An already hectic day on City Hall’s 2nd floor in the days leading up to the release of the mayor’s budget made for a buzzing License Committee meeting Tuesday. Most of the people in the gallery were there to rally in support of Ald. Roberto Maldonado’s (26) ordinance to bring mobile food vendors “out of the shadows” by establishing a $350 license to sell prepared food like tamales, elotes, and hot dogs on City streets.

License Committee Chairman Emma Mitts praised the vote as historic, and vendors in the gallery applauded as she called the meeting to a close.

Members Present: Chairman Emma Mitts (37), Vice-Chair Debra Silverstein (50), Roderick Sawyer (6), Gregory Mitchell (7), Marty Quinn (13), David Moore (17), Willie Cochran (20), Roberto Maldonado (26), Chris Taliaferro (29), Ariel Reboyras (30), Scott Waguespack (32), Michele Smith (43), Tom Tunney (44), James Cappleman (46)
Non-members present: Joe Moreno (1), Walter Burnett Jr (27), Milly Santiago (31), Deb Mell (33), Gilbert Villegas (36), Brendan Reilly (42), Joe Moore (49)
Start Time: 11:04

Just before the meeting, those vendors and other advocates from the Asociación de Vendedores Ambulantes, the Illinois Policy Institute, and the Street Vendors Justice Coalition held signs that read “Free the Tamale” and “Chicago is Hungry for Food Carts.” They told reporters vendors are a rare group actually asking to be taxed and regulated, and free from harassment from police.

Ted Dabrowski of the Illinois Policy Institute estimates there are already 1,500 food carts operating in the city selling 50,000 meals a year, despite the threat of being slapped with a $50 or $1,000 fine or arrest for operating without a license. Between revenue from the $350 license fee vendors would pay, sales and income tax, and the penetration of food carts within the city going forward, Dabrowski says this change “could generate $2 to $8 million for the city.”

Maldonado first introduced this proposal in 2014, but he says interest waned at the time as aldermen geared up for re-election. It had to be introduced again into the new session.

Under the ordinance, vendors would have to prepare food off-site–that includes chopping up toppings or husking corn, and there are regulations for heating, cooling, cleaning, and how long a cart can stick around in one place. The ordinance doesn’t have an impact on food carts already operating legally in Chicago parks.

Although no aldermen expressed disagreement about the overall aim of the ordinance, and passed it without dissent, they spent most of the meeting peppering Redeatu Kassa from the City’s Law Department and Gerrin Cheek-Butler from the City’s Health Department with questions about the nitty gritty of enforcement and requirements.

“What is the enforcement mechanism here?” Ald. David Moore (17) asked. He says some people have been selling drugs out of food carts in his ward. Rebuking one vendor who testified she was harassed by cops for not having a license, Moore said cops were simply doing their job and enforcing existing code. Kassa said cops would be responsible for checking carts for licenses, and violators would face fines between $200 and $1000.

Carts and kitchens where food is prepared would have to be inspected by the Health Department, as do the so-called “commissary” where the food will have to be stored. Ald. Willie Cochran (20), a co-sponsor, said he was concerned about vendors who store their food carts in their home garages, and if the new regulations could “[make] this a little unwieldy.” Ald. Maldonado said as long as it’s clean enough to meet Health Department standards, there should be no problem storing carts in residential garages.  

“Aldermen can make some areas off limits for [food cart] operation for as long as they have rational basis to do that… for preserving public health or avoiding traffic congestion,” Kassa told Ald. Tom Tunney (44), who said the 6 to 8 foot sidewalks in Lakeview and Wrigleyville are already packed with pedestrians. Kassa says aldermen have to have a reasonable justification for limiting where carts can go.

Beth Kregor, Director of the Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship, praised the effort and thanked the Health Department for their cooperation. She said the fight for broader allowances would continue. “Some dream of preparing good fresh food for customers on their carts, just like summer festival vendors that the Park District allows. Vendors make no little plans.”

After some playful testimony from council fixture George Blakemore, who called 42nd ward Loop Ald. Brendan Reilly “a golden apple,” the committee approved Reilly’s ordinance allowing vendors to sell wine in corked, unbroken and sealed 750mL bottles. Blakemore testified he worried buyers would drink the wine and leave bottles along the Riverwalk. Reilly said vendors can’t provide corkscrews, and have to remind customers it’s illegal to have an open container.