CITY HALL — A City Council committee moved Wednesday to grant licenses to food vendors using pushcarts, in the process clearing the way for sidewalk hot dog vendors like those found in New York City.
Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th), lead sponsor of the ordinance, said the new license category would "legitimize" the estimated 1,500 vendors walking the city streets with their food carts selling tamales, ice cream, corn and other products. He said the $350 license would produce about $2 million a year, and perhaps as much as $8 million with its acceptance and expansion.
"It would be applicable for hot dog carts as well," Maldonado said before presenting his proposed ordinance to the License Committee.
Maldonado said the vendors, "most of whom are Hispanic," would be granted a legal status comparable to the "fashionable food truck industry."
Differences are that a food cart must not be motorized, and a food cart vendor cannot prepare food on-site — not even cutting fruits or vegetables or husking corn, all of which must be done in advance in a licensed kitchen. Those additions to the ordinance were the product of a "compromise" with the Health Department, he added.
The proposal passed without vocal opposition and heads to the full City Council for a vote next week.
Ald. Emma Mitts (37th), chairman of the License Committee, endorsed it. "I had my first corn the other day," she said. "I see why the kids like it."
Mayor Rahm Emanuel also came out in support. Mayoral spokeswoman Chloe Rasmus said it would "strengthen small businesses as they create jobs and contribute significantly to Chicago’s economy" and compared it to reformed rules on food trucks.
The Illinois Policy Institute's Ted Dobrowski said it would legalize food vendors who operate in a "shadow economy" and raise revenue for the city at the time of a desperate budget crunch.
"It's in the economic interest of Chicago," he said, "to expand its base of commerce."
Brooke Fallon of the Institute for Justice said the vendors are currently "operating in the shadows," but the new license would allow them to "come into the light and operate without fear."
Vendor Claudia Perez testified before the committee that she had been selling tamales on the street for 18 years, often with impunity, but in recent years police were more likely to ticket or even arrest street vendors.
"It is important for vendors to get a license," said Vicky Lugo, vice president of the Street Vendors Association. "They are always hiding from police."
Maldonado and others labeled that "harassment," but Ald. David Moore (17th) took exception to that characterization.
"The police are doing their job," he said. "It's not harassment."
Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) called it "a very important ordinance" the City Council had been mulling, in one form or another, for 20 years. "There's nothing wrong with street vendors," he added.
The carts must be cleaned and stored overnight in what's termed a "commissary," and Ald. Willie Cochran (20th) wondered if that meant a garage would be off limits.
"It represents a lot of difficulty as I see it," Cochran said. "It complicates things even more."
Yet Waguespack said that was permissible, if the garage space cleared a health inspection, and that no additional zoning would be required. He compared it to a traveling salesperson who parks a car in the garage overnight.
Dobrowski pointed to how the vendors were eager to obtain the new license, and go legitimate, even with those additional requirements. "They're willing to be taxed," he said.
Waguespack echoed that, adding, "It's not too often that you see people saying, 'Please regulate me.'"
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