'Free the Food': Street Vending Gains Support

6:21 AM, Apr 1, 2010   |    comments
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The Souper Jenny's truck is ready to roll if Atlanta changes the rules on street food vending.


ATLANTA, Ga.--The line to Souper Jenny's in Buckhead stretches out the door into a full parking lot even before the doors open at 11:00. Inside, a manager yells, "Five minutes!" and the workers (who are all actors in local theatre) rush to their spots. It's a place where the customers know Jenny Levison's face, but they usually call her "Souper Jenny".

"I change the menu every day, depending on what's local, what's in season, and...well, what I feel like cooking," Levison says with a chuckle. She's ready to take her success on the road.

A bright red food truck painted with logos like "Honk for Soup" is parked outside her restaurant. "I think street food isn't just about great food, it's about entertainment and community," she said.

She takes me on a ride in the food truck through Chastain Park. At stoplights, people stare on the bright truck. "Oh, look at that kid smiling!" she says with glee as a young boy waves enthusiastically (because what young kid wouldn't love a bright red truck painted with a huge smiling, floating lady?). But this is just a dry run. There's no food in the truck this day.

A mix of city, county, and state health regulations make it impossible for street vendors to set up regular operations in Atlanta. Hayley Richardson has been trying to navigate the rules for the last several months. Her plans to set up her own street food cart have been sidelined. "I think there's a bias from the Department of Health against street vending. Other cities are doing it, and we can too. We can keep it safe," she said.

Richardson started organizing the vendors and neighborhoods. She developed the Atlanta Street Food Coalition. "I think that there's no great city in the world that doesn't have a great street life. And I think encouraging people to get out of their cars and onto the street."

The coalition is using Twitter, Facebook, and blogs to try to build their ranks. An online petition has more than 1,000 signatures and a recent street food event attracted hundreds of customers. The group has been trying to recruit City Hall support. Fellow foodie and Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall is in.

"Of course we want to keep is safe and sanitary," Councilman Hall said. He recently visited Austin, Texas where food carts have helped revive parts of downtown by parking in empty lots. Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles, and New York have all seen a rebirth in gourmet street food in the last few years. "We need to borrow those best practices and figure out how we plug them into Atlanta. It's not rocket science. We have the will. We're ready to do it. It's time to roll," he said.

He promised to work with Fulton County Commissioners to work on changing regulations that limit street food vendors from operating. When asked if he thinks it will happen in 2010, he answered, "Absolutely!" and then later with a laugh, "Free the food!"

Critics have zeroed in on food safety concerns as one reason street food should not be allowed. It was the first thing Michelle Stine, a mom at Chastain Park, mentioned. "I would support it if it's with restaurants that have already gone through all of the inspections and ordinances. As long as it's healthy and clean, certainly, we'd be customers."

Levison agrees. "No system is perfect, but we can make this work. I think it's time for Atlanta. We're becoming more and more of a foodie community. It's time for us to get out there and show people what we can do."

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