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Chicago's 2,000 pushcart vendors finally come out of the shadows

Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th) joins pushcart vendors at a news conference before Wednesday's License Committee vote legalizing their businesses. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

After operating illegally for decades, Chicago’s 2,000 pushcart vendors serving 50,000 meals a day may finally step out from the shadows and into the licensed light.

On Wednesday, the City Council’s License Committee set the stage for that long-awaited sanctioning by approving a revised ordinance drafted by pushcart vendors and their legal advocates and championed by Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th).

Advocates said pushcart food vendors should have been legalized three years ago 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 before the 2015 aldermanic election.

As a result, Chicago remains one of only two major U.S. cities that still 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 pushcarts across the city while living in fear of arrest. Maldonado is one of their loyal customers. He buys tamales every Sunday after church.

Now that the election is over, the Emanuel administration has jumped on board the pushcart bandwagon and the License Committee followed suit. Maldonado called it a “historic” moment.

“At a time when the national debate has turned towards demeaning our immigrant population, we must strengthen our laws to bring our immigrants and entrepreneurs out of the shadows and give them the respect and legitimacy they deserve,” Maldonado told his colleagues, projecting the city’s take at $2 million to $8 million a year.

“Although there are over 1,500 mobile food cart vendors operating across Chicago, the majority of whom are Hispanic, these entrepreneurs face fines and harassment from law enforcement on a daily basis. Growth and expansion is prevented by the illegal status of their business. By legalizing the mobile cart industry, Chicago will see growth in sales, growth in income, growth in sales tax revenue and the opportunity to bring more healthy, affordable food to areas of the city that lack access to fresh food choices.”

Tamale vendor Claudia Perez said she’s a poster child for that harassment.

Speaking through an interpreter, Perez told a horror story of being arrested twice along with her daughter and three employees. Perez said she was blanketed with tickets she could not afford and ordered to stop selling her tamales. Her customers were also slapped with tickets carrying hefty fines.

“I had to throw away pots and pots of tamales. I was getting frustrated. I could not see the way out. I did not know what to do with all of these problems,” Perez said.

Pushcart vendors held a news conference before Wednesday’s License Committee vote endorsing an ordinance that would legalize their businesses. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Another vendor, speaking through an interpreter, said, “We are not criminals. We are not selling drugs. We’re just trying to make an honest living.”

The ordinance advanced Wednesday 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.

The ordinance would sanction pushcart vendors by creating a “mobile prepared food vendor” license for a $350 annual fee.

The license would be issued to mobile vendors operating from “wheeled or nonmotorized vehicles, pushcarts or handcarts” and selling “individual portions of food, coffee or other beverages … totally enclosed in a wrapper or container” and “manufactured, prepared or wrapped in a licensed food establishment.”

Pushcarts would need refrigeration approved by the Department of Public Health that is “capable of maintaining food or drink” that requires it “at a temperature of 40 degrees or less.” Equipment capable of heating food and drink to a temperature of 140 degrees or more would also be required. No more than 40 pounds of propane would be permitted for each vehicle.

To qualify for licensing, pushcarts would have to be “enclosed with top and sides. They would also need to pass inspection and move to another block every two hours.”

Each cart would also need to maintain a “suitable, tight, nonabsorbent washable receptacle for refuse.” Vendors would be required to dispose of refuse collected from the cart and its “environs” at a “commissary approved by the Department of Health.”

License Committee Chairman Emma Mitts (37th) proudly declared: “We are making history.” But she wondered aloud what would happen if a pushcart vendor overstayed the two-hour limit and a rival vendor tried to move in on that turf.

Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), owner of Ann Sather’s Restaurants, was more concerned about maintaining the aldermanic right to ban pushcarts in certain locations of his congested ward.

“Example: On Clark Street, my sidewalks are only from 6 to 8 feet wide. In a very congested area, a [pushcart] would not work on the Clark Street portion for public safety. Would that be an appropriate reason to do a prohibition on streets that are of a certain width that are congested — like our pedestrian streets?” Tunney asked.

A city attorney replied that a ban could be authorized, so long as an alderman can “justify a location restriction” based on “health and public safety concerns such as traffic congestion.”

Even with that veto power, some aldermen are not yet on board.

“It doesn’t really specify the areas where these people can operate. How many licenses will be given away? There’s a lot of concern about their proximity to [brick-and-mortar] businesses, clustering so close to one another and really the enforcement part. The cleanliness. How do they wash their hands?” said Ald. George Cardenas (12th), chairman of the City Council’s Health Committee.

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.”

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 pleased that the ordinance approved Wednesday does not include a 200-foot buffer to protect restaurants similar to the one imposed on food trucks.

But Kregor argued that the licensing fee is too high. She’s also disappointed that produce stands were not included.

“That license was created as a pilot program a few years ago. That pilot program is limited to 30 produce stands across the city,” Kregor said.

“We were hoping to increase the numbers for that license as another option for vendors and boost that form of healthy food delivery to our neighborhoods. But I can understand that the city wanted to keep the focus on one license at a time.”