Chicago’s fight to legalize street food

Lancée Kurcab Outreach Coordinator, Institute for Justice
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Nationwide, ambitious entrepreneurs are pursuing their American Dream by starting mobile food businesses. The number of food trucks and carts has exploded in recent years — and so have regulations that do little but protect established brick-and-mortar restaurants from these new competitors. As Slate’s Matthew Yglesias recently opined, city governments “are threatening to kill the food truck revolution with dumb regulations.”

And they are also killing jobs at a time when America is in desperate need of them. In addition to adding exciting, creative, delicious new food to the local culinary scene, the mobile food business model provides ambitious entrepreneurs with the opportunity to create jobs for themselves, family, and friends. The low start-up costs are appealing to those with little capital on the challenging first rung of the economic ladder.

Despite all these benefits, many cities are making it more difficult for mobile food businesses to enter the marketplace. A new report from the Institute for Justice, “Streets of Dreams,” shows that of America’s 50 largest cities, 33 have established no-vending zones and five go so far as preventing vendors from even parking unless first flagged by a customer.

Unfortunately, Chicago has some of the worst street food laws in the nation. In the Windy City, vendors can’t serve customers before 10 a.m., they can’t stop within 200 feet of a brick-and-mortar restaurant, and they can’t prepare food in their trucks. As noted by the Chicago Sun-Times on Tuesday, the police have begun ratcheting up enforcement and forcing food trucks out of their usual spots.

These regulations have nothing to do with public health and safety. Instead, the regulations are supported by brick-and-mortar restaurant owners who are trying to protect their businesses from the competition of these new, innovative businesses.

Rather than support economic protectionism, Chicago and other cities should encourage vibrant vending cultures by getting out of the way and letting vendors work and compete. After all, these vendors are creating jobs and contributing to the vibrancy and diversity of Chicago. In these tough economic times, no politician should be in the business of making that more difficult.

That is why the Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago is hosting “My Streets, My Eats: Chicago Mobile Food Symposium and Meet Up” on April 14. Food vendors, activists, and the general public will gather and discuss how Chicago can foster economic opportunity by allowing mobile food businesses to thrive.

If Chicago wants to keep its reputation as one of the premier food destinations in America, the city government should welcome innovative chefs entering the scene.

Lancée Kurcab is the Institute for Justice’s outreach coordinator.