Forsyth County, GA: Out of service? Food trucks, health dept. clash over permitting

Food trucks aren’t a new concept for Forsyth County or Georgia. But even after years of popping up in the local community, business owners say health officials' approach to regulating food trucks feels repetitive and confusing which hinders business from coming to Forsyth County.

By Alexander Popp  |  Forsyth News

When Joe Garcia, co-founder of NoFo Brew Co., opened a brewery in north Forsyth County with two friends in 2019, they had a vision of creating a local space where people could come to enjoy a nice beer, food and fun with friends and family, in a laid-back inclusive environment.

But part of that vision has run into some slight hiccups over the last year, according to Garcia, when the unstoppable force of the passionate new business ran into an immovable object — health department permitting for food trucks.

From the beginning, Garcia says that NoFo Brew Co. ran into problems carrying out their idea to bring a rotating selection of food trucks to the brewery on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings.

According to Garcia, problems arose when food trucks attempted to obtain a mobile food service permit from the Forsyth County Health Department.

Truck owners and the brewery said Forsyth County’s enforcement of state requirements to get a permit are stricter than other counties in Metro Atlanta.

Many of the trucks having difficulty already have permits in surrounding counties like Fulton, DeKalb, and Gwinnett and have been operating in those locations for years.

Garcia said Forsyth County’s health department requires businesses to provide items like notarized letters, “schematic drawings” and business plans.

The health department also required NoFo Brew Co. to provide two-week’s notice of what food trucks would operate at the brewery, Garcia said.

“These are blue collar guys – the same guy that owns the truck is the guy cooking the barbecue – and these guys have to get an annual permit in every single county that they work in, separate permits, separate inspections by the health department; there’s no reciprocity there,” Garcia said. “They are getting put through the wringer, not to mention the laundry list of stuff that the health department has put back onto us as the business that’s just ridiculous.”

In a conversation with the Forsyth County News on Thursday, Forsyth County Health Department spokeswoman Erin Stitt rebutted claims that food trucks are being judged any differently in the local community than in other counties.

According to Stitt, the Forsyth County Health Department “enforces the Georgia Department of Public Health Rules and Regulations” which are consistent throughout the state.

But even though the state’s requirements for food-related permits are uniform, local health departments do have some leeway during the permitting process to account for variables that may arise, Stitt said.

“We may require something more in-depth based on their concept, menu, the distance that they’re driving, that type of thing,” she said. “Because you may have your base of operation in one county and operating as a food truck in that county, but once you leave that county, if you’re going 50 miles … is your generator going to operate that long? Are you going to have the same menu?”

Two local food truck owners spoke with the FCN under the condition of anonymity, fearing that being named could impact the outcome of their next health score. Both said the process to get a permit to operate a food truck in Forsyth County hasn’t been as simple as following the rules and has varied widely from their experiences in other areas.

One food truck owner that moved their business to Forsyth County from the metro-Atlanta area said that after operating for many years in the Atlanta area, they didn’t consider the possibility that they would run into problems in Forsyth County, which is widely known for its pro-business views.

“I had permits in Cobb County, DeKalb County, Fulton County, so we didn’t really think about it and when we started looking for a location in Forsyth County and started dealing with the health department it was a big deal,” the owner said. “Of all those counties, Forsyth County is the worst.”

The problem that both owners ran into was a requirement for the business’s “base of operations” to have an enclosed space, like a garage or warehouse, where the food truck can be pulled into while food is loaded onto the truck.

Both food truck owners said that this requirement alone was enough to halt their plans of “open vending,” or selling directly to customers in Forsyth County.

“We had to change a lot of our operation because of Forsyth County,” one business owner said. “We lost a lot of business from not being able to do that.”

“That takes a lot of money and we have to see the outcome of the food truck investment,” another business owner said. “So right now, we really haven’t taken a decision. Everything has just been paused.”

Both say they pivoted to using their food trucks for catering while they figure out whether something can change and what’s next for their business.

Following a meeting between Garcia, representatives of the Forsyth County government and members of the local health department which was held last week, Forsyth County District 4 Commissioner Cindy Jones Mills commented that she is at a loss for how a food truck permitted in other counties could fall short in Forsyth County.

“That just didn’t make sense to me,” Mills said.

While Mills said the county is pro-food truck and in favor of helping the businesses get what they need, she said that the issue is out of their hands and suggested that it could be an issue that needs to be taken up with state legislators.

In response to the individual business’s problems, Stitt said that without seeing the business’s permits or other documents from other counties, she couldn’t comment on a specific case, but pointed out that all the requirements are listed in black and white.

Stitt also explained that because health departments are separate entities, with specific jurisdictions, permitting is required in both the county where the food truck’s base of operations is located and each county where the mobile unit operates. And for good reason, she said.

“I don’t know what you were permitted for in Cherokee County. That’s why the state is requiring a permit for every county,” she said. “I didn’t review what happened there … I only have jurisdiction over what happens in my county.”

At the end of the day, Garcia’s vision for bringing multiple food trucks into the county on a regular basis isn’t unreasonable, Stitt said. In fact, it’s something that the health department is used to in different areas of Georgia.

The catch is that all the state’s rules and procedures have to be carried out in the process of executing that vision.

“It happens in several other locations and different counties,” she said. “You just have to go through the permitting process.”

On Wednesday, Garcia said that even though they haven’t gotten a 100% positive resolution to the problem, the meeting held last week gave them hope that their vision will pan out eventually.

According to Garcia, during that meeting a county planning and zoning employee stepped up to help the first handful of food trucks negotiate the permitting process with the health department. Already they expect to have a barbecue food truck at the brewery in the near future.

“I’m very optimistic that we’ll get a dozen food trucks that are permitted and licensed in Forsyth County, that can operate, not just at our brewery, but also other locations in Forsyth County,” he said. “I might be the first business that plans to use food trucks on a regular basis, but I’m definitely not going to be the last.”