WICKER PARK — Moving on from selling magazines on corners, some top Streetwise vendors are selling fruit from carts.
According to the Streetwise-affiliated group behind the effort, the produce stands "are a practical answer for two of the top issues facing Chicago: unemployment and access to healthy foods."
A bonus for the vendors: the job pays better than selling magazines — between $9 and $11 per hour for a 40-hour workweek — said Jim LoBianco, executive director of StreetWise, a work force development agency that focuses on putting the homeless, or those at risk of homelessness, to work.
Half, or 15, of those carts will be in "food deserts," as required by an amended city ordinance introduced in June that opened up opportunities for moveable outdoor fruit stands and served as the impetus for Neighbor Carts.
The program launched its first Neighbor Cart in June at Ashland Avenue and Division Street in Ald. Joe Moreno's 1st Ward and grew to eight carts, in such neighborhoods as Little Village and Uptown.
LoBianco said the program recruits vendors within StreetWise, and externally, with partners such as Thresholds and The Night Ministry, two social service organizations.
Neighbor Cart founder John Piercy said Neighbor Capital supplies the fruit, with vendors keeping the difference between the wholesale cost and what they can sell it for. If the vendor does not sell all the fruit, they are not stuck with paying for it, he said.
Neighbor Capital makes money by marking up the cost of the fruit distributed to vendors, and it is looking to add advertising signage to the carts, Piercy said.
Every morning, each cart is delivered fully stocked from a commissary in North Lawndale to the selling locations, said Piercy.
Though the fruit is sourced from the Chicago International Produce Mart, LoBianco said the program is in "active conversation with urban farms in the tri-state area" to offer locally grown fruits.
LoBianco said Neighbor Carts "follow a traditional street-vending model that allows vendors to set prices based on the market and the community they're in."
For example, a vendor can bundle fruit. If three bananas are sold for $1 in the morning, a vendor might choose to sell five bananas for that same amount in the evening, said LoBianco.
"They make 100 percent of profit off retail sales. The profit they make working on the cart goes into their pocket," Piercy said.
While vendors make "significantly more money" selling fruit than StreetWise, LoBianco said that the produce program has a much higher level of screening and an aptitude test for vendors. Selling StreetWise magazines is "a no-barrier program" for anyone who wants to work.
LoBianco said Neighbor Cart training includes 40 hours in the classroom and two weeks of supervised on-the-job training, followed by a probationary period.
LoBianco said StreetWise just finished training a second class of fruit cart vendors, and the next class in May is booked. A waiting list already has formed.
Matt Bailey, a spokesman for Moreno, said that the alderman "worked with StreetWise and city departments to make this idea a reality."
"We're proud that the first cart is in the 1st Ward. We think it'll prove to be a shining example of free-market capitalism working benevolently," said Bailey.
On Tuesday, a nurse was eyeing strawberries at a fruit cart parked in front of the Damen Blue Line "L" stop as a businessman pulled out his ear buds long enough to ask vendor Anthony Weston, "How much is that pineapple?"
The $2 price turned out to be right, and the businessman left with pineapple, while the nurse, Felicia Conley, headed home with a bag of strawberries and cucumbers purchased from Weston, who sells grapes, bananas, apples, mango and other raw, uncut fruits at a new stand.
"I think this is nice. It's a great thing," Conley said of the fruit stand operated by Neighbor Cart and manned by Weston.
Weston — who said he's previously peddled socks, T-shirts and umbrella hats — took a risk by leaving a five-year gig selling StreetWise magazines Downtown to become a Neighbor Cart vendor.
Since opening his cart Thursday, Weston said, "Business has been good."
"Selling fruit and showing people that they can eat healthy is what it's about. I'm trying to get a good clientele, a nice crowd," Weston said.
Weston said it's too soon to say whether he prefers selling fruit to StreetWise, though he observed that "The people of Wicker Park are very polite."
While Wicker Park is certainly not a "food desert," Piercy said the other component of the program is "creating opportunity for health and wellness. All carts are creating jobs."
Though hours of operation vary at each location, what's consistent is the business model.
Click here for a map of where to find a Neighbor Cart.