By Emma French and Mackenzie Wood
The food truck fad that has been sweeping the nation has arrived in Atlanta in full force. The number of food trucks operating in metro Atlanta grew seventeenfold over the past five years, from six trucks in 2010 to over one hundred and ten in 2015. Now, every day of the week, residents and visitors can purchase an array of interesting mobile cuisine for lunch or dinner at a food truck vending location or special event somewhere in city of Atlanta or in a surrounding suburb. On Monday nights between six and nine o’clock families gather in a gravel parking lot in the center of Decatur, an intown suburb just east of Atlanta, to enjoy an al fresco dinner at the Loaded Burger truck or the Genki Noodles and Sushi truck. In Midtown, one of Atlanta’s three business districts, office workers enjoy a novel assortment of Thursday lunch options from more than fifteen food trucks, including the Yumbii Korean taco truck and the Wow! arepas food truck. Groups of hipsters, teens and young families descend on the all-season Atlanta Food Truck Park on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights to enjoy a live band and sample lobster-mac from the Mac the Cheese truck, pulled pork sliders from the Sweet Auburn BBQ truck, or a collard greens quesadilla from the Blaxican truck.
How has this new industry gained prominence in Metro Atlanta? How have local regulations supported or inhibited the jurisdictional spread of food trucks? Last summer student researchers at CUI set out to answer these questions and paint a clearer picture of the food truck scene in and around Atlanta. A convenience sample of 111 food trucks was taken from the Atlanta Street Food Coalition’s current members list. Information about the type of food sold, the base location, and the vending location(s) for these trucks was gathered from individual food truck websites and social media pages—all but one of the food trucks from the sample have a functioning website, 89% of the food trucks (99 trucks) have a Facebook account, and 88% (98 trucks) have a Twitter account. Twenty-seven distinct vending locations were identified in and around Atlanta where food truck events were hosted regularly during the spring and summer of 2015 (see map below). Six of the vending spaces are located in the City of Atlanta and the remaining 21 are in surrounding suburbs. Some sites are in public city squares or parks, but many are located on private property, whether in a church parking lot or an abandoned lot. Seven of the vending site are managed by local governments including the City of Atlanta, the City of Suwanee, the City of Brookhaven, the City of Sugar Hill, and Alpharetta. Eleven sites are managed by third party intermediaries—private organizations that specialize in food truck and related vending, e.g., the Atlanta Street Food Coalition, Red Bird Events, and Biz Serve). Farmers markets were considered third party intermediaries in this case, since they’re mission is the increase food access Four vending sites are managed by private entities that are not included in our definition of third party intermediaries, such churches and universities). The five remaining sites are managed by a combination of public and private institutions.
Through an analysis of legislative records, newspaper articles, and academic literature, a historical account of city vending policies was assembled and used to trace the development of Atlanta’s food truck industry. This case study found that the success of local food trucks in Metro Atlanta is not due to proactive governmental policies but rather to persistent citizen participation and third-party intermediary intervention in the policy-making and industry-building process. Atlanta’s early food truck advocates and owners faced seemingly insurmountable barriers in the form of antiquated vending laws and restrictive space provisions. Their tactical, creative, and community-oriented solutions to these challenges led to the creation of what quickly became a robust industry.
The Atlanta food truck case study highlights the challenges of starting and sustaining a food truck business. The intermediary actors in the Atlanta market served as important partners for the food truck owners, helping them traverse the permitting process, raising awareness about food trucks to ensure a sustainable customer base, and continuing to facilitate the creation of sufficient vending spaces to meet the supply and demand for food trucks. This case study also exemplifies the problems that restrictive policies can cause by demarcating public and private space in ways that privilege entrenched interests and restrict entrepreneurship and innovation. The tangled web of permitting and space regulations across municipalities in metro Atlanta has resulted in the conversion of spaces that were once binary (public or private) into hybrid public spaces. Although this transformation has been beneficial for the operation of food trucks in Atlanta, it further blurs the differentiation between public and private space.
This blog post has been adapted from a chapter titled “Atlanta’s Food Truck Fervor: Policy Impediments and Entrepreneurial Efforts to Expand Mobile Cuisine,” which will be published in the forthcoming book From Loncheras to Lobsta Love: Food Trucks, Cultural Identity and Social Justice edited by Julian Agyeman.