Emanuel searching for a way to sanction pushcart food vendors

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Pushcart food vendors operating illegally on the streets of Chicago may finally emerge from the shadows.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Wednesday he’s looking for a way to sanction and regulate their activities — just as he did two years ago when he convinced 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 at an unrelated news conference on CTA security at the Kimball Brown Line station.

Emanuel said he wants to evaluate the ordinance drafted by pushcart vendors and their legal advocates to minimize the city’s inspection burden — by forbidding them from cooking outside and allowing them to sell, only food made in a city-licensed and inspected kitchen.

But he said, “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.”

RELATED: Chicago pushcart vendors make renewed push to become legal

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.

Kregor obviously would have preferred a full-fledged mayoral endorsement. But she’s hopeful the carefully-worded statement is Emanuel-speak for trying to forge a compromise similar to the one that paved the way for a partial ban on plastic bags while exempting restaurants and small independent retailers.

“I take it as a cautious statement. The mayor wants to make sure safety provisions are in place,” she said.

Chicago has emerged as a culinary capital of the world, but remains one of the nation’s only major cities that prohibits street vendors from selling anything more than frozen desserts and uncut fruits and vegetables. Cooked food or cut fruits and vegetables are strictly off-limits.

Even so, scores of vendors defy the law by selling tamales, tacos, hot dogs and other food from push carts across the city while living in fear of arrest.

Ald. Danny Solis (25th), chairman of the City Council’s Zoning Committee, said this week 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—whether they want them or don’t want them.”

“I’d be wary of it. It’s not an issue that could be easily looked at right now…. We have so many other, more pressing issues: the budget, the violence. This would be more of a distraction that, I don’t think would go anywhere,” Solis said.

On Wednesday, Kregor fired back.

“Ald. Solis mentioned there are pressing concerns of violence and the city budget. We think this issue is pressing, too — not only because the rights of Chicagoans to earn a living are on the line but because the freedom of people to start businesses affects the safety and economy of neighborhoods,” she said.

“If vendors are allowed to apply for licenses and they’re paying sales taxes, that will benefit the city budget. They can be eyes and ears on the street to deter violence and crime. The issues of vendors are not isolated from issues the city faces. There are vendors operating in the shadows in fear of being shut down at any moment. If our low-income citizens are not allowed to start businesses and create jobs for themselves, we’re really in trouble as a city.”

Former Mayor Richard M. Daley tried repeatedly to sanction pushcart food vendors, 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.”

Now, Emanuel is vowing to try again. But unlike food trucks, Kregor warned that pushcart food vendors would not agree to a 200-foot buffer to protect restaurants.

“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.”

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