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The Future Of Food Carts: An Interview With The Street Vendors Justice Coalition

By Melissa Wiley in Food on Aug 27, 2014 4:30PM

Food cart in NYC, where they are legal (Deborah Bifulco/Creative Commons)

Chicago food carts are frozen in time. According to the existing Mobile Food Vendor Ordinance, pushcart vendors can legally sell nothing apart from frozen, prepackaged desserts. But the Street Vendors Justice Coalition, formed in 2012 in Little Village, is calling for a thaw.

Food carts arguably constitute guerrilla warfare against the city’s sprawling food deserts. And in the wake of the new e.a.t. spots’ sale of fresh food from obsolete newsstands, the momentum is building for vendors selling via bike or foot to expand their ambit. The e.a.t. spots operate under the new emerging business license, but street vendors have yet to receive the same sanction. Vendors in Ald. Roberto Maldonado’s 26th Ward reportedly are repeatedly subject to police intervention while peddling products like tamales, elotes and fresh fruit cups. As a consequence, Maldonado submitted a revised ordinance last May to the City Council legalizing all such sales. But only with summer’s end and e.a.t spots’ launch may pushcarts receive their hearing.

We spoke with Beth Kregor, director of the University of Chicago's Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship and an advocate on behalf of the SVJC, regarding the proposed ordinance and mobile food vendors’ future.

Chicagoist: What changes is the SVJC proposing to the current Mobile Food Vendor Ordinance?

BK: Currently, sidewalk vendors with carts are only allowed to sell packaged frozen desserts. The new law would allow vendors to sell any food that was prepared in a licensed kitchen and wrapped up, as long as it is kept at the correct temperature on the cart. They could sell fruit cups and tamales, bagels or dumplings, and anything else a chef may conceive. The new law would also give produce stands more freedom to sell ready-to-eat produce and to set up in more neighborhoods.

Chicagoist: How can food carts help address the city’s food deserts?

BK: Food carts are the most affordable way to start a business selling food. Entrepreneurs can sell freshly prepared food affordably in their own neighborhoods. Or they can test out different locations on different days, unlike a grocery store, which has to make a huge investment in a fixed location. If the new law passes, produce stands will have more flexibility to set up shop in various food desert neighborhoods throughout the week, and they will be able to sell ready-to-eat produce. Currently, only 30 sidewalk permits are available for produce stands across the city, and they may legally sell only whole, uncooked produce, like a mango or a cucumber or a pineapple. People in Chicago are literally hungering for affordable, fresh, ready-to-eat food.

Chicagoist: Would food carts actually compete with e.a.t. spots, which are set to expand across the city? And how might e.a.t. spots help your proposal gain traction?

BK: We would love to see e.a.t. spots all over the city along with other vendors. More competition means more and better options for Chicagoans. Vendors are already selling fresh and healthy foods, like fruit salads. If the city gives the vendors permission to cut fruits and vegetables to order on carts, we will be sure to have more of the colorful, juicy, fresh fruit that gives people in neighborhoods like Little Village a refreshing treat on the go. I have also spoken with entrepreneurs who have ideas for mobile salad bars or fresh bakery carts. Who knows how many people aren’t piecing these dreams together because the law prohibits them? If customers love the e.a.t. spots, as I suspect they will, they may inspire other vendors—traditional vendors or new entrepreneurs—to serve even more healthy food on the sidewalks as well.

I also hope the e.a.t. spots do help build momentum for legalizing street food more broadly. They showcase some of the many wonderful aspects of legal street food: They are creating jobs for people who need them, they are serving fresh, affordable food to people on the go, and they are contributing to a vibrant, urban environment. They also demonstrate that sidewalk vendors can sell food safely, in line with the health code. There is nothing to fear and so much to favor about vendors like the e.a.t. spots. The benefits could be multiplied many times if we allowed Chicagoans to design menus and carts that are just right for their own neighborhoods.

Chicagoist: What in your opinion explains the delay of the Council's vote on the proposal, and what feedback have you received from the Mayor's Office?

BK: Some aldermen may be hesitant to take a stand on vending before elections, trying to avoid a public debate, but we hope to convince aldermen that the voters want this to happen. We also hit the summer break for City Council in August. We have heard that the Mayor’s Office is enthused about proposals like this one that make it easier for people to start small food businesses in their own neighborhoods, especially when they will be able to sell fresh, healthy foods in areas with few grocery stores.

Chicagoist: How would Alderman Maldonado’s proposal affect street vendors' livelihood?

BK: Currently, vendors operate at great risk. At any moment, a police officer or inspector could tell them to stop, throw away their food, fine them hundreds of dollars or arrest them. Vendors have told us that they hide in their homes during some times of the day, because they know a police officer who tickets vendors heavily will be outside. The new law would let these entrepreneurs operate stable businesses without fear so that they could build a future for their families.

Chicagoist: What types of foods are most vendors likely to sell under the proposed new ordinance?

BK: We can’t predict the mix of foods that will be sold, because that’s up to the innovation and creativity of Chicagoans. We have heard, however, from aspiring vendors who want to sell bagels, fresh breads, cookies, iced coffee and salads. We hope that the new ordinance will let traditional Latino vendors operate their businesses without fear so that they can sell tamales, sliced mangoes sprinkled with chili and lime and elotes to their neighbors and visitors. Neighbor Capital stands, which sell only whole produce now, could sell roasted nuts, sliced fruits and veggie snacks so that Chicagoans could get snacks as well as groceries from produce stands.

Chicagoist: How would the new ordinance affect vendors’ bottom lines?

BK: Compliance with the new ordinance would come with costs as well as benefits. Current vendors may need to invest in different carts if their current carts would not pass inspection. If they wish to make their own food, they may have to pay rent in a shared kitchen. The Street Vendors Justice Coalition is also hard at work trying to identify potential community kitchens. But we believe that the costs would be offset by the freedom to sell at any time in the location of the vendor’s choice and the savings when vendors no longer lose money on city citations. Of course, we also expect brand-new businesses to emerge to create new revenue streams. People with small budgets will finally be able to start legal micro-businesses selling food.