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Chicago's Underground Snow Cone Economy


Nothing says summer like a snowball stand.


SIMON: That slurp come from the West Side of Chicago. Thought I recognized that accent slurp. Every summer, snow cone stands pop up on the West Side and in other neighborhoods across the city where jobs are hardest to come by. Linda Lutton of member station WBEZ checks in on the microentrepreneurs who form an entire summertime economy.


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Dollar snowball.

LINDA LUTTON, BYLINE: Kentheney Moore is selling the very essence of summer.

KENTHENEY MOORE: Snowballs, pickles, colorful flavors of juice for the snow.

LUTTON: There's candy and nachos, too. This pop-up consists of one table and a tent on a vacant lot next to Moore's childhood home. He's got a designer fanny pack slung across his chest to make change. And he's one of hundreds of Chicago snow cone vendors hustling through the heat to make little kids smile big, selling candy that starts at a dime, snow cones starting at just 25 cents.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: How much are those?

MOORE: (Singing) A quarter.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: I'm going to order a coconut snowball and a hamburger candy and pickles.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #4: Can I get a dollar snowball?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #5: Green. I got a green one now.

MOORE: Just about every block got a candy store. My little brother got one down the street. There's one on my block. There's one down there.

LUTTON: Moore's mom started this stand some 15 years ago in her living room. There's a long tradition, especially in black communities, of selling a little something from a front window or a back door. People get creative. A few years back, a nearby stand featured Kool-Aid pickles - cold sour pickles marinated in blue or red Kool-Aid. Jason Johnson teaches entrepreneurship at the Chicago Urban League. He says snowball stands play an important economic role.

JASON JOHNSON: What ends up happening in especially underserved communities, you have a lot of entrepreneurial activities that's more informal, that's more a micro-enterprise that's often for survival, right?

LUTTON: Snowball stands are popular because startup costs can be as low as 30 bucks. Technically, these stands aren't legal here. Chicago offers no way to license them. But there's never been a crackdown. The snow cone economy flourishes despite being centered in some of Chicago's toughest neighborhoods or maybe because of that. Tandy Edwards started a stand in part to give nearby children a place to go this summer.

TANDY EDWARDS: You have to walk a long distance to get to any corner store. The store over the bridge is a liquor store.

LUTTON: Edwards lost an older son to gun violence. And in a neighborhood with too few jobs, she's creating a place for her younger son to work.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #6: Strawberry and coconut.

JAHEIM JOHNSON: Grape, cherry, lemon, root beer, banana, watermelon.

LUTTON: A half mile away, Jaheim Johnson sells nearly every snow cone flavor they make. This is his third summer with a stand.

JAHEIM: I have never made less than $50 a day.

LUTTON: And while Jaheim sounds like he's ready for business school, the entrepreneur is only 14.

JAHEIM: I really don't want to work for anybody else right now. And when I grow up...

LUTTON: Jaheim is just a few years older than lots of his customers.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #4: We come here, like, 10 times a day, mostly every day.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: We just like it because of all the colors.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #4: And it’s, like, a happy place, where everybody likes it. And they - it's fun.

LUTTON: Like the other West Side snow cone vendors, Jaheim is making money and helping define what summer feels like in his Chicago neighborhood.

For NPR News, I'm Linda Lutton.


Linda Lutton