Photo Credit: Savannah Cole
In 2017, Food Network’s “The Great Food Truck Race” came to Athens. In the episode, the competitors occasionally struggled to find space to park and serve downtown.
“That is such a perfect picture of why it’s so hard to have a food truck in this town. That is 100 percent the biggest challenge,” says Rachel Barnes, co-owner of the Manila Express food truck.
Two years later—while food trucks flourish in other cities—local food truck owners say that’s still a problem, on top of the health department’s many state-mandated regulations, pricey public permits and limited hours to serve downtown.
For years, food trucks couldn’t park downtown because spaces are too small and have a two-hour limit. Over the objections of brick-and-mortar competitors, the Athens-Clarke County commission voted in 2016 to allow food trucks to buy a permit allowing them to set up on Hancock Avenue near City Hall on Thursdays, as well as in city parks.
Food truck owners told the commission that they needed more time to sell and more space. The commission unanimously passed an updated ordinance in October in hopes of developing the food truck industry downtown. The ordinance extends food trucks’ operating hours outside City Hall to 11 p.m.–2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, which allows food truck owners more opportunity to serve bar-hoppers.
But for some food truck owners, the expanded hours aren’t enough to save the industry. Barnes says they need even longer hours to serve and a location closer to the bars downtown. Long lines at the few restaurants that are open into the early-morning hours present an opportunity. “We can help feed those people, and it won’t even be competing with the other restaurants downtown, since they’re so swamped,” Barnes says.
Commissioner Allison Wright and Angel Helmly, operations analyst at the ACC Central Services Department, say the local government isn’t planning on revising the food truck-related ordinance again. However, Wright says, if the vendors brought forward the issue, the commission would look into it.
“We’re working with supply and demand,” says Wright, who chairs the Legislative Review Committee that crafted local food truck regulations. “If the food truck vendors want to be here, like they came forward and asked for more, I’m ready to support that in the best way and the safest way for us.”
But some previously suggested locations, such as Lumpkin Street and College Avenue, are too narrow for food trucks to operate without blocking traffic, as commissioners discovered in the past.
Another issue the commission tried to resolve was why only one food truck—Chick-fil-A—has registered for a permit to park downtown for the past three years. As a result, the commission and Central Services agreed to allow owners to buy a $515 permit that authorizes food trucks to set up on both public and private property. (The fee covers ACC’s expenses, such as loss of parking revenue.) Even after that was put in place, though, only Chick-fil-A is licensed for 2019.
“At first, I thought it was because [of] the limited hours downtown, but now that the program has expanded to being able to operate on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, we’re hoping people will be more interested,” Helmly says.
Kitchens in Short Supply
The Legislative Review Committee learned that one of the food truck industry’s biggest needs is having a commercial kitchen, Wright says.
“We definitely need a commercial kitchen,” she says. “If somebody is planning a commercial kitchen, which is going to allow more people to have that high-end sanitized kitchen so they can do what needs to be done to do the food trucks, I am all for it. It seems to be a deficit in our community… and a lot of that is because the food trucks have to clean their equipment every night, but they have to have a kitchen to do that.”
Rashe Malcolm, owner of the Rashe’s Cuisine food trailer, says she plans to open the Culinary Kitchen of Athens at a downtown location she doesn’t want to disclose until the lease is signed, tentatively in April.
The idea of the commercial kitchen originally came about to create an incubator space for downtown vendors. The space will let small, home-based businesses with cottage food licenses—such as those who sell jarred or bottled foods like jelly or sauces at local farmers markets—produce food in a commercial kitchen, allowing them to expand their reach to include grocery stores and other retailers where home-produced foods are prohibited.
The “extension of the idea,” Malcolm says, is also to create an affordable space for food trucks
Photo Credit: Savannah Cole
that fits the health department’s requirements. She says the second phase of the plan will be to make the location into a food truck hub.
“We still have to have our own commissary kitchen, but it would allow us to share a space which would make it affordable for us and also have all the requirements needed to get through permits, the health department and all the others that inspect us,” Malcolm says.
Malcolm knows firsthand about the hoops Athens food truck owners have to jump through to start off their restaurants on wheels—whether it’s costs, requirements or inspections. “People think food trucks are a cheaper alternative to a restaurant… but it’s not,” she says. “You cannot just take an old restaurant and turn it into a commissary kitchen or a food truck. There’s more to it than that. The cost is more extensive than that.”
After her Tallassee Road Jamaican restaurant flooded in 2017, Malcolm transitioned to running a food trailer. Since then, she’s found the biggest struggle for food truck owners is space—whether it’s where to park or where to prepare the food—and having that space properly registered. She compares her idea of a commercial kitchen to PREP Atlanta, which offers a commercial kitchen facility to Atlanta food truck vendors.
The Culinary Kitchen of Athens will also have a program to help advance the business sense of start-ups and small businesses. Malcolm says the program already has several partnerships with organizations like the Northeast Georgia Business Alliance, Athens Area Chamber of Commerce, UGA Small Business Development Center, Athensmade, 1 Million Cups and Daily Groceries Co-op, which will offer classes, forums and counseling on running a business.
Making Ends Meet
Malcolm isn’t the first to open a commercial kitchen facility in Athens. In 2015, Jennie de la Vega, owner of Mama Bird’s Granola, set up a commercial kitchen on the ground floor of an East Broad Street apartment building “on a whim,” she says. She determined that she and many others were in the same boat of needing a certified kitchen to sell at the farmers market. “So, I saved up some money, got some equipment, found a space that didn’t need any modifications and set it up,” de la Vega says.
But looking back, de la Vega says the kitchen didn’t stay open because she lacked a business plan. “I should have done some more background about how much to charge and what to do,” she says. “I sorta wanted to save the world and help everybody. That’s not always the best thing when you’re starting a business.”
The kitchen that Malcolm hopes to start is different than what de la Vega owned. “Food truck commercial kitchens have to come with a whole different set of specs,” de la Vega says. Mama Bird’s kitchen was geared towards producing only packaged food.
The success of a commercial kitchen will come down to funding. De la Vega says the Culinary Kitchen of Athens will need much more than a government grant to keep the doors open. They’re going to need big-time private investors, she says. Malcolm says the Culinary Kitchen of Athens will be funded by memberships, fundraisers, grants and sponsors. She says she has secured financial support from the Northeast Georgia Business Alliance and plans to apply for a federal Community Development Block Grant through ACC.
Malcolm and others are currently fundraising with the Winter Community Market on Saturdays at Jittery Joe’s Barber Street roasting facility. “Of course, with all the [farmers] markets being closed, these vendors had no place to sell their items, because they have a cottage food license, which limits them with who their clients can be,” Malcolm says.
So, with all the obstacles, why stay in Athens? Atlanta has commercial kitchen facilities, getting a food truck license is easier, and there’s more opportunity. Malcolm says it’s because she made a promise to the community she loves.
“I’m going to stay and fight. It’s not just for Rashe’s Cuisine having a food truck… it’s for all of us [food truck owners]. I promised to stay in this and struggle until it’s resolved,” she says. “It can be resolved. It’s going to be resolved, and I’m going to see it through.”