On a recent trip to Portland, Ore., my friend (a native of the area) took me to eat lunch at the food carts in the neighborhood known as Mississippi. I had heard about these food carts, and was very excited to check them out. They did not disappoint.
The food carts on Mississippi all share the theme of serving local, sustainable, cooked-on-the-spot food. I enjoyed a delicious vegetarian sushi roll, hand made by a woman who voluntarily informed me that the ginger she served with her sushi was 100 percent chemical free, unlike the majority of pickled ginger products (a fact I did not know). Other cart meals included local eggs served in a variety of ways, locally made tempeh sandwiches and quinoa pancakes, and bratworst made from local meat.
Visiting these food carts was a wonderful experience, and left me longing for another taste. I was so enthralled by the idea of food carts that I decided I was going to open my own food cart when I moved from Atlanta to Athens recently. Athens is so funky and already into the local food scene that I thought surely a breakfast food cart serving local eggs and homemade toast would be a hit.
After doing a bit of research, however, I found that it's much harder to start a food cart in Athens than I thought. It turns out that Athens only allows 25 permits for street vendors, with many vendors only setting up shop on football game days, leaving the spots empty the rest of the year. Current vendors also have the option to renew each year, making it hard for a new vendor to gain a permit. According to an article in the Athens Banner Herald, wannabe vendors will even spend the night outside the permit office in attempt to obtain an opening permit.
One Athens food cart does exist: the restaurant Farm 255 serves lunch from a cart parked right outside the restaurant. The cart, which does not have a county permit, can only serve food on private property. It can't be moved to the street or any other public spaces. Farm 255 is a supporter of making more permits available to entrepreneurs aiming to bring good quality food to the Athens community.
Opening a food cart is a cheaper investment than opening a restaurant. Allowing a greater number of permits for food carts would give more people the opportunity to participate in the food industry. The county permit office should not only make more spaces available to food vendors, but it should come up with a point system where potential vendors have to score a certain number of "green points" or meet a criteria in order to obtain a permit, and using local food should be one of the criterion. Food carts can be a great way to promote local farms and give the community a way to enjoy delicious meals in a casual manner. In one way or another, food carts bring a unique local flavor to the neighborhood, and who wouldn't want that?
Photo: Molly Canfield