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What’s Next for Atlanta’s Black-Owned Food Trucks?

Owners are cautiously optimistic that a new law will finally allow them more mobility.

A new law set to go into effect next year is designed to enable mobile food service establishments to obtain a statewide operating permit. (Courtesy of Soul Trucking Good)

Food trucks have evolved over the past decade from a trendy culinary phenomenon to a staple of urban life across the country. Vibrant food truck scenes now surround cities such as Los Angeles and Houston. It was once thought that Atlanta would be next in line, but boundless red tape and restrictions stood in the way. Now, a new bill might ease at least one of these challenges. 

On May 5, Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law HB 1443, which will go into effect at the beginning of next year. The bill is supposed to pave a way for mobile food service establishments to secure a statewide permit. Currently, food truck owners in Georgia have to obtain permits for each county in which they operate, a process that owners say costs them time and money, and ultimately impacts their success. 

But permits are just the tip of the iceberg in a sea of challenges that food truck owners say they face. The biggest issue is a critical lack of commissaries, the places where trucks park when not operating. Without a commissary, food trucks in Georgia can’t operate, but with only 19 in the state, questions about whether the new law will truly create an open door for food trucks remain. 

So, will the law usher in a new era for the local industry? Capital B Atlanta spoke with five metro area food truck owners to get their thoughts on the new statewide permit and its potential impacts. 

Donald Ralls, Owner, So Icey Water Ice 

Donald Ralls’ truck, So Icey Water Ice, is “an extension of Philly culture” mixed with a bit of Atlanta. Each flavor of the warm weather treat, which he says is essential to Philly spring and summers, is named after rappers — a nod to Atlanta’s influence on hip-hop. Ralls started the business last year after not seeing his hometown properly repped in Atlanta’s food truck scene, a place he considers a culinary melting pot. As a new owner, he said he was paying close attention to the progress of HB 1443. 

“I want to see the price of it. I want to see how much it costs … because I feel like it’s a money game, just to be real frank. … They don’t really care about the flourishing of these businesses. This is a good step, but I feel like they’re going to be like, ‘How can we get a good amount of money from this?’ … I do think it will be less of a headache having this one permit … but it is still a lot of work that needs to be done for us to really flourish here. … They can always make it more beneficial for them than the food trucks.”

Tan Bowers, Owner, VEGANish ATL

Tan Bowers has had her hands in two Atlanta food truck firsts: She owned the city’s first food truck park, Atlanta Food Truck Park, which opened in 2013. The operation later rebranded as VEGANish Atl, the first vegan, vegetarian, and pescetarian food truck park in the metro area. Bowers said the shift was prompted by her own transition to veganism and a desire to elevate a local industry that she felt had become “redundant.” She thinks HB 1443 could bring more needed changes.

“I think it’s a great win for the industry. I think it says that somebody’s listening. But on the flip side, I think it would be premature to think that this is the answer. Because although this says if you have a permit, you will be able to operate in other counties without having to get a permit, it doesn’t mean that those counties aren’t going to require you to get a license. Because at the end of the day, Fulton County does not govern Cobb County.

“Secondly, the real issue is not the permit process. The real issue is the permit requirements. … If the requirements are still that for you to have a permit anywhere, you must have a commissary, this bill has not addressed that. So, if you couldn’t get permitted before, this bill isn’t going to help you get permitted.”

Shayla Cottle and Kelleray Gill, Owners, Sistahritas

When Shayla Cottle and Kelleray Gill met a few years ago, they connected over a shared love of food. Last year, they took that shared love to new heights by opening their food truck Sistahritas. Located on Fayetteville Road, the menu consists of “Mexisoul” cuisine — Mexican food with a Southern bent. Cottle and Gill petitioned to show their support for HB 1443. 

“We did do our part. We called our city council, we left emails because we understood that it could benefit us, but we didn’t get down on the front lines. … We’re just sitting back, waiting.

“My thing is it sounds great, but, it’s always something on the back end. … It’s great that we’re only going to have to have one permit for the whole state of Georgia, but how much is that going to cost us? That’s what my concern is.

“I feel like they can, kind of, tweak the law some to where they’re going to let these food truck owners and operators use shared kitchens rather than use commissaries. You have a commissary right now literally the size of a small closet — they want $1,500 a month [and] that’s not even including your utilities, parking, all that. It’s fees on top of fees. … So that, I think, is more of an issue than the permitting issue. … We just had a lady the other day tell us her and her husband sold their food truck and the husband went back to work because [of] the commissary issue. We have people every day talking about this.” — Cottle

Carl and Jei Johnson, Owners, Soul Truckin Good 

Carl and Jei Johnson’s food truck, Soul Truckin Good, serves just what the name suggests — an array of soul food, plus barbecue. Started in 2015, the business is based out of Norcross and primarily caters rather than vends. The Johnsons also supported HB 1443. 

“Filling out temporary permits in different counties to do these different events and things like that just to be legal, they definitely became expensive and almost to the point where if you didn’t make your money at that event from what your cost was food-wise and [with] permitting, then you would essentially go out of business before you really even get started.” — Carl Johnson 

Will Turner, Owner, The Blaxican

Atlanta food truck OG Will Turner has owned The Blaxican for over a decade and has seen the street food scene transform practically since its inception. Renowned for his fusion of Mexican and soul food, Turner wrote in an email to Capital B Atlanta that he wasn’t aware of HB 1443’s passing. 

“As one of the oldest and most popular food trucks in Georgia, decentralized county and city permitting has been a thorn in my side for 11 years so this is an amazing first step.

However, the bill states that it ‘sets the process for statewide permitting.’ What does that process look like because the existing process is the main problem? Prior to this bill … we had to follow Georgia Dept of Health guidelines but depending on the county you applied in, the process was changed based on their financial need and their interpretation of the guidelines. For example, Fulton County require all utensils to be wrapped while Cobb didn’t care. 

As far as the black community impact, we have a saying, ‘Whenever the white community catches a cold, the black community catches pneumonia.’ Meaning the previous restrictions have been more than a hurdle for black food truckers, but it has killed many of their businesses.”