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Emanuel to let aspiring chefs, retailers test concepts in vacant storefronts

Mayor Rahm Emanuel unveiled his final city budget on Wednesday. | Max Herman/Sun-Times files

Mayor Rahm Emanuel will move Wednesday to implement his innovative plan to allow aspiring chefs and new retailers to test their concepts in vacant restaurants and storefronts.Pop-up permitting was just one of a host of mayoral reforms unveiled last spring to further improve a small business climate that had already benefited from the consolidation of business licenses.Now that the City Council has approved year-round sidewalk cafes, Emanuel is moving to implement the plan that will allow aspiring chefs and retailers to get started at minimal cost and hassle.

At Wednesday’s Council meeting, Emanuel will introduce an ordinance that will allow restaurants and retailers now required to purchase a two-year license to, instead, choose a license as short as five days.

City Hall will also offer pop-up licenses for 30, 90, 180 or 365 days.

The price will be a bargain, compared to the cost of a two-year license. No on-site inspection will be required.

The user license won’t even be tied to a location. That means the license holder can “roam” during the length of the license and operate all around the city.

Illinois Restaurant Association President Sam Toia has said he’s all for the pop-up concept and the flexibility it provides in a city that has come to be known as a foodie haven.

“Young chefs are coming to Chicago because it’s still more cost-effective than to go to San Francisco, New York or even New Orleans. They want to see will their cuisine take off here,” Toia told the Sun-Times when Emanuel unveiled the idea in April.

“Say I’m a young chef who doesn’t really have the capital. If I do a pop-up, then I might get investors because they’ll say, `Wow, this is gonna work.’ ”

In a news release about the new ordinance, Emanuel was quoted as saying, “Chicago is home to some of the most innovative and forward-thinking entrepreneurs, and this new license, which would be the first-of-its-kind in the nation, will allow businesses to easily test out new business ideas and locations.”

Aspiring entrepreneurs won’t be the only beneficiaries.

Struggling neighborhood commercial strips will also benefit from pop-up restaurants and retailers that fill vacant storefronts. Neighborhood residents will benefit from having greater choice.

Restaurants open for limited hours on certain days would be free to supplement their income by allowing pop-ups to use the space during down time.

“We’ve listened to the small business community that has been calling for retail food pop–ups for a long time,” Business Affairs and Consumer Protection Commissioner Rosa Escareno was quoted as saying. “We are very excited to give pop–up users and hosts this opportunity and want to make this process as easy as possible for everyone.”