Editor’s Note: This story was updated Oct. 26, 2022, with a response from the city’s business department.
PILSEN — Memo’s Hotdogs, a Pilsen staple since 1956, is back open after resolving a weeks-long dispute with the city about a Cheech and Chong mural painted on the side of the business, a fight the local alderman called “unfair and disproportionate.”
The restaurant at 1447 W. 18th St. closed at the beginning of the month. Owners Gerardo and Jeanette Garza said they couldn’t renew their business license because city inspectors had issued fines for a large, colorful mural of the comedians painted on the side of the restaurant, saying it was a public advertisement.
City officials have disputed that account, with a Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection spokesperson saying Memo’s only had to pay typical fees to renew its license and the mural did not prevent that. The department did issue notice of violations to the business in September for operating without a license, but that would not have prevented the owners from renewing their license, a spokesperson said.
Memo’s is one of the neighborhood’s oldest establishments. It’s been passed down through three generations since 1956.
Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) came to the Garzas’ aid, saying the ordinance inspectors cited when telling the owners to remove the mural was never passed into law.
The Garzas and Sigcho-Lopez challenged the decision and asked for an extension, they said. But they didn’t get a response before the business license expired, forcing Memo’s to close for nearly a month, they said.
The business department spokesperson said Memo’s license expired in April, and the Garzas should have renewed it two months before that expiration.
This week, the Garzas and Sigcho-Lopez spoke out about the issue and began raising community support. Shortly after, city officials changed course and reinstated the license, allowing the restaurant to reopen, they said.
“This whole situation was unfair and disproportionate and highlights the issues in the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection,” Sigcho-Lopez said. “This arbitrary and subjective interpretation of city code could have shut down an intergenerational business permanently. Fortunately, we were able to intervene and the business can get back on track, but it was really costly for them to be closed for so long.”
But the business department spokesperson said Memo’s renewed its license Oct. 6 after submitting required paperwork and paying the license renewal and inspection fee.
Murals cover many buildings throughout Pilsen, but Sigcho-Lopez said this is the first time he’s aware of something like this happening. Sigcho-Lopez is still waiting for confirmation from the city’s Department of Planning and Development that this kind of situation won’t happen again.
“We’re still investigating and I hope that the inspector general can give more clarity because this ordinance never even became law, so this shouldn’t be an issue,” Sigcho-Lopez said. “Especially since we have so many murals in Pilsen, we don’t want this to affect any other businesses in the area.”
Ralph Vicenencio, who’s lived in Pilsen for 68 years, was relieved to hear Memo’s was able to reopen because “there’s nowhere else around where you can get a classic, Chicago-style hotdog.”
“I remember being a kid and coming here, getting my dinner and running, it’s nostalgic,” Vicenencio said.
“The only reason the city cares is because of the gentrification in the neighborhood. If this was 25 years ago, they wouldn’t care if Memo’s put five extra windows on the side of the building and were serving hotdogs out of all of them. Now, the city wants to squeeze whatever they can out of us,” Vicenencio said.
“On Fridays, when I was like 16, I’d get my check and run here because it was the best hotdog and cheeseburger I’d ever had,” Rocio, who’s been married to Vicencio for 42 years, recalled while waiting with him for their order Saturday afternoon. “I have such fond memories here from when I was a teenager. And even now, we always come here when we want a quick place to grab a hotdog.”
Another Pilsen resident, Mike Garcia, said it was his first time visiting Memo’s, but he wanted to show support after he’d heard about the issue surrounding the mural.
“I mean I just thought it was stupid,” Garcia said. “It sucked because it’s just a picture on the wall. It’s not offensive. So, I wanted to come out and support the business now that it’s reopened.”
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