Chicago Must Embrace Vending Freedom

Institute for Justice · October 6, 2015

Chicago—Street vending is part of Chicago’s culture, but the city sure doesn’t act that way. For years, Chicago was one of the only two major cities in the United States to prohibit entrepreneurs from selling prepared foods out of food carts. Although the city council last month passed a new ordinance to legalize the carts, Chicago still places a host of burdensome restrictions on vendors of all stripes. A new study released today by the Institute for Justice shows why—particularly from an economic standpoint—many of these regulations are wrongheaded and counterproductive.

In Upwardly Mobile: Street Vending and the American Dream, IJ presents its findings from the first-ever national survey of licensed street vendors. Specifically, IJ surveyed 763 licensed street vendors in America’s 50 largest cities—including Chicago—and found:

  • 96 percent of large-city vendors own their own businesses.
  • Street vending creates jobs; 39 percent of vendors employ full- or part-time workers.
  • Full-time vendors work five-and-a-half days per week on average and work long hours—averaging 11 to 12 hours per day.
  • More than one-third of vendor-owners plan to expand, mostly by growing their current business.

“Our findings demonstrate that street vending is a diverse and vibrant industry that gives people the ability to support themselves, their families and their communities,” said Dr. Dick Carpenter, director of strategic research at IJ and author of the report. “Vendors are hard-working small-business owners and job creators—exactly the type of businesses Chicago should encourage.”

And there is far more work to do. Although the city council recently legalized some food carts, it still prohibits them from preparing food onboard—a common practice conducted safely in almost every other major city. And with respect to food trucks, Chicago prohibits them from operating within 200 feet of a brick-and-mortar restaurant. The Institute for Justice has challenged that last restriction on behalf of food-truck entrepreneur Laura Pekarik, owner of the Cupcakes for Courage food truck.

“In legalizing some food carts, Chicago took a good first step towards eliminating unnecessary restrictions on the city’s street vendors,” said Elizabeth Kregor, Director of the Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago Law School. “But there is more to be done. Upwardly Mobile demonstrates that the vending industry is an economic boon that benefits vendors, their customers and the entire community. By rescinding other burdensome vending regulations, Chicago can give its economy a shot in the arm and help these entrepreneurs pursue their American Dream.”

IJ’s newly released report is part of its National Street Vending Initiative, a nationwide effort meant to vindicate the right of street vendors to earn a living.