Pushcart food vendors operating illegally on the streets of Chicago took a baby step out of the shadows Wednesday.
Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th) formally introduced the ordinance drafted by pushcart vendors and their legal advocates, even though it’s an issue that some of his colleagues are not interested in tackling nine months before the aldermanic election.
The ordinance would minimize the city’s inspection burden — by forbidding pushcart food vendors from cooking outside and allowing them to sell only food made in a city-licensed and inspected kitchen.
Chicago remains one of the nation’s only major cities that bans street vendors from selling anything more than frozen desserts and uncut fruits and vegetables. Cooked food or cut fruits and vegetables are off-limits.
Even so, scores of vendors defy the law, selling tamales, tacos, hot dogs and other food from push carts across the city while living in fear of arrest. Maldonado is one of their loyal customers. He buys tamales every Sunday after church.
“I’m not worried about any political repercussions. I’m worried about doing the right thing for this group of entrepreneurs that are sometimes being singled out by police. Chase them out. I don’t think that’s right,” Maldonado said.
“This has been going on for years. It’s not going to go away. Why not legitimize them and have them operate like legitimate businesses in Chicago?”
Maldonado said pushcart food vendors should have been legalized when the City Council authorized food trucks with cooking on board. They were “left out” simply because aldermen lacked the “political will” to confront an issue they have dodged for years, he said.
“The University of Chicago has spent a lot of time with the Department of Health going through safeguards so the proposed ordinance meets all [city] standards,” he said. “Because of that, hopefully, we’ll find the political will now to incorporate this group of entrepreneurs and finally have them come in out of the shadows and be able to operate freely.”
Ald. Danny Solis (25th), chairman of the City Council’s Zoning Committee, reiterated Wednesday he’s not eager to tackle the “very difficult” pushcart vendor issue because there are “so many different perspectives from aldermen and the communities they represent.”
“It’s less than nine months before the election. People are going to be operating under self-interest. That has to be considered. But, if it could go through and it won’t hurt my constituents, I could support it,” Solis said.
Earlier this month, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he was looking for a way to sanction and regulate their activities — just as he did two years ago when he persuaded the City Council to legalize food trucks with cooking on board provided they remain at least 200 feet away from brick-and-mortar restaurants.
“Prior to my tenure, we had years of debate between the restaurant industry and the food truck industry. We worked through and negotiated and now have a thriving food truck industry and also a thriving culinary and restaurant scene in Chicago,” the mayor said then.
“If you look at the past example of this — food truck vs. restaurant — we weren’t stymied by debate. We worked through the issues so both could thrive together.”
Beth Kregor, who helped draft the ordinance in her role as director of the Clinic on Entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago Law School, was encouraged by what she called the “cautious statement” from Emanuel.
But she warned pushcarts would not agree to a 200-foot buffer to protect restaurants similar to that imposed on food trucks.
“Food trucks are almost banned entirely from the Loop and from thriving business districts like 26th Street,” she said.
“Carts can be complimentary to business districts and restaurants. The city should allow vendors to operate food carts where the customers are. We would not approve of a move by the city to push vendors away from business districts.”
Former Mayor Richard M. Daley tried repeatedly to sanction pushcart food vendors forced to operate in the shadows in Chicago only to drop the issue like a political hot potato.
Daley could never find the appropriate balance between regulation and free enterprise. When he went too far, vendors accused him of using “Gestapo” tactics in a “hate tirade against Mexicans.”