Students Brief Mobile Food Vendors on Chicago Laws

Law students and mobile food vendors came together ON April 14 to talk about what street vendors can and cannot do in Chicago.

The takeaway? They can’t do much, at least legally.

Students John Volk, ’13, and Cory Miggins, ’12, presented “How Chicago’s Laws Apply to You,” as the first session of the “My Streets, My Eats” syposium, sponsored by the Institute for Justice (IJ) Clinic on Entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago. The symposium and food truck meet-up was a chance for vendors, law students, and food lovers to rally together and push for a change in the law. The Law School website has more about the symposium.

Volk and Miggins presented their own interpretation of the ordinances and asked the vendors what they had experienced. Some were new to the business and heard this information for the first time; others were well-versed in the law and shared horror stories of tickets costing several hundreds of dollars.

The students outlined several provisions of the law, including: Food must be sold in wrapped, pre-prepared portions, and not made on the truck. (This means, the vendors said, that they must estimate the amount of food they need and transport it, which makes it less fresh.) Vendors may only stop for two hours at a time in any given block. They can’t sell between 10 p.m. and 10 a.m., so selling late-night pizza to the bar crowd or morning doughnuts to downtown workers is prohibited. Even private property is likely not exempt from city rules, the students explained.

Violations of the mobile food law have led to tickets between $200 and $1,000. The students recommended the vendors keep a copy of the statute with them, in the hopes of warding off tickets from law enforcement officers who may not have a full understanding of the law. They also encouraged communication with city officials for guidance on the rules. 

“Involvement with your alderman early and often could make some of these events moot, and easier,” Miggins said.

A woman in the audience replied, “It depends on the neighborhood…some aldermen allow it and some don’t.” Her fellow vendors agreed: In their experience, whether you can sell depends on whether individual police officers are in the mood to let you sell that day. The vendors chatted about new places to sell, perhaps en masse, and exchanged phone numbers and e-mail addresses. Amy Le, owner of DucknRoll food truck, said she’s working with food truck owners to start an association.

Volk and Miggins are two of about 25 students who participate in the IJ Clinic annually.

“It was a great opportunity to present to a room of vendors and to keep them informed of Chicago regulations affecting their day-to-day lives,” Volk said. “However, so much of the current Chicago laws depend on how they are being enforced, and one of the biggest benefits of the presentation was fostering discussion among the vendors on their various experiences with city officials. The discussion helped take our presentation out of law books and into the real world.”

David Fuller, an entrepreneur who plans to open The Turkey Trot truck this summer (featuring “turkey comfort food”), said the students’ presentation and the symposium as a whole made him more confident about starting a mobile food business. He is optimistic the law will change, and he’ll be able to legally cook on board.

The students’ session, “got the day started, and it got me excited with what I was able to learn.”