This article was written by Hilary Gowins Yelvington and featured in Crain’s Chicago Business on August 5, 2015. 

Chicago leaders are wringing more revenue out of taxpayers who use cellphones, watch Netflix, own property and buy locally via increased taxes and surcharges in a desperate attempt to plug an expected billion-dollar budget deficit.

But there’s a way aldermen can raise revenue and do something good at the same time: legalize street vending.

Do this, and Chicago could welcome more than 6,400 new jobs. It also could generate up to $8.5 million in new local sales tax revenue, according to original analysis by the Illinois Policy Institute.

Chicago lags behind when it comes to this burgeoning new industry. Street vending from food carts already is legal in 23 of the 25 largest cities in the U.S. And despite the city’s ban, Chicago already is home to a vibrant street-vending community. An estimated 1,500 vendors serve 50,000 meals per day—primarily in lower-income communities such as Little Village, Back of the Yards and Humboldt Park.

The 200 vendors surveyed by the institute all were Hispanic; nearly 80 percent are middle-aged; more than half are women; and 95 percent work to support at least one dependent. Their elotes, champurrado and tamales are famous for miles around.

The institute’s economic experts project that street-vendor take-home pay could grow by up to $60 million if the city voted to legalize street vending. Seventy-nine percent of vendors surveyed by the institute said they would expand their business if the city legalized street vending, and 64 percent of vendors said they would add more carts.


An ordinance to allow food-cart street vending sits before the city’s Committee on License and Consumer Protection. Aldermen are expected to vote on the measure in September. The ordinance would expand the city’s existing frozen desserts ordinance to include prepared-food carts and would require vendors to prepare food in a city-licensed kitchen. Vendors would be able to acquire a license from the city for $350.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has said ensuring access to good food is a priority. In July, he secured a one-year federal grant to run produce buses in neighborhoods considered food deserts. In 2014, the city issued its first “emerging business permit” to allow a local nonprofit to open healthy-food kiosks in the Loop.

But city officials don’t need to do anything fancy to increase food options. Legalizing food-cart street vending would ensure access to healthy, safe food for neighborhoods across Chicago and would open the door for residents to earn a living doing what they love. It wouldn’t hurt Chicago’s pocketbook, either.


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