Food Cart Legalization: Making Chicago a "Cultural Mecca"

 /  Nov. 4, 2015, 1:27 p.m.


In September, the Chicago City Council moved to legalize street cart food vendors, ending the city’s previous policy of only allowing food trucks to obtain licenses to operate in Chicago. Although many raised the concern that the introduction of these new food vendors would create increased competition in the Chicago food industry, after conversations with food truck owners and Beth Kregor of the University of Chicago Law School Clinic on Entrepreneurship — a law school advocacy group that was instrumental in the passage of the new law — it is evident that street carts will not be in direct competition with other small vendors. In fact, according to Ms. Kregor, food trucks have been very supportive of food carts, as the legalization of these carts enhances the Chicago culinary scene as a whole.

“With the culinary scene, more is better,” Ms. Kregor explained. She said that Chicago is one of the few major cities in the world without a thriving food culture, but the new food carts will make Chicago “a cultural mecca.” Students at the University of Chicago seemed to concur with Ms. Kregor. “Any time there are more options that are easily accessible and available in Hyde Park, they are going to be huge and people are going to flock to them,” said Harry Kioko ’18. “People are just going to be happy to have more options, and I don’t think it’s going to diminish food truck profits.”

In addition to providing more options, street carts will also add a new level of convenience to dining for UChicago students. “I think it will make food more accessible,” said Raman Ananthanpillai ’18. “Students are always looking to get something quick to eat in class or eat in the library.” Students in the satellite dorms and in off-campus housing will also benefit from the street cart vendors’ presence. “If you live off campus, there are really not that many options. 53rd is kind of a hassle, and 57th is kind of okay, but it gets really old really fast,” Kioko added. “I think there is so much demand for people that live off campus that I don’t think it is going to affect the food trucks.”

Food carts will not only elevate the food scene in Chicago, but will also improve the job market and provide opportunities for people looking to start an inexpensive business. “In terms of economic impact, vendors greatly contribute to both job creation and the overall economy of the city,” said Basma Eid, an organizer at the Street Vendor Project (SVP), a New York-based organization at the Urban Justice Center focusing on street vendors’ rights. “In NYC as well as Chicago, vending provides a livelihood and helps to support thousands of immigrant and low-wage workers in a city that is characterized by growing inequality.” Ms. Kregor echoed this sentiment: “Vendors create jobs for themselves and for others,” she said. These vendors buy ingredients from local suppliers, rent kitchen space, provide jobs in these kitchens and hire people to work on the cart, and oftentimes have multiple carts. She continued, “Now there is a license for people to sell food from street carts, the most affordable way to start a business is legal in Chicago.”

Food carts will make it easy for entrepreneurship to thrive in Chicago and Hyde Park, and will aid in neighborhood revitalization. Ms. Kregor explained, “There are neighborhoods in the South Side with few restaurants and few grocery stores and people want to buy ready-to-eat food in their own neighborhood,” she said. “Food carts are a great way to address these desires, and a great way for a vendor to maybe start becoming a new grocery store or a brick-and-mortar restaurant.” This progression of success is evidenced by Shake Shack, a popular restaurant that began as a cart on the streets of New York and recently declared an IPO. “The Law School Clinic worked closely with vendors to ensure a solution that would result in a new law,” Ms. Kregor said. “We serve as a watchdog for people to start businesses with small budgets and big dreams.”

A major concern of Chicago residents is the implications of the introduction of food carts for food truck owners. However, food truck employees on Ellis Avenue all seemed to be under the impression that food carts will not significantly impact their business. “I don’t think it would necessarily change business, because there are already so many food trucks and I think that food carts would just mean more variety for the consumer,” said Colleen Fazio, an employee of Pierogi Street, a food truck that frequently does business on Ellis. Ashley Mosser, manager of the La Boulangerie truck agreed, adding: “I hope the city regulates where street cart vendors can park otherwise we [food trucks] will have to get even more creative how we get customers. I think it’s going to impact us, but not in a negative way.”

A recent report cited by the SVP said that there was “‘a positive, synergistic relationship’ between the vendors and their brick-and-mortar counterparts...The vendors drew more people to the area and encouraged them to spend more time there, which translated into more business for all.” This is not the only report revealing such findings. A report by the Institute for Justice entitled “Upwardly Mobile” published in October 2015 and a report authored by Ms. Kregor in 2009 entitled “Regulatory Field” also came to similar conclusions.

With support from the scientific, culinary, and collegiate communities, the legalization of food carts is a logical action for the City of Chicago. The potential for street carts to revive struggling neighborhoods and make entrepreneurship accessible suggests that the introduction of food carts is beneficial to more than just the vendors themselves — indeed, street food is a potent force for community-building, economic development, and making Chicago a better place to live for all of its residents.

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here

Rebecca Julie and Riddhi Sangam


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