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Make way for pushcart food, Chicago

It can be more than tamales.

The idea that the choices from pushcarts, under an ordinance being proposed in Chicago, could be limited only by the vendors’ imaginations may be just the hook needed to finally bring about legalization.

Right now, the only legal pushcarts in the food mecca that is Chicago are those selling packaged frozen desserts and whole, uncut fruit.

While personally it offends me that the idea of legal tamales (you can find fabulous ones being sold in carts around the city) hasn’t been enough to change the backwards restrictions, I’m all for this new approach if it means change will come.

And make no mistake about it, Chicago is way behind the times. New York and Los Angeles, also home to vibrant restaurant scenes, have had food carts forever. Heck the food carts are OK in Topeka, Kansas, for crying out loud, according to Joseph Randol, who grew up there but now lives in Rogers Park and hopes to one day soon operate his own cart.

Randol makes bagels that have friends and family coming back for more. He sees himself taking a cart out near an L stop during the morning rush.

Ah, but what Randol wants to do is illegal in Chicago.

Beth Kregor, director of the Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago Law School, and her team have crafted an ordinance that seeks only modest changes in what’s on the books already. Kregor says they’ve worked with the Department of Health to make sure safety concerns are met.

Basically, the proposal would allow packaged food cooked in commercial kitchens kept at proper temperatures to be sold from street carts. Vendors would be licensed.

Kregor also would like to see manageable fees for vendors and envisions shared kitchens that could be approved by the city so the workers could go there and prepare foods.

She doesn’t see the food carts as a threat to restaurants. “They are a complementary rather than competitive business,” she says, and she’s right. Sure there are days you want a sit-down meal, but sometimes you’re too busy; it sure would be nice to be able to grab something and go while out in our neighborhoods.

She points to 26th Street and its bustling business district — it is touted as being the Chicago commercial area that brings in the most revenue after Michigan Avenue — and sees the vendors as a “a key component to making 26th Street a vibrant community.”

Kregor and company are trying to get the word out — they were in Rogers Park last week — in an effort to reach the vendors and draw public support. About half the city’s aldermen are voicing approval, Kregor says, but none have signed on yet as a sponsor.

Rebecca Ray, who is going to be a dietitian, was at the Rogers Park gathering, and she says she sees this proposal as a way to bring cut-up produce to people so they incorporate it into their daily diet. “I’m passionate about people being able to eat fruits and vegetables,” she says.

As for Randol? He envisions a pushcart as his way into the food world. Why not? As Kregor points out, Portillo’s, which recorded $300 million in sales in 2013 and provides countless job, started out in a trailer. Again she’s right when she says:

“Vendors should be able to start small and grow big.”

Email: sontiveros@suntimes.com

Twitter: @SueOntiveros



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