Many Georgians were outraged last year when kids had their lemonade stand shutdown because they lacked a food permit. Judging from the reaction, most people found it ridiculous. After all, these were kids who were simply trying to earn money to visit a waterpark for some summer fun.
While this seems like a very minor example, it was a case of a local government infringing on economic liberty*; and sadly, these cases aren’t few and far between. And though it’s not a simple lemonade stand run by kids, the City of Atlanta has shutdown the Atlanta Food Truck Park and Market, and not because of the lack of a food permit or for health code violations:
Last Thursday, the Atlanta Police Department License and Permits unit arrived at the Atlanta Food Truck Park and began shutting down trucks left and right. The park on Howell Mill Road, the first permanent food truck park in Atlanta open 7 days a week, remains temporarily closed until enough of the vendors can clear up the permit issues with the APD.
For the most part, news about the closing has been limited to references of “permitting issues,” without much detail as to what that means. I spoke with Howard Hsu yesterday, co-owner of the Atlanta Food Truck Park, to get a better understanding of what exactly is happening, and what is next for the Food Park. What follows is a very condensed summary of that conversation.
To be perfectly clear, none of the permits in question have anything to do with food-safety violations. All of the vendors affected had business licenses and had passed health inspections. Also, the park itself is not in violation of any permits, just all of the vendors that populate it.
The crux of the issue is the restriction – or rather, enforcement – of the number of locations allowed by a mobile vending permit. Until the passage of the Food Truck Ordinance, the City of Atlanta’s verbiage was singular – “location” – meaning that a food truck operator would have to re-apply for a new permit and re-pay the associated fees every time it moved locations. Section G of the new ordinance changed the City of Atlanta’s wording to allow for “multiple locations as indicated on the vending permit.”
The other major change brought on by the ordinance was the reduction in permissible proximity to a brick-and-mortar business selling similar items from 1500 feet to 200 feet.
However, the Food Truck Ordinance did not re-write every tangled link of compliance across the wide range of required permits, only the City of Atlanta codes. The wording still remains in the State of Georgia’s code that “a mobile food service unit or an extended food service unit must restrict operation to a maximum of two (2) locations or areas stipulated by the permit.” That would mean a re-application process and hundreds of dollars in fees every time a food truck wants to operate from any location that isn’t one of the two on file with the State Health Department.
Up until this point, the Atlanta Police Department hadn’t enforced the two location restriction in the Georgia code as long as the vendor had valid city permits.
So, technically, every one of the vendors at the park was required to have the Howell Mill Park as one of their two locations on file with the State Health Department. But it wasn’t just one or two lazy owners whose permits were not up to date; every truck in the park was in violation.
Hsu relayed the strong sense of frustration among the food truck operators with the process, as many of them had applied numerous times for the permits showing the Howell Mill address as a location, only to have their application delayed or denied for trivial reasons.
But it wasn’t until he explained the cause of the most recent delay in re-opening the park that I realized just how silly and frustrating this process can really be.
My wife and I attended the opening of the park a couple of weeks ago with some friends. It’s a really a neat concept. The only negative was that, because the lines were so long and some trucks were already running out of food, we wound up eating at Six Feet Under. Of course, we didn’t leave until I had my first taste of King of Pops.
It’s not like the restaurant owners don’t know what they’re doing. For example, Howard Hsu and his wife run at least two restaurants (Gezzo’s in McDonough and Sweet Auburn in Atlanta) and are well-seasoned (no pun intended) in the bureaucracy that comes with being small business owners. They’re bright people with a passion for food and pleasing their clientele.
It’s not a lemonade stand, but it’s a similar story. Unfortunately, these restaurant owners and their hardworking employees now have to deal with economic losses because of bureaucratic wrangling. Great job, Atlanta.
*And no, I’m not speaking out against licensing requirements, merely the overly bureaucratic process that it has become.