By Thom Volarath
Yumbii just opened for lunch in Midtown’s Technology Square and there’s already a line starting to form on the sidewalk. This new restaurant features Korean tacos, a deliciously addictive import from the West Coast. Unfortunately, they do not take reservations. Or credit cards. Oh, and there are no tables either. Yumbii doesn’t even have an address. This new restaurant is actually a decked out food truck that moves from neighborhood to neighborhood, and it’s one of an army of innovative street foods vendors that’s about to spread throughout the streets of Atlanta.
Nationally known food critic and Atlanta resident Christiane Lauterbach began following the current progress of street vendors on her blog, Atlanta Food Carts (www.atlantafoodcarts.com), earlier this year. Lauterbach remembers a time during the Olympics when street food vendors were plentiful, but those numbers have dwindled over the last 14 years.
While the term “street vendor” conjures up concerns of cleanliness and freshness, the current group of vendors has very little in common with those of the past. Throw out any preconceived ideas you might have about street food. Some of the new trucks hitting the streets are fully functioning, true gourmet restaurants on wheels.
The local movement is being lead by chefs with established Atlanta restaurants and young entrepreneurs. Chef Hector Santiago from Pura Vida has started the El Burro Pollo Burrito Stand, which has hungry customers lining up early and usually selling out in less than two hours. Steve Carse sells his handmade, gourmet popsicles from a cart on the corner of North Highland and North avenues and has been featured on CNN. This new category of street food has much more in common with what you would find in high-end restaurants and grocery stores. Most offer fresh, organic, and locally sourced ingredients, and many offer innovative recipes and bold use of flavors.
Technology has played a huge role in the growth of the street food movement. They use various forms of social networking like Facebook (where El Burro Pollo lets fans know when the stand is open) and Twitter (The King of Pops announces opening time and new flavors) to connect with their customers. Social networking not only allows for real time interactions, it also allows the vendors to update their customers about their whereabouts and menu additions. More importantly, social networking allows the customers to become fans.
The street food trend has its beginnings on the West Coast. Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Portland, Seattle are all cities with an amazing street food culture. Portland, for example, boasts over 500 street carts roaming around a city that’s about half the size of Atlanta. Atlanta isn’t quite there yet, but the numbers are starting to pick up. With the support of City Councilmember Kwanza Hall, laws that are currently more prohibitive for street vendors in Atlanta are slowly starting to evolve.
Greg Smith, part owner of Westside Creamery and head of The Atlanta Street Food Coalition (www.atlantastreetfood.com), says his organization is working with city officials to promote the many benefits of having more street vendors. An in-depth report the Coalition is conducting is due to be presented to the city council soon. His organization’s goal is to get the city to allow permits for food trucks to operate more freely.
In the meantime, street vendors are moving ahead by holding various events around the city to showcase the diversity of street food currently in Atlanta.
One of the most popular is The Urban Picnic, sponsored by The Atlanta Street Food Coalition. This mobile event is held the last Friday of every month at various locations around the city. Most recently, the event was held at the Sweet Auburn Market, and showcased a diverse group of foods from Korean tacos and Persian burritos to hand crafted ice cream and gourmet popsicles.
Jenny Levison, owner of the popular Souper Jenny in Buckhead and an active member of The Atlanta Street Food Coalition, is also one of the people helping lead the charge for more food trucks in the city. In order to draw more attention to the subject and show city officials the benefits of having more street carts in Atlanta, she’s holding an event called “Souper Jenny’s Super-Secret Underground Food Truck Extravaganza” on Thursday, Sept. 23, from 6 to 9 p.m. Expect samplings from established names like Taqueria del Sol and Souper Jenny, as well as a few new faces like Yumbii, The Good Food Truck, West Side Creamery and Artichoke Bliss.
Lauterbach is thrilled that the street food movement is starting to take hold in Atlanta. She sees a day where food trucks could unite the city by showcasing the diverse ethnic cuisines that Atlanta has to offer. And with the way the street food movement is progressing, that day shouldn’t be too far away.