By Todd Semrau

I was conversing with a chef friend of mine the other day who owns a popular restaurant here in Atlanta.  We were talking shop when I mentioned that I was developing a food truck concept for one of my clients.

His face got red and his words curdled like bad milk. “Man, I tell you this whole food truck thing’s got me pissed off. They’ll steal my business, park where ever they want, they don’t need a permit, don’t pay taxes and don’t get inspected by the health department It isn’t fair! Me and my partners are thinking of raising a stink to the GRA [Georgia Restaurant Association] about this!”

Ok, so chefy was a little threatened, but he’s probably not the only brick and mortar operator singing that same tune. In Atlanta, where the food truck phenomena is only beginning to take off, there are a lot of unknowns and misconceptions out there about food trucks and their impact on existing restaurants.

As the industry matures a lot of those fears will subside. Until then, the brick and mortars shouldn’t fret food trucks. The fact is food trucks have plenty of uphill battles to fight before they begin to impact anything let alone existing restaurants.

First, the existing local ordinances, laws and regulations pertaining to food service were written decades ago, long before anyone had ever heard of a food truck. Most cities and counties do not even acknowledge the existence of “food truck” in their code, which poses a sortie of permitting delays and expenses for the modern day food truck warrior.

Second, the costs involved in fabricating a food truck, or buying one prefabricated, are significant. Today’s food truck operators must bring more than an umbrella and a hot dog cart to have play in the game. Customers will want an experience along with their food. A colorful, gleaming, fully equipped food truck can cost upwards of $120,000. Add to that the graphics wrap, menu development, gas, maintenance, insurance, truck storage, permitting fees, biz licenses and suddenly what some may consider a weekend hobby is now a full-on investment.  And, yes, they do have to pay sales tax.

Then there is the requirement that all food truck operators must have a home base commissary. In other words, a fully functional kitchen permitted by the local health department. Consider the costs of leasing a catering kitchen on top of operating a food truck and one begins to understand the commitment and capital investment involved in this burgeoning niche business.

Now back to the chef and his concerns.  He should understand that the food trucks are creating their own business segment, something I have coined “cracker jack” dining; while the food truck fare is good the prize is even better.  It’s the adventure of the unknown that draws crazed foodies to food trucks. Where brick and mortar restaurants offer stability the food truck is a one-night stand.  Chef, and his brick and mortar buddies at the GRA, should leverage that distinction for everything its worth.

Or chef could ratchet up his game and develop his own food truck. Food trucks are, pardon the pun, an amazing promotional vehicle. They are a natural extension of a restaurant’s brand. A food truck can introduce a restaurant’s food and concept to a larger market base of consumers.

Consider that a food truck can drive to a captive target market.  For instance, if your restaurant’s business model is based on attracting the Gen Y demographic segment take the food truck to wherever those twentysomething’s live and work.  It’s like fishing with a net.

Lastly, food trucks operators are urban pioneers. They can bring excitement and attention to forgotten urban sectors, like downtown Atlanta…Central Atlanta Progress are you reading this?)  The Midtown Alliance, for instance, is well into the planning of a series of food truck events along the Midtown Mile.

The underlying philosophy being that food trucks act as marketing tool and a change agent for the neighborhoods they visit, building a consumer mass that will patronize future restaurants and retail in those areas.  Local municipalities would do well to heed this theory, too.  So, chef, do not fret food trucks.  Rather reach out and embrace your newfound half sister.  Just keep thinking, WWOD – what would Oprah do?

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.