Chicago's street food vendors get a shot at legalization

May 13, 2014

(WBEZ/Monica Eng)
Vendors would incur fees under a new proposal for legalization but most say it would be worth it.

On a typical morning in Chicago’s Little Village, you can find a vendor named Maria waking early and packing her cart full of watermelons, mangoes, melons, pineapples, cucumbers, jicama, limes and more.
 
Throughout the day, she’ll take them out of the cooler and slice them into colorful fruit cups that are finished with a shower of fresh lime and spices. 

From her little corner stand, Maria also sells bags of potato chips and artificial pork rinds.

But can you guess which one of her snacks the city considers the biggest threat to public health?

If you guessed fried chips, you’d be wrong.

According to Chicago Department of Public Health, cutting fresh fruits and vegetables on a cart constitutes a health code violation.

“Once the fruit is cut, it becomes adulterated,” said the department’s Brian Richardson. “In order to serve, it must be kept stored at the right temperature and it must have been washed using the same methods that they would at a brick and mortar restaurant. And most carts are not equipped with handwashing at the levels that are required by the health department.”

This issue has long prevented the legalization of Chicago eloteros (corn on the cob sellers) who’ve worked Chicago streets for decades, but always with a cloud of uncertainty.

“Every time they go out to sell, they’re scared,” said Vickie Lugo, vice president of the Asociacion de Vendadores Ambulantes (mobile vendors association). “They are scared that they might be stopped by the police or get ticketed or even get arrested, which has has happened several times in the past. And the fines have been up to $1,000, and in certain occasions, up to $1,500.”

Despite years of pushing cart legalization efforts, the city and pushcart vendors have remained at a decades-long impasse.

Enter the Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship, a civil liberties law firm that works out of the University of Chicago law school. Earlier this month, IJ director Beth Kregor unveiled a compromise plan.

“We’ve written up an ordinance that would allow vendors to sell all manner of food as long as they’ve prepared it in advance in a proper kitchen and as long as it has been licensed and inspected by the city,” Kregor said.

The proposal would require all food to be pre-packaged rather than prepared on the street and it would include licensing fees of about $250 a year. That’s all before the kitchen rental expenses.

Kregor said says she’s been working closely for months with aldermen and the Health Department to tackle their concerns early in the proposal process. The proposal, to date, lacks a aldermanic sponsor to introduce it in the City Council, but Kregor says several have shown their support.

Chief among them is 20th Ward Alderman Willie B. Cochran, who has been part of the legalization effort for years.  

“Having safe dining options is must, but it is also a must to ensure that people are given the opportunity to develop business and provide for themselves and make it convenient for people who are looking for quality food products,” Cochran said. “It will give us an opportunity to expand kitchens that can support these products and (to) businesses and it will give an opportunity for the employed to be employed.” 

Cochran is referring to the hundreds of licensed prep kitchens that would need to spring up all over Chicago to accommodate the current crop of vendors who number around 1,500. Kregor says this could bring in new revenue to existing facilities like churches whose kitchens could help fill the void.

Lugo admits that the legalization comes with drawbacks: the licensing and rental fees, the waste possibly created by pre-package products that may not sell, and the loss of the live cooking demonstration that ensues each time a fruit cup is ordered. 

While these changes may be necessary to get a ordinance passed, some question its importance for public health. The Chicago Park District has licensed these same vendors to operate on park property without incident for years. “But,” as Kregor noted, “across the street from a park on the sidewalk it’s completely forbidden.”

Still, for Maria, the compromise may be worth it.

“This license will allow us to sell our products without being bothered by the police and being ticketed,” she says. “I think it’s good.” 
With warm summer days on the horizon, more vendors will be returning to their regular Chicago corners. And Kregor says they could be doing it legally by the end of the year if she finds a sponsor.

Although the current focus is on eloteros and vendors who sell fresh fruit, Kregor and her IJ colleague Michael Lanahan says their proposal would legalize all sorts of small food cart vendors.

“It might be dumplings, It might be cookies, corn on the cob or tamales,” she said at a recent Rogers Park meeting to gather support for the plan. 

“As long as it meets the baseline of being prepared in a licensed kitchen, packaged and kept at the right temperature, then flavors away anything can happen,” Lanahan said.

So why does Chicago still lag so far behind Chicago on street food offerings?

“I’ve struggled to understand why it’s so hard for Chicago to embrace street food when every other city in the world thrives on street food,” Kregor said. “What would New York be without roasted chestnuts in the winter? What would Paris be without crepes on the go?...Chicago seems to be abnormally obsessed with keeping the streets clean, but its really hard to understand.”

If passed, Kregor says her proposal could deliver a fresh new smorgasbord of legal street food to city. And, to many, that would be a welcome change over the same stale impasse that has branded fruit cups as contraband for far too long.

Monica Eng is a WBEZ producer and co-host of the Chewing The Fat podcast. Follow her at @monicaeng or write to her at meng@wbez.org