s assistant city manager for community and economic development, said that has been one of her concerns as the DeKalb County city weighs whether food trucks would be an asset in the commercial district.

“We don’t want to create businesses that compete with our existing restaurants,” Menne said. “We also have very limited spaces where these could actually park.”

Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall late last year introduced legislation that would allow the trucks to operate in the right-of-way beneath the I-75/I-85 viaduct on both sides of Edgewood Avenue. He is now working to make it easier for the trucks to work on private property or on city-sanctioned locations.

Officials in other suburban communities said food trucks have not yet had much impact. Cobb County spokesman Robert Quigley said he has seen trucks at construction sites, but their general presence has been limited.

Young said he plans to open a food truck commissary to help others trucks launch.

“Often it is too expensive for a truck to have part ownership in a food establishment,” he said. “The whole point of owning a food truck business is that it is relatively low cost and allows talented chefs to get into the restaurant business.”

Hall said food trucks are an easy way for aspiring restaurateurs to learn the business affordably. In fact, some restaurants operate food trucks.

“It’s a great way to incubate new ideas,” he said.