Institute for Justice · June 14, 2017

Chicago—There’s some good news for the taste buds and wallets of people who enjoy the delicious variety of food from around the world available on Chicago’s streets.

The Street Vendors Association of Chicago (SVAC), a group of local Mexican immigrants, banded together to open a new shared kitchen space for commercial cooking. This nonprofit venture, which opens this week, will allow street vendors to prepare fresh, affordable food to sell throughout the city. The kitchen will enable lower-income pushcart workers to comply with Chicago’s extensive licensing requirements for what city law refers to as mobile prepared food vendors (MPFV). This means aspiring culinary entrepreneurs will have the opportunity to pursue the American Dream no matter what their background or income.

“We are incredibly excited to finally open our own shared kitchen,” said SVAC President Vicky Lugo. “This new kitchen is the product of so much hard work from so many people for so long. Its success means anybody who’s willing to work hard can have a real shot in Chicago. This kitchen is a symbol of how much our community can do and how strong our businesses can grow.”

This promising development is the culmination of years of tireless effort on behalf of Chicago street vendors. In 2015, SVAC worked with community leaders to push reform through the Chicago City Council that would legalize street vending and create the MPFV license. However, the compromise ordinance that ultimately prevailed requires vendors to prepare food in a licensed shared kitchen. The problem is there are very few of those near Little Village, where many of SVAC’s members live and hope to work.

According to Chicago’s city data portal, just 10 local businesses other than SVAC are licensed as shared kitchens. And not even all of those actually permit budding food entrepreneurs to use their facilities. This meant that SVAC vendors were confronted with very few and unappealing options. For one, they could travel all the way across the city to use a kitchen with few available slots and relatively high costs. Or they could continue to operate in the shadow economy by preparing their food outside of the law.

Chicago’s Mexican-American street vendors chose neither option. Instead, they teamed up with the Institute for Justice (IJ) Clinic on Entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago Law School to create their own kitchen near their own neighborhood with a price structure that works for them. They chose to bring positive entrepreneurial activity to 16th Street, on a block with abandoned buildings and vacant lots.

“Until now, traditional street vendors had to take great risks to sell delicious food to hungry customers,” said Beth Kregor, director of the Institute for Justice (IJ) Clinic on Entrepreneurship, which supported SVAC’s efforts on the 2015 reform and to open the kitchen. “You should not have to face massive fines or jail time in order to sell the kinds of food that people buy every day on streets across America. This group of vendors has worked for years, first to change the law, and then to build the infrastructure they needed to comply with the law. They are building a better, safer and more delicious Chicago.”

IJ has spent years fighting to advance food freedom in the Windy City. Institute attorneys teamed up with local food trucks to file a lawsuit against the city’s excessive food vending restrictions that effectively ban food trucks throughout most of the city. The recent efforts on behalf of SVAC are part of IJ’s National Street Vending Initiative, which aims to defeat onerous restrictions on hardworking entrepreneurs nationwide.