by Ashok Selvam
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.
There’s a special place in hell for the person who reported the Tamale Guy. https://t.co/6kIPlg3hRN— Mike Zoller (@mikezoller) May 9, 2020
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 — 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.
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; they weren’t cited and levied with fines.