IJ Works to Turn the Windy City into a “Foodies” Paradise

May 29, 2012

Mobile food vendors in Chicago have waited in limbo for nearly two yearsfor the city council to reform the city’s laws, lift protectionist and burdensome regulations, and  free up street vendors so “street food” can thrive.  Since government officials have so far failed to act, the Institute for Justice and our IJ Clinic on Entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago are spearheading a high-profile activism campaign to ratchet up pressure to legalize street food in the Windy City.

As part of this campaign, the IJ Clinic hosted “My Streets My Eats:  Chicago Mobile Food Symposium and Meet Up” at the University of Chicago Law School on April 14.  More than 150 entrepreneurs, scholars, government officials and activists gathered to discuss the many benefits of street vending and the need to reform vending laws in Chicago.

Right now, Chicago has some of the most burdensome vending laws in America.  City officials have been issuing $2,000 tickets and even arresting vendors for merely serving their customers.  Food trucks are not allowed to sell before 10 a.m. or after 10 p.m., stop within 200 feet of a restaurant or stay in one place for more than two hours.  It is illegal to vend almost anywhere downtown.  The city completely prohibits vending from pushcarts and bicycles, and no mobile food business can prepare or assemble food on-the-go.  This means it is illegal to put toppings on a hot dog from a truck.

Indicative of IJ’s unique ability to unite all political persuasions, noted vending experts from across the nation joined together to discuss the constitutional rights of vendors.  One panel included deputy counsel for Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa Gregg Kettles, IJ Senior Attorney Bert Gall, Keep Food Legal Executive Director Baylen Linnekin, and food truck owner Gabriel Weisen, who each explained how cities can create economic opportunity by knocking down protectionist barriers to vending.  Other noted panelists included Sean Basinski, director of the Street Vendor Project in New York; Heather Shouse, local journalist and author of Food Trucks:  Dispatches and Recipes from the Best Kitchens on Wheels; Vicki Lugo, vice president of Asociación de Vendedores Ambulantes; John Gaber, professor of sociology at the University of Arkansas; and Chicago Alderman Willie Cochran.

After the symposium, 19 food trucks rolled into the law school parking lot to serve food to the hungry crowd.  Hundreds of students and members of the community joined symposium attendees to show their support for legalizing street food in Chicago.  (To see more pictures and a complete list of participants, visit ij.org/vending.)  Vendors left energized by the friendly, supportive environment where they could chat with fellow entrepreneurs and show off their delicious food, and everyone left with satisfied stomachs.  All but two trucks completely sold out of food.

Vendors and symposium panelists alike were thrilled to be included in such a high-profile event.  The event received attention from the Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicagoist, A.V. Club, Chicago Now, WBEZ and several local blogs.

Chicago City Council, consider yourself warned:  These entrepreneurs are ready for the fight ahead, and their supporters come from within the community and across the country.  They also have the Institute for Justice committed to vindicating their constitutional right to economic liberty.

Lancee Kurcab is IJ’s outreach coordinator.

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