Green Solutions In Focus - Mobile market
April 22nd, 2011
01:00 PM ET
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"Street food adds life and vibrancy to the city," says Greg Smith, President of the Atlanta Street Food Coalition, a group seeking to help entrepreneurs break into the industry.

While some cities, like Los Angeles, have long-standing street food scenes, others have sprouted up in recent years. Instead of the LA-style trucks that are truly mobile, cities like Portland, Oregon, and Austin, Texas, employ a model where more-or-less stationary carts and trailers gather in designated areas.

Other cities are developing models somewhere along that spectrum; Greg Smith thinks Atlanta will end up with a hybrid approach.

"There will be multiple 'food truck lots' around the city and the trucks might move on a daily basis from lot to lot," predicts Smith.

The attraction to young chefs or food entrepreneurs is straightforward: it's much easier and less expensive to run a truck, stand or cart. However, those low barriers to entry sometimes cause friction with restaurants that feel like they are competing with vendors for the same tight food dollar.

"It's understandable that a burger restaurant wouldn't want a burger truck parked in front of their doors," says Ivan Pardo, developer of Truxmap, an app and website for tracking food trucks. "But they may want to have a waffle truck there because the truck offers something they can't provide - plus the truck attracts additional consumers to the area."

Authorities and vendors often come into conflict as street food struggles to take hold in unfamiliar territory.

Chicago has been enforcing a prohibition on cooking on trucks, forcing its vendors to prepackage everything they sell. For many operators, especially the more gourmet-minded chefs, the ability to prepare food on-site is a deal breaker.

But there are plenty of other policies that can make street food operations very difficult.

One of Atlanta's most acclaimed chefs, Pura Vida's Hector Santiago, recently had a popular weekend burrito stand shut down by local authorities because he didn't have a permit. Co-owner Leslie Santiago says they were advised that no separate permit was necessary as the food was prepared in their restaurant's kitchen and safely transported and assembled at the outdoor stand.

After being shut down, they looked into what a permit would require and found that even if they bought a truck, it's not necessarily smooth-driving from there.

"The way the regulations are currently written, food trucks cannot operate for more than a half hour in a location, and at more than two locations a day. This policy makes it unrealistic for vendors to make money," said Leslie Santiago.

They've since moved the weekend burrito operation indoors, which having a restaurant gives them the luxury of doing - but even then, they have seen a decline in their business relative to their outdoor stand.

One way to avoid some of the red tape is to stop cooking.

Some associates of Riverview Farms near Atlanta had the idea to combine two movements in the culinary world: mobility and local sustainable agriculture. They created Farm Mobile, a "mobile farmers market" that peddles produce in various locations around Atlanta - or as Elmer Veith puts it, "we're going to bring the farm field to the neighborhood, so you don't have to come to us."

Veith came up with the concept and retrofitted a Mac Tools truck to create Farm Mobile.

"The usual setup for Riverview Farms is there is a bunch of coolers, tables, tents - [and] it was one of those days in the cold and the rain when you go 'there's got to be an easier way.'"

The truck parks in one or two locations a day and customers walk in the back door and pay before exiting the front. On the sides are shelves of produce and a freezer for meats - all of it local.

Customers are alerted to the trucks location, and sometimes special contents via email, Facebook and Twitter.

"The communication aspect of the truck business is a lot of heavy lifting. It's a lot of reminding people 'we're gonna be here at this time, come see us,' and 'now we're here!'" says Suzanne Welander, who describes herself as the "left brain" of Farm Mobile.

"The fun thing is Twitter is ideally suited for communicating that way with people. Like I can tell people, 'I just picked up lettuces and I just got this, and we just reloaded dumplings!' - so it creates some excitement around where the truck is and what it's got on board."

In this way, Farm Mobile owes a lot to the new wave food trucks who are heavily involved in social media. At the same time, they are different in that selling raw food allows for fewer restrictions than serving ready to eat food. They are licensed by state authorities and the only other thing they need is permission from property owners to park on their land.

Regardless of the difficulties would-be vendors are finding, in some locations the trend may still be gaining steam.

"There isn't a week that goes by that I don't get an email from a coalition of street food vendors who want to appear on our map." says Ivan Pardo.

Watch the Green Solutions in Focus: Eatocracy Edition hour-long special hosted by Tom Foreman on Saturday, April 23rd at 3pm ET and see all Earth Day coverage at

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soundoff (12 Responses)
  1. jeem

    I work in downtown Detroit and we have a fruit and veggie truck stop right in front of my building 4 days a week (Monday is his day off). His name is Charlie and he is very popular. There are very few supermarkets in the city so he provides a valuable service to my coworkers who live in the city, but also to those of us who live in the suburbs. It is not always convienent to shop every other day for fresh vegetables (they only keep so long). He was gone for a while due to illness and everyone was concerned about him because he was part of our lives. We were all very happy to see him return.

    April 23, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
  2. Farden

    Mobile produce markets and lunch "wagons" were visiting Hawaii neighborhoods since the '40s. There were grocery trucks offering everything from lettuce to chewing gum, eggs and milk. Twice a week the bakery truck came through with fresh pastries, breads and the best chocolate eclairs in the Pacific. A Chinaman bicycled through regularly with sweet meats, fresh home-made noodles, wonton and Chinese sausages. Even today plate lunch trucks are everywhere serving up full meals such as beef stew, teriyaki chicken, barbeque pork and curry dishes with all the trimmings for under six-bucks. On the North Shore of Oahu, long lines start early at dozens of shrimp trucks and huli-huli (on the spit) chicken stands. So, we in Hawaii have a long and tasty history of foods on the go. Sitting on the beach with a plate lunch on a work day is a common site.

    April 23, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
  3. Sadie

    Check out in LA. They are actually cooking farmer's market food off a truck.

    April 23, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
  4. Nate

    Cleveland also has a great wealth of CSA's including a mobile market called "Fresh Fork", my family loves the quality and variety of locally produced foods and have fun experimenting with new ingredients that we normally would walk past in a conventional grocery store.

    April 23, 2011 at 11:37 am |
  5. Barb GP

    When I was a kid in the 70's the farmer came around at least once a week and sold produce, eggs and flowers from the back of a flat bed truck. He would ring his bell and everyone within a few blocks would come out to buy their produce. It was great...service at your door!

    April 23, 2011 at 9:21 am |
  6. Pat

    What goes around comes around. When I was a kid, the produce truck came twice or 3 times a week. This was in the 194o's.

    April 23, 2011 at 8:47 am |
    • Alcharlie

      Yep, if you want to know what trends to go with. Look to the past. Everything old is new again.

      April 24, 2011 at 8:25 am |
  7. Bill Constantine

    It sounds good but can you see the sleezy trucks coming in also...It would be good for a farmers type place...who will know who is allowed were..who will know if a health permit is needed...Start a new area with parking and see if people like it...first the city should come out with the information in the papers as to what type of permits is needed for what type of vehicle...some people will ruin it for others...

    April 23, 2011 at 1:55 am |
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