The mission of the Street Vendors Justice Coalition is to create jobs, empower individuals, connect communities, and welcome fresh flavors into Chicago. The coalition will open Chicago’s sidewalks for food vendors by advocating for policy changes, organizing grassroots support, and connecting vendors to resources.
Meet some of Chicago’s current and future street vendors:
The Chicago Bagel Wagon
The Chicago Bagel Wagon was an idea born in late 2013 after years of brainstorming about what sort of food business I wanted to start. After a year of making bagels for friends and neighbors, I decided that I had found my calling: I was going to open a bagel company.
Being less than two years out of college, having had an incredibly rough experience in the job market and with over $60,000 in student loan and other small debt, I realized that starting a business in the traditional way wasn’t going to be an option. My goal is to start my business with $0 of debt and I know to do that, I have to do two things: Start small and access my network to fundraise for other start up costs.
It is my goal to set my business up as a street cart (a literal bagel wagon) which will make appearances at area neighborhood farmers markets and in public spaces throughout the Rogers Park neighborhood.
After deciding on this approach, I learned that what I wanted to do wasn’t legal, and that is why I am interested in joining the Street Vendors Justice Coalition in their fight to give entrepreneurs with limited financial resources the opportunity to compete in our market, build their business from the ground (or sidewalk) up and make their dreams a reality.
Chubby’s German Chocolate Cookies
My idea for a food cart is simple. I have thought about the Famous Amos model for years. He became a successful business by standing on the street corner of California selling his chocolate chip cookie. If it worked for him—I would definitely like to give it a shot.
From an entrepreneurial standpoint, food carts, have a lower overhead than restaurants and can be moved if one location does not generate enough business. Rather than having to determine where to open a brick and mortar or worry about the old real-estate adage “location, location, location,” the owner can actually drive to different locations if business is slow.
For customers, you add the convenience of having food favorite’s right outside a particular location or inside and offering food that is comparable but different and delicious. If you add a friendly theme and/or story; customers can grab something while on the go. You also save money not having to pay the help.
I envision my food cart becoming a gourmet cookie shop one day. But, before that happens I need to sell enough cookies, cupcakes and mini cakes to invest in opening up an actual business where I can employ people. Chic ago is stringent when it comes to street vendors. I’m hoping that small businesses such as mine can one day get a fair share on the streets of Chicago to one day employ staff and generate revenue for myself as well as the city.
Carts and trucks are generating sales in other inner cities. Tourism is high in Chicago and as the concept of serving fine food rolls along I hope Chicago can become a place where Chicagoans and tourist can grab a bite of a gourmet delight on the fly. And, tourist can speak to the added value of something to talk about when they return home.
It may look easy to onlookers who pass by and see carts on the street or inside of buildings; but it is hard work. Your day starts early prepping and can go for more than a typical 8 hour work day. At the end of the day you clean up just like you would if you had a restaurant—and let’s not forget about the paperwork at the end of the day. If you can conduct business out of a food cart just like a restaurant (but without the overhead) than why is there so much resistance from officials to give street vendors the green light? I don’t have an answer to the question but I am looking forward to and advocating for change in favor of street vendors here in Chicago.
Rafael Fuentes – “Don Rafa”
By Edgar Leon
Rafael Fuentes or “Don Rafa” and Mrs. Fuentes have embarked on their journey across Little Village, weaving in and out of St. Louis, Trumbull, Central Park, Millard and Lawndale for twenty four years. Mrs. Fuentes through the 2200 to 2400 blocks of St. Louis and Trumbull while Don Rafa takes the 2300 to 2500 block of Central Park and 2400 to 2500 block of Millard and Lawndale.
They are “eloteros” who for the past 24 years have serviced generations of Little Village residents, spreading mayonnaise, cheese and chili powder on countless cobs of corn. Every two days their day begins at 6am with the purchasing of fresh fruit, peeling of food to carefully slicing it into pieces and packaging it in small containers. This is in addition to peeling off the corn leafs, washing the product and boiling it for consumption.
The preparation lasts 6 hours, from the time of purchase at 6:00am to when sales begin at around 12:30pm, and their journey through Little Village goes well into the night, sometimes until 10:30pm. After two days, the process begins all over. They must restock new containers of mango, pineapples, watermelon, cucumber, yambean, pineapples and boil the corn.
“People don’t realize this is hard work” says Don Rafa. “Many people look down on those of us who do this work”.
Don Rafa is proud of his work, and expresses that he finds fulfillment in “dar gusto al cliente”, satisfying the customer.
This passion for his work has allowed him to put his five children (now married) through college in Mexico. Every year, Don Rafa and his wife go back to Mexico D.F. in November and return in March.
Despite Don Rafa’s winter absence, it’s not rare for his customers to know him by name and begin updating him on their families, as he prepares their fruit and corn, the Quinceañera that just occurred, the family member that just got married and upcoming retirements.
You can find Don Rafa on his route six days a week, except on his day off, Wednesday.
Samm Petrichos – Spice!
Spice! is an underground innovative culinary experience business that fuses Mediterranean and Latin American cuisine. We have been working in Chicago for over 2 years with local farmers and growers to serve the best produce and proteins in alternative and clandestine environments. Spice! can be found on the street at local farmers markets, street festivals and hosting monthly dinners. We are a company that promotes the disruptive path of entrepreneurial businesses by promoting food independence while creating partnerships with local farmers and other organizations to improve the quality of life. We would find it to be fair, equatable and economically stimulating if food entrepreneurs were allowed to express their creativity and pursuits in the form of street food. If laws were to change, the street food enterprises would be at liberty to offer a variety of ingredients and meals. Street food enterprises would then be able to cement local circulation of currency in the local economy, be owned exclusively by individuals and families from the Chicago area ultimately allowing them to achieve their American Dream, and offering the consumer a delicious and nutritional array of dining choices.
“Yo Soy Micro-Empresario”
Marcelino Antonio | Yolanda’s Ice Cream
On a rather cold afternoon last February, I was paged from some one in our front office to ask if I could assist a walk-in individual to fill out a job application. Even though he was a far southwest side resident, he had heard of Universidad Popular in South Lawndale by word of mouth. “They have free English classes and more”, had said one of his co-workers as they continued roofing a home. With little English and less computer skills, came the time for Marcelino to find assistance with an online job application. So, there he was with a lot of questions.
Victoria, one of our front desk staffers, had explained to him that we really don’t offer this specific service but would still check to see if there was someone that could assist him. In pertaining to job readiness, I was paged. It was later in the day, after Marcelino ended work. So we started on the application and chatted. Little did we both know that this would be a continual meet and conversation.
We soon began talking about labor, pertaining to his experiences and skills. “I had a business in Oaxaca before” he stated, and then mentioned that he sold helados last summer in Chicago Lawn. “So you are a comerciante?”, I asked. I promptly added that I also assist residents with business consulting, depending on their product/service and situation. His faced really lit up then. Mr. Marcelino Antonio seeks to take ownership of his labor and time, and eventually wants to develop similar vending opportunities to other street vendors as well. I smiled. After the initial appointment, I soon realized that Marcelino was quite a consummated entrepreneur but with a good heart. It pains him to see recently-arrived paisanos street-vending for others under unfavorable, risky conditions. That ensued a series of phone calls and office meetings to explore possible scenarios. In short, that was just the very beginning of a rather fruitful relationship between him and Universidad Popular’s (micro) business literacy initiative.