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Atlanta's street food movement still tied up in red tape

Should government fail to act, street food will only putter along

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On Feb. 19, Fulton County health officials tapped the brakes on Poncey-Highland's growing reputation as a hot spot for street food after they shut down two popular vendors over permitting issues. While it's tempting in this case to blame an overzealous county bureaucrat, the larger issue is that, despite years after its welcome arrival, street food remains an upstart industry that's mired in bureaucratic red tape and miscommunication. Government officials claim to support the businesses, which enjoy a strong following in a wretched economy, yet no one has taken the lead in ironing out the legal kinks.

That is, in a word, ridiculous.

Popular with customers, street food vendors help boost street life, generate revenue and turn neighborhoods into walkable destinations — all at no cost to local governments. They represent the kind of no-brainer neighborhood amenity that politicians should be tripping over each other to recruit.

Instead, last month's citations sent a discouraging message to other vendors — and all such creative entrepreneurs. The vendors, who have spent time and money trying to launch their enterprise, are left without clear answers, only conflicting messages from city and county regulators.

Some progress was hopefully made toward that end last Thursday. In response to the Poncey-Highland crackdown, the Atlanta Street Food Coalition joined Atlanta Councilman Kwanza Hall and Fulton Commissioner Joan Garner, both of whom represent the Poncey-Highland neighborhood, and sat down with a representative from the Fulton County Health Department to discuss what legal fixes might make street vendors' lives easier.

In addition to the two politicos agreeing to hold a "street food summit" in April to educate existing and aspiring entrepreneurs, the group discussed possible amendments to existing ordinances, some of which apparently haven't been revised since the Olympics. Among them: developing a meaningful definition for what constitutes a "mobile food unit" and clarifying language about selling on surface parking lots.

Other battles, such as deciding how street food would be sold on public property and easing distance restrictions between vendors and similar nearby businesses, might have to be fought another day. (In a city that's effectively sold its public rights-of-way to private meter maids and vending firms, street food entrepreneurs currently have limited locations to sell their wares.) Then there's the issue of established restaurants possibly crying foul over upstarts setting up shop outside their front door. To that argument we find our inner conservative saying, "Let the market decide."

These are all good steps. But it's disheartening that the entire ordeal has taken this long. Much like Sunday alcohol sales, street food is an issue that should have been quickly resolved. Please do so before the movement loses its momentum. Make it safe, make it easy, make it happen.

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