A vendor moves a cart near Buckingham Fountain on Aug. 23, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

GRANT PARK — A summer of park closures, rising rents and competition from unlicensed vendors has some Grant Park concessionaires at their breaking point as they allege “subpar management” from the Chicago Park District torpedoes their businesses.

Bill Prahofer has had concessionaire contracts with the Park District since 2013. Over 11 seasons, Prahofer has gone from operating two restaurants in Grant Park and one at Osterman Beach to just one after he couldn’t afford rent on three places after COVID.

Prahofer’s last standing restaurant is Pie Life, which sells pizza, gelato, pie, beer and wine on the north end of Buckingham Fountain. He pays steep rent for the prime spot: $62,000 for the 2023 season, which lasts roughly Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend. When Pie Life opened, the rent was about $50,000, Prahofer said.

But it’s not just rising rent that’s ailing Prahofer. In recent years, he’s increasingly had to compete against unlicensed vendors in Grant Park who can sell cheaper ice cream, water and other goods with lax enforcement from parks officials. Special events like NASCAR and Lollapalooza that shut down parts of Grant Park and nearby roads means fewer customers and less time to operate, Prahofer said.

And he’s not alone. Other vendors facing rising rents and a shortened season are pleading with the Park District to put a stop to unlicensed vendors and work with them to ensure they have a fair chance to turn a profit.

Vendors still must pay their rent in full, no matter how much their business is sidelined or undercut because of Grant Park’s massive events.

“I’m about $100,000 or more down each year in revenue … Most of that is due to the unlicensed competition, some of it is weather and a lot of it is now due to the park being in a constant shutdown,” Prahofer said. “I’m at the point … where I probably won’t continue going forward.”

Pie Life, located at Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park. Credit: Melody Mercado/ Block Club Chicago

Competition From Unlicensed Vendors: ‘Nothing’s Equal And Fair’

Last year, Prahofer asked Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) for help. In August 2022, Reilly sent a letter to Park District Superintendent Rosa Escareño requesting more park security to handle unlicensed vendors.

“Unlicensed concessionaires only serve to undercut legitimate operators and disrupt the atmosphere of the parks. Furthermore, as the city continues to approve large-scale events in Grant Park, concessionaires suffer,” Reilly said in the letter.

Nearly a year later, as many as 20 unlicensed vendors can routinely be found at Buckingham Fountain in the afternoons selling everything from ice cream to alcoholic drinks, licensed vendors said. Block Club Chicago also witnessed a dozen unlicensed vendors operating near the fountain Friday.

Unlicensed vendors have several advantages over licensed vendors. They can source goods from anywhere, while licensed vendors like Pie Life have to source goods from preapproved suppliers like Vienna Beef and Coca-Cola.

For example, Prahofer typically pays $13 for a 24 pack of 16.9-ounce bottles of Dasani water. To make a profit, he sells each bottle for $3.25. Unlicensed vendors typically charge $1-$2 per bottle.

“We’re forced to do that. They’re not, and they get it cheaper and make more profit. So again nothing’s equal and fair,” Prahofer said.

Unlicensed vendors also don’t pay rent or a host of licensing fees to the Park District like licensed vendors do. The annual fees alone for one licensed vendor totaled $1,500, according to their contract.

And licensed vendors pay commission to the Park District if they make over a certain amount in a summer, according to a vendor contract.

In a statement Aug. 17, Reilly said he was aware of the increase of unlicensed vendors in Grant Park and alerted the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, the Department of Public Health and the Chicago Park District requesting inspections and regular enforcement.

“The Park District has a responsibility to their lawfully licensed vendors, who are operating under concessionaire contracts, to crack down on illegal, unlicensed food vendors who are not paying taxes and are not subject to regular food safety health inspections,” Reilly said.

On Monday, Chicago police officers arrested seven people “for operating illegal businesses without licenses on public park property.”

Three people were cited for selling, and offering goods or services without a permit on park property. Another four were cited for operating a business without a license on park property, according to police.

A vendor moves a cart near Buckingham Fountain on Aug. 23, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

On Tuesday, Park District officials told Block Club Chicago in an email that officials posted additional signs in the park with a QR code that links to information about required permits and how to obtain one.

If unlicensed vendors are found in violation of the rules, they’ll be cited by the police department and the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, said Irene Tostado, a Park District spokesperson.

Tostado did not say if the Park District would consider rent concessions for permitted vendors who’ve had to compete with unlicensed vendors, something Prahofer has advocated for.

From May 1 to Aug. 22, the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection issued 20 cease and desist orders, 51 citations, and one notice to correct for a total of 72 enforcement actions to 22 peddlers and vendors on the streets in and near Grant Park, an agency spokesperson said.

The department has also been doing outreach about its mobile food vendor licensing program and has been distributing flyers “with Neighborhood Business Development Centers” in Little Village and Pilsen.  in the vicinity of 26th Street, including IHCC, Little Village Chamber of Commerce, and ESDC Pilsen.”

Vendors who receive a mobile food vendor license from the city also need to obtain a permit from the Park District to sell on park property.

Although Prahofer is glad to see some enforcement, the summer season is nearly completed and the damage has already been done.

“I would have wished for more action back in May when we were asking for it,” Prahofer said.

A man orders pizza at Pie Life, located at Buckingham Fountain. Credit: Melody Mercado/ Block Club Chicago

Nascar Buyouts Leave Some Businesses Feeling Jaded

In May, Block Club Chicago revealed that Grant Park would be booked 84 days between May and August to stage events like Sueños Music Festival, NASCAR and Lollapalooza.

These closures were immediately a concern for Jessica Korbe, who has a permit to operate a retail stand designing and selling Chicago-branded merchandise at Buckingham Fountain.

When she first started in 2017, rent for her retail cart, which takes up 8 square feet, was about $1,200 for the summer, she said. Now it’s $8,750 and will be raised to $9,000 next year, according to Korbe’s contract with the park district. Her contract also requires she pay a 15 percent commission to the Park District if she makes more than $58,333.

Jessica Korbe, owner of Chicago Bike Boutique, and a customer on Aug. 18, 2023. Credit: Melody Mercado/ Block Club Chicago

While rent has increased, Korbe’s sales have dropped, she said. With the addition of Sueños and NASCAR, the fountain seems to be in a constant construction zone, she said.

And even though the fountain was open during Sueños over Memorial Day weekend, customers tend to stay away to avoid the festival’s chaos. Plus, those attending the festival opt to spend money at Sueños, not at Korbe’s shop.

What used to be a very profitable weekend for Korbe isn’t any longer, she said.

“My business on Memorial Day is down 70 percent. And so you take away Memorial Day, I did get somewhat of a buyout for Fourth of July … and then there’s Labor Day but they’re going to be setting up for Taste of Chicago,” Korbe said.

During NASCAR, Buckingham Fountain was closed for five days. But road closures for two weeks before the event also made it extremely difficult for people to reach the fountain, Korbe said.

“I was allowed to come to the fountain but my business was down 50-60 percent,” Korbe said. “I tried, we all tried.”

After some back and forth with Unison Consulting, which manages the Park District’s concession program, Korbe received a buyout from NASCAR for the five days the fountain was closed to the public, she said.

Michael Bingham owns and operates Chicago Cruise Bikes at Queen’s Landing along Lake Michigan near Grant Park on July 31, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Clyde Anhalt, owner of Smilin’ Clyde’s Hot Dogs, a permitted food cart in Grant Park, also said he saw low sales while NASCAR was setting up in the park. His business received a seven-day buyout, even though it was affected for longer.

“[They said] basically we were restricted from our corner seven days, but it was actually longer than that because they shut down a bunch of streets. Our business is all predicated on people walking around Downtown and if it’s too hard to move around, people just don’t go,” Anhalt said.

This year’s buyout is the first the hot dog cart has ever received, even though they are forced to close annually for other special events that take over the park.

“NASCAR is the only one that ever offered us anything. Everybody else that uses Grant Park just steps on us, they don’t care at all about us. They take away our corner and they don’t give us anything,” Anhalt said.

Anhalt would like to see Park District vendors allowed to operate inside Grant Park during special events. Currently, concessionaires aren’t allowed to do so.

“I personally would prefer if they would allow us to go in [the venue] because we already paid for the corner,” Anhalt said.

Seven out of 15 vendors at Grant Park received a buyout for NASCAR, Park District officials confirmed. Vendors within the footprint of the event weren’t able to operate during the race, said Michele Lemons, park district spokesperson in an email.

Vendors located just outside of NASCAR’s footprint at Queen’s Landing were left out, even though some were forced to close or received little business.

Michael Bingham owns and operates Chicago Cruise Bikes at Queen’s Landing along Lake Michigan near Grant Park on July 31, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Michael Bingham, owner of Chicago Cruise Bikes, estimates he lost out on nearly $20,000 in revenue because of NASCAR’s race and street closures. The bike business runs several electronic bike tours around the park but was unable to reach the roads when NASCAR started to close down streets.

Bingham wants to stay at Queen’s Landing but said he might reevaluate the services he provides since he couldn’t really operate at full strength or maximize profits.

Jessica Kuhnen owns and operates BIP Boating at Queen’s Landing along Lake Michigan near Grant Park on July 31, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

BIP Boating opened a kiosk stand this year at Queen’s Landing. Owner Jessica Kuhnen was disappointed to hear other vendors received buyouts for NASCAR, but she did not.

The kiosk sells water sports activities and private boat charters, which launch off of 31st Street Beach and North Avenue Beach. With a rainy June and NASCAR street closures, they didn’t receive much business, Kuhnen said.

Kuhnen said the kiosk closed for the week and estimates she lost $6,000-$7,000 in business.

Jessica Kuhnen owns and operates BIP Boating at Queen’s Landing along Lake Michigan near Grant Park on July 31, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

BIP Boating’s contract is one year long with the option to extend. The base rent is $1,200 for the summer, but like other vendors, the company pays the park district a commission if sales reach a certian amount.

Kuhnen isn’t sure if she’ll renew for a second year.

“We were actually anticipating the NASCAR foot traffic to give us an uptick in sales. But it was the complete opposite where we didn’t have any,” she said. “… “We’ll definitely spend some time evaluating the numbers and the cost-benefit analysis of being here at Queens Landing, but it’s definitely going to be a factor that comes up for sure.”

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