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After Years of Struggle with the City, Tamale Food Cart Passes Inspection and Paves the Way for Fellow Vendors

Chicago, Ill.—Carmen Nava-Najera, known to her customers as Mrs. Nava, has been selling her handmade tamales on Chicago streets for 22 years. Now, after a long struggle, Mrs. Nava’s tamale cart has been licensed by the city. She is the first member of the Street Vendors Association of Chicago to have her equipment approved, paving the way for her colleagues to also get their licenses and operate legally in the Windy City.

The road to approval for Mrs. Nava and her fellow street vendors was an extraordinarily long and difficult process. The members pushed for years for the city to legalize their businesses, resulting in a 2015 law. In 2017, the members pooled their limited resources to open up a commercial kitchen to prepare their food in compliance with the law. While they have paid rent on the kitchen for two years, none of them had received a license that would allow them to use it. Though many started the application process back in 2017, they could not satisfy the city’s unclear and inconsistent requirements, even with help from lawyers. Mrs. Nava’s paperwork about her equipment and procedures was approved last summer, but the inspectors applied different rules and failed the cart twice before it was approved.

“I am so happy and relieved to have my license after fighting for so long,” said Mrs. Nava. “I was ready to give up my business if I did not pass the inspection this time. I don’t know how I would have made a living. But now I can sell my tamales without fear, and I can help other vendors get their licenses.”

The Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship (IJ Clinic) has worked closely with the street vendors, first to legalize carts that had been operating in Chicago neighborhoods for decades and then next to navigate the developing regulations.

“Selling handmade tamales to hungry, happy customers in Chicago is a hard job that vendors like Mrs. Nava do with care and love. The city should not make it harder with unclear and unnecessary requirements,” said Beth Kregor, IJ Clinic Director. “We hope that today is the start of a new chapter for pushcart vendors, where they are free to earn an honest living and experience a straightforward, simple licensing process.”

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