November 18, 2015

Street vending in Chicago is finally legal. Three years ago, the IJ Clinic on Entrepreneurship started tirelessly mobilizing vendors across the city and meeting with city leaders to find a way to bring food cart vendors out of the shadow economy and turn aspiring vendors into successful entrepreneurs. It was illegal for pushcart vendors to sell any food other than whole produce or packaged frozen desserts. But the IJ Clinic’s hard work paid off in September when the Chicago City Council unanimously passed our ordinance to legalize food carts. 

The new law legalizes the thousands of popular tamale, fruit, bagel and hot dog food carts around the city. It also opens the door for aspiring food entrepreneurs looking to reinvent street food.

Before the new law passed, Chicago’s vendors pleaded for decades with the city to legalize them. For the majority of vendors, food carts provide a low-cost way to earn an honest living. But until recently, sidewalk vendors lived in fear of the police, who issued fines or threatened to arrest vendors if they did not stop selling to the public.

At September’s licensing committee hearing, vendors, their family members, supporters and IJ Clinic staff packed City Hall to show their support. We held a rally in Daley Plaza and a press conference inside City Hall packed with media. Vendors held up handmade signs demanding that they be allowed the right to earn an honest living for their families. Claudia Perez, a local vendor, spoke passionately about her desire to vend, free from persecution by the police. Vicky Lugo, from Chicago’s vendor association, spoke about vending as a livelihood.

During the hearing, vendors shared heartfelt testimonies, calling for their chance to operate their growing businesses legally. Beth Kregor, IJ Clinic director, called on city council to respect the vendors as business owners, stating that the woman who scrapes her pennies together and wakes up at 2 a.m. to put a pot on the stove should have the same right to start a business as startups with venture capital funding. These impassioned testimonies set the terms of the debate for the hearing, which concluded with unanimous support for our ordinance.

The IJ Clinic is just getting started. Although the new law is an important first step to give entrepreneurs the freedom they need to start their own businesses, vendors are still banned from preparing food on their carts—a common practice done safely in almost every major city with a thriving vending industry. For now only food prepared in a licensed kitchen can be sold by food carts. IJ is still also fighting in court against the ban on food trucks operating within 200 feet of a restaurant while forced to use GPS equipment that lets the city track their every move. The IJ Clinic will continue to work hard for all Chicago vendors until the city gets rid of all burdensome vending regulations.

Stacy Massey is the office and community relations manager for the IJ Clinic on Entrepreneurship.

Subscribe to get Liberty & Law magazine direct to your mailbox!

Sign up to receive IJ's bimonthly magazine, Liberty & Law, along with breaking news updates about the Institute for Justice's fight to protect the rights of all Americans.