Why Chicago street vendors can finally cook in their own kitchen

Danielle Braff

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Street vendors are finally experiencing freedom in Chicago.Street Vendor Project.

By Danielle Braff

(Chicago) It’s been a long hustle, but Chicago street vendors can finally cook in their own kitchen. Following a decades-long struggle, Chicago-area street vendors bought their own West side commercial kitchen - the final step in sealing their identity as legal vendors.

The street vendors’ cooperative, called Cocina Compartida de Trabajadores Cooperativistas, bought the commercial kitchen on the West side after renting the shared kitchen for 5 years. This means the 35 vendors who are part of the collaborative will have their own legitimate home to chop, cook and spice their food before heading to the Chicago streets.

It’s the ending of a long fight that many Chicagoans don’t know ever occurred - even the Chicagoans who eat the tamales, the chilean mangos and the hot dogs they serve daily from their carts.

The fight started many years ago, before the street vendors were even licensed. They were routinely arrested by police for selling their food on the Chicago streets, although the vendors had formed the nonprofit Street Vendors Association of Chicago.

“We are just trying to make an honest living,” says Augusto Aquino, the founder and president of the association. But technically, selling food from a street cart at that time wasn’t legal.

Lawmakers in Chicago officially legalized food carts in the Windy City 5 years ago, thanks to the Street Vendors Association of Chicago, requiring all street vendors to be licensed to the tune of $350 (an $8.5 million boost to the City of Chicago). It helped stop the arrests, but there was still a major hurdle to overcome: As part of that licensure, the street vendors were prohibited from cooking, prepping or preparing their food anywhere except inside a commercial kitchen. Chicago Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th), who instituted the licensing agreement, says they couldn’t even cut their mangos on their carts.

“With over 1,500 food card vendors operating in the city of Chicago, the day has come to embrace this class of entrepreneur and grant them legitimate status,” Maldonado told the council. “They will provide healthy food choices.”

In 2019, the street cart vendors began receiving their licenses. First up was Carmen Nava, who has been selling tamales for more than 20 years in Chicago. She was arrested in 2006, before the liecenses had arrived.

Still, even with the licensing which protects the street vendors from arrests, the 1,500 food carts, which primarily service the poor and Hispanic neighborhoods of Chicago, were struggling.

They were renting a shared commercial kitchen in North Lawndale, having renovated it themselves to bring it up to city standards, Aquino says. But at any point, the kitchen could raise the rent, could close its doors or could refuse the vendors.

Recently, the building’s owner put the building for sale, and the members of the street vendors’ association took out a loan to buy it. This way, they could guarantee that the building wouldn’t close, taking their labor and time investments with it.

A Neighborhood Opportunity Fund Grant offered the coop an additional $114,000 to handle necessary plumbing, electrical and brick work for the building. The money is also going toward kitchen equipment and a tamale machine, which makes up to 3,000 tamales hourly.

“This will really help with everything, and we can expand our business,” says Martin Unzueta, a vendor in the group.

Now, the only thing left to do, Unzueta says, is to invite other street vendors to join their association. They have opportunities and space. They just need street vendors.

It’s a welcome problem to have.

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I'm a lifestyle writer with a focus on trends, fashion, parenting and business. My stories have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and more. I live just outside Chicago with my husband, daughter, two cats and a dog. I love to travel to exotic locations and to read memoirs.

Chicago, IL
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