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Through Ownership, Chicago Street Vendors Find a Lifeline Via Commercial Kitchens

Meanwhile, Frontier chef Brian Jupiter will next month host a James Beard Foundation dinner to support restaurants

A smiling woman behind a green cart that reads “Tamales y Champurrado”
Commercial kitchens can be a game-changer for Chicago’s street vendors.
Rick Majewski/Eater Chicago

Chicago street vendors have for decades contended with the city’s restrictions over food sales, often repeatedly facing tickets, fines, and encounters with police. Now a group of longtime vendors has taken an important step toward protecting its members’ livelihoods — purchasing a commercial kitchen where they can legally prepare food and run their businesses without fear.

Local vendor cooperative Cocina Compartida de Trabajadores Cooperativistas bought a commercial kitchen at 3654 W. 16th Street in North Lawndale this spring, according to Block Club Chicago. Vendors in Chicago aren’t allowed to prepare food at home or on their carts in the street — something other parts of the county, like LA, have made part of its cultural fabric. In Chicago, access to a professional kitchen is a life-changing proposition.

Ownership of the kitchen extends their power further: now cooperative members like Carmen Nava-Najera, a venerable tamale maker in the city for more than two decades, can offer opportunities to vendors struggling with licensing and law enforcement. She and her cohort want to rent out the kitchen at affordable prices to help others access licenses and operate legally, she tells the Tribune.

A man and woman stand in front of a licensed street cart
Carmen Nava-Najera and Luis Melendez
Ashok Selvam/Eater Chicago

Nava-Najera and her fellow vendors originally organized 28 years ago as the Street Vendors Association of Chicago. The group in 2016 helped successfully advocate for a street vendors’ business license and two years later began renting the kitchen space on 16th Street.

Other members of Chicago’s hospitality community also aim to use commercial kitchens to empower entrepreneurs: chef David Blackmon (Blu 47, Butterfield 8) plans to open an incubation kitchen at Englewood Connect, the $10.3 million dollar development coming to the 800 block of West 63rd Street. Entrepreneurs will be able to cook and serve out of the licensed space as Blackmon helps them learn how to apply for small business loans and grants to grown their brand. It’s an ambitious endeavor, however, and an opening date isn’t yet known.

These kitchens can provide vendors with meaningful opportunities, but they also play a role in another contentious issue in hospitality: the rise of giant corporate entities like DoorDash, UberEats, and Grubhub, which have made ample use of “ghost kitchens” to deliver food from national chains — an approach that independent restaurateurs say is ruining their businesses.


In other news...

— Lauded local chef Brian Jupiter (Ina Mae) will host the Chicago event for the James Beard Foundation’s Summer Taste America series on Tuesday, July 13 at his restaurant Frontier in Noble Square, according to a rep. Jupiter will feature a three-course meal that includes smoked wagyu beef cheek with barbecue black-eyed peas. Sixty-five percent of ticket sales will be directed to Frontier and 35 percent will go toward foundation projects like the Open for Good campaign. Tickets and more details are available on the foundation’s website.

Travelle at the Langham has brought on pastry chef Nitin Bali to oversee the pastry kitchen and lead all pastry activities throughout the hotel, including afternoon tea service, dessert catering, banquets, and more, according to a rep. Originally from India, Bali has earned degrees in hotel and tourism management as well as baking and pastry. He spent nearly a decade working in Ritz-Carlton hotels across the U.S. and Middle East and previously lead the pastry kitchen at the Ritz-Carlton Chicago.

— James Beard Award-winning chef Adam Siegel (Lake Park Bistro, Bacchus) has announced plans for Lupi & Iris, a French and Italian Riviera-inspired fine dining restaurant slated to open in spring 2022 in downtown Milwaukee, according to a rep. Seigel previously worked at decorated Chicago Italian favorite Spiaggia and as executive chef and managing partner of the entire Bartolotta Restaurants’ empire. He’s collaborating on the project with commercial real estate developer and architect Michael DeMichele.

— Fast food behemoth McDonald’s will launch a new nationwide loyalty program called MyMcDonald’s Rewards on July 8, the company announced Tuesday. The rollout is part of a larger push to promote the brand’s digital capabilities, touted as a suite of ordering tools called MyMcDonald’s.

— West Town catering company Big Delicious Planet is hosting a weekly four-course outdoor Urban Farm Dinner series every Wednesday through August 25 at its farm, kitchen, and canteen at Hubbard and Wolcott, according to a rep. Tickets ($175) include beer, wine, and a cocktail. More details are available via Tock.

Frontier

1072 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, IL 60642 (773) 772-4322 Visit Website

Travelle at The Langham, Chicago

330 North Wabash Avenue, , IL 60611 (312) 923-7705 Visit Website

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