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Working for peanuts

A high-powered attorney helps beleagured vendors

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It all seemed too easy, when they swept away the peanut vendors from the United Center's steps.

One side was little more than a ragtag gaggle of unknown men and women, many of them west-siders, most of them black. On the other side were Bill Wirtz and Jerry Reinsdorf, millionaire owners of the Blackhawks and Bulls respectively, backed on this matter by Mayor Daley and the City Council. Why should they be forced to let fans bring food into their arena? their argument went. Do theater owners allow patrons to bring their own popcorn to the movies? Peanut vendors already are banned from most places around Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park. Why should the United Center be different? "We did not reinvent the wheel here," says Howard Pizer, the executive vice president of the United Center. "This ban is something that's in effect all around the country."

And yet the fight's far from over. A coalition of vendors led by a freelance lawyer named Mark Weinberg has sued the United Center to overturn the ban, arguing it violates federal antitrust laws. "This fight's about the greed of the United Center owners," says Weinberg. "It's about big guys crushing little guys so they keep all the profits for themselves."

Weinberg seems an unlikely man to wage this great peanut war. Until a few years ago he was on a path leading him to the United Center's side of the fray: from high school (Highland Park) to college (Yale) to law school (University of Chicago) to a big downtown law firm. But some six years ago he broke ranks, left the firm, and founded The Blue Line, a 16-page "alternative" hockey program that manages to be sassy, irreverent, funny, and, frequently tasteless.

Weinberg and copublisher Steve Kohn print an issue for every game and peddle it outside the stadium for $3 a copy. On a good night they'll sell 1,500. The Blue Line's filled with statistics and gossip, and it portrays Wirtz as a lecherous old robber baron. One gag, written by Weinberg and Greg Simetz, a freelance humor writer, features a made-up letter from Mayor Daley. When mayoral press secretary Jim Williams called Kohn and complained that some might think the gag letter real, Weinberg penned an apology to Daley in which he also apologized for "stating repeatedly in The Blue Line that you are 'in the back pocket' of [Wirtz and Reinsdorf]; that you are, in fact, a mere puppet of a select group of wealthy white men who actually run the city; and that, while you proudly wear the illusion of power, the real power belongs to the businessmen who primarily finance your campaigns....Now could you please have my water service resumed, my trash picked-up, and the Denver Boots (all four) removed from my Yugo?" (The Blue Line, by the way, is suing the Blackhawks for not providing press credentials.)

It was while peddling The Blue Line that Weinberg met many of the peanut vendors. To him, they seemed a likable bunch: good hard workers, braving cold, snow, and rain to make a buck. "They weren't bothering anybody," says Weinberg. "They were the essence of free enterprise." Some were moonlighting; others were retirees. They were regulated; each year they bought a $75 license from the city. "You sell your peanuts for what you can get," says Thornton Elliott, a 71-year-old resident of the west side. "I was just trying to put some food on my table."

The crackdown started in the late 1980s, as ballpark owners expanded their concession sales and let it be known they didn't appreciate vendors selling food directly outside their stadiums. The Cubs hit first, getting the City Council to ban most vending around Wrigley Field. "The way the law reads, we can only sell on private property outside Wrigley," says Charlie Beyer, a peanut vendor for almost ten years. "But since the Tribune owns most of the private property around Wrigley--they've been buying it up for years--there's really no place for us to go."

In 1992 the White Sox got the City Council to ban vendors on public property within 1,000 feet of their ballpark.

That left the Stadium, a boon to vendors because peanuts were not sold inside. "People looked to us for their peanuts," says Elliott. "No one bothered us. I used to sell them right out in front to fans who ate them as they walked into the stadium."

But when the United Center opened last year, security officials went beyond anything the Cubs or Sox had attempted--they confiscated bags of peanuts. "If you tried to bring a bag in they told you, no peanuts allowed," says Weinberg. "It's ridiculous. Peanuts and sporting events are an American tradition. Whoever heard of banning peanuts at a game?"

As word of the peanut ban spread, fans stopped buying from the peanut vendors. "I guess most fans figured, what's the use of buying peanuts if you have to sneak them in?" says Elliott. "I used to make $300 at a Blackhawks game. That first preseason game I made $40. The next game I made $22. It wasn't worth it."

Elliott and other vendors say the ban is unprecedented, but Pizer says it goes back 50 years at the Stadium. "The rule," Pizer says, "just wasn't enforced."

The problem with peanuts is cleanliness, stadium officials contend. They get crumbled into tiny particles and wedged into cracks and crevices a vacuum cleaner can't reach. "Peanuts add a tremendous cost to cleanup," says Gene Gozdecki, a lawyer for the United Center. "They're a foodfest for insects."

Weinberg buys none of it. "I called janitorial services and they told me it was ridiculous to say peanuts add to cleanup costs," he says. "I called other arenas and found out that 23 of the 26 hockey arenas sell peanuts. It's clear to me that the United Center's doing this to create a monopoly on concession sales. We're not talking about just peanuts. As a peanut vendor explained, a $2 bag of peanuts bought outside satisfies an $8 craving for junk food bought inside. This is a violation of federal antitrust law; they're using a monopoly in one market, the United Center, to create a monopoly in another market, concessions. There's a tradition of bringing food to games; that's what tailgate parties are all about. But Reinsdorf and Wirtz want to control it all: tickets, parking, concessions. It struck me as so wrong, so unfair; I felt I had to do something."

He rounded up 18 peanut vendors and, after a long search for a cocounsel ("a lot of firms turned us down because, let's face it, you don't get rich representing peanut vendors"), found one in Donald Weiland. On October 2 they sued, arguing that the ban on food is an unfair, monopolistic business practice that violates federal antitrust law and deprives vendors of several hundred thousand dollars a year in wages.

Gozdecki says the case has no merit. If anything, it's an un-American attempt to tell United Center officials how to run their affairs. "They're attempting to have the court order us to permit people who enter our building to bring peanuts in, which is like saying a store has to allow customers to bring in their own food," Gozdecki says.

While all the legal wrangling was going on, the United Center quietly convinced Alderman Walter Burnett Jr., in whose 27th Ward the stadium is located, to introduce legislation banning all vendors within 1,000 feet of the stadium without "prior written permission from the property owner."

Burnett's proposal caught the vendors off guard. "There was no notice for the council hearing in September," says Weinberg. "Only two people showed up to testify: me and Charlie Beyer. No one came from the stadium; why waste their time? They had their votes. I almost felt sorry for Burnett. He was just doing what he was told. He told me, 'I pray for you guys, but you're against some heavyweights.'"

Burnett says United Center officials asked him to introduce the legislation. "This was a tough issue for him," says Leslie Cully, Burnett's press secretary. "He really feels for those peanut vendors. But he felt it was a question of safety; it was too congested with all the vendors and panhandlers. They forced people into the street where they could get hit by a car."

Again, Weinberg disagrees. "Yeah, right, there're so many people getting hit by cars outside the United Center 'cause of peanut vendors," he says sarcastically. "They used the same argument for moving the peanut vendors away from Comiskey Park. Now you have vendors selling along the exit ramps from the Dan Ryan, which is a real safety problem. Meanwhile, the White Sox made a separate deal with one company that gets exclusive rights to sell peanuts in the parking lot. You watch. The United Center will make the same kind of deal."

But Pizer says peanuts will never be sold at the United Center. Furthermore, he hopes the fallout from the peanut war won't overshadow "a great relationship with the community." The United Center has been a boon to west-side development. Wirtz, Reinsdorf, and their associates have created a $1 million economic development fund to stimulate local businesses, while contributing at least $5 million more to local health centers, social clubs, charities, and schools. "We have become an integral part of the community," says Pizer.

Nonetheless, vendors remain amazed at the irony: the west side's engine for development wound up costing them their jobs. "This was our livelihood, and they've thrown us out of business," says Elliott. "They're not making enough? I wish I had just a pinch of what they make running that stadium."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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