Over the weekend, the phrase “Tamale Guy” was trending on Twitter in Chicago as news spread that the city issued a cease-and-desist letter against Claudio Velez, who famously sells tamales from bar to bar. A social media post from a friend of the vendor claimed the letter forced Velez to stop home deliveries, which he began concentrating on in March after the state closed all bars. Fans were outraged that someone had complained to the city about Velez, a fixture in Chicago’s hospitality community.
For years, Velez brought his red or blue cooler full of tamales into bars and sold them to tavern customers. Packed in plastic bags, the snacks provided sustenance after long nights, and a random sighting of the Tamale Guy often elicited cheers.
Speculation mounted over the weekend about what triggered the complaints. A city spokesperson didn’t tell Eater Chicago who called in the complaints, but he did share that the city received eight phone calls and a few emails about tamale sales. These were related to events April 7 and April 21 at the West Loop Community Garden. Customers preordered tamales online and picked them at the garden, and they practiced social distancing while standing in line, according to event organizer Moshe Tamssot. He says the first event generated $1,650 in sales for Velez and his family for 72 customers. The second event in brought in $2,445 for 94 customers. All the money went to Velez, Tamssot adds. He says he organized these events to give residents something positive to look forward to during the pandemic.
The city gave Velez and Tamssot — the administrator of influential Facebook group True West Loop — cease-and-desist letters for not having the retail food licenses to hold the events. The complaints came through the city’s 311 hotline and via emails to 25th Ward Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez’s office. The city’s statement to Eater Chicago, issued by its Business Affairs and Consumer Protection department (BACP), mentioned that it “has a responsibility to respond to all complaints to protect Chicagoans and ensure food safety standards are being met.” The city’s statement didn’t mention COVID-19. Some had posted complaints that the tamale events shouldn’t happen during the health crisis.
Ald. Sigcho-Lopez confirms his office forwarded the emailed complaints to City Hall, as city council members routinely do with all complaints. He stresses that he never recommended the city to send a letter to Velez.
“I’m disappointed,” Sigcho-Lopez says. “I would hope that BACP would give the opportunity to address the concerns rather than issuing a letter.”
The alderman feels there’s a double standard: The city isn’t as quick to issue citations to larger companies, like Target and Hilco Redevelopment Partners. In April, Hilco demolished a smokestack in Little Village, producing a massive dust cloud that cast debris throughout the neighborhood. Sigcho-Lopez wants the BACP to be investigated over its procedures.
The nature and volume of the complaints made convinced Sigcho-Lopez that Tamssot — not Velez — was the primary target. The city issued Tamssot five cease-and-desist letters, and only one relates to tamales. Tamssot has held a few events in the garden since the outbreak and teamed up with Velez after reading about Velez’s home delivery business; he says he wanted to do something uplifting for the West Loop in the face of the coronavirus outbreak, and envisioned a large neighborhood order to give Velez business.
The city’s letter to Velez was harsher, threatening him with arrests and fines for selling food without a retail food license. The Velez family provided Eater Chicago with the letter, dated April 24, which threatened Velez with a fine of $200 to $500. Repeat offenders face $500 to $1,000 fines: “Every day such violation continues shall constitute a separate and distinct offense,” the letter reads. It goes on to state: “The superintendent of police is hereby directed to arrest any and all agents, and employees of Claudio Velez.” Velez’s teenage son works with his father. The parties were only issued with letters. These are warnings as Velez and Tamssot weren’t levied with tickets or fines.
The West Loop, home to Randolph Restaurant Row and Fulton Market — the site of some of the city’s trendiest restaurants — has a complicated history, with several neighborhood groups (including the West Loop Community Organization and West Central Association) with influence over elected officials and developers. Tamssot has made foes on the internet thanks to his own group, True West Loop, in which he’s criticized civic organizations. The True West Loop group has even splintered into another (Real West Loop), formed by residents unhappy with how Tamssot ran his Facebook group.
Velez dislikes the spotlight. Since the city issued its letter, he and his family have stopped taking tamale orders. He’s dreamed of opening a restaurant, and last month he shared his intentions. He worries that the cease and desist could stop him from getting the needed permits or a liquor license. Thus, the family’s kept a low profile.
Velez’s son, Caleb Velez, has set up an Instagram during stay at home to chronicle the family business’s pivot. He tells Tamssot and other friends taht they’re eyeing suburban Cicero for the restaurant; Chicago is too expensive. They have not shared an opening timeline. Tamssot still hopes to get them proper licensing so he can host another tamale sale in the West Loop. The family remains noncommittal.
While the news angered Chicagoans, it also motivated them. A GoFundMe established over the weekend to show support for Velez has already raised $28,000, blowing past its $10,000 goal. Velez intends to put the money toward opening the restaurant.
Velez’s fans still want to know who would complain about the kind-hearted entrepreneur beloved by many. In April, Velez participated in two similar events in Lakeview where he sold low-cost meals to people who have lost their jobs during the COVID-19 crisis, and event organizers there say they haven’t received letters from the city.
Tamssot also received a cease-and-desist letter for organizing an event where he sold cookies made from a recipe recently published in Food & Wine from James Beard Award-winning chef Sarah Grueneberg. Tamssot hired a personal chef to make the cookies, as Grueneberg and her restaurant, Monteverde, were not involved. As recipes can’t be be copyrighted, though, the restaurant had no legal remedy.
Some in the West Loop don’t like these events, which Tamssot says makes him a target. Armando Chacon is known to disagree with Tamssot. He’s a real estate agent and member of various neighborhood groups, including the West Central Association chamber. Tamssot initially blamed Chacon for the complaints. Chacon denies that he and his member organizations had anything to do with them. While not claiming responsibility, Chacon says that Velez and his tamales were “innocent bystanders” caught in a petty West Loop conflict.
The Tamale Guy is one of many food vendors — including food cart operators — affected by the pandemic, as Block Club Chicago reports. There’s also a GoFundMe for some of them, organized by Increase the Peace Chicago, charity that helps communities marred by gun violence. They’ve raised more than $18,000. Shared kitchens, like Vendors Kitchen in North Lawndale, have given vendors from marginalized communities bases of operations. Velez has options. He could find a shared kitchen space or work within an existing restaurant. Additionally, Ald. Sigcho-Lopez wants Velez to talk to him before settling on a suburban site for his restaurant. While the identities of those who lodged the complaints have yet to be revealed, Chicago hasn’t heard Velez’s familiar “tamales” yell for the last time.