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Robert Magiet was driving through Humboldt Park last Friday morning, the temperature outside barely breaking into the double digits, when he noticed a woman selling tamales.
“She looked like she had five layers of clothing on,” Magiet said. “I said, ‘Can I buy all your tamales and you can go home?’ She had maybe 10 dozen on her.”
She agreed. Magiet threw on a hefty tip, took the bags of tamales and distributed them to folks staying in nearby homeless encampments.
That afternoon, he hopped on Facebook and posted a selfie with the tamale vendor.
“Anyone know of any Tamale Cart vendors that will be out this weekend in the cold weather?” he wrote. “I went to Yolanda near Humboldt Park and bought her out so she could go home today. I’d love to do the same for other Vendors and distribute the Tamales to our Neighbors experiencing homelessness. Let me know of any leads please.”
Magiet’s Facebook friends suggested vendors and corners. He posted similar pleas on a few neighborhood Facebook pages. Suggestions rolled in, and Magiet followed them.
On Saturday, he bought out all the tamales at Belmont and Kimball. The next day, Sacramento and Fullerton. The next day, Armitage and Kimball. He quickly realized he needed to start arriving at 5:30 a.m. to maximize the number of tamales he could purchase and distribute — and the number of hours a vendor could spend inside, away from January’s chill. He said he always adds a generous tip.
“You have to remember some of these vendors are used to selling 30 dozen tamales a day,” he said. “But not many people are leaving their house right now. For months they’re standing out there not selling that many tamales.”
Magiet owns TaKorea Cocina, a small cafe in Ukrainian Village. He has watched the pandemic lay waste to the restaurant industry. He knows families who are barely scraping by.
“A week or so later, a lady came in with her daughter — 7 or 8, same age as my oldest daughter,” Magiet said. “She told me, ‘I’m just here to grab food for my neighbor.’ And the little girl said, ‘What neighbor, Mom? I thought this was for us.’”
Magiet’s wife is a Chicago Public Schools teacher. Since the coronavirus lockdowns and illnesses began, he said, his wife has heard dozens of stories of families who are close to losing their homes, unable to cover their bills, unable to afford food.
After the Love Fridge incident, he started scrolling through neighborhood Facebook pages, looking for stories about people who needed help and offering them free meals from his restaurant. By Thanksgiving, he decided he wanted to provide 50 families with a full Thanksgiving meal. He put out the call for donations on his personal and business Facebook pages.
“Within hours I had enough money for hundreds of families,” he said.
He teamed up with the owners of Fatso’s Last Stand and Jack & Ginger’s restaurants who offered up their kitchens for meal prep, and a few hundred volunteers from the community who helped cook and deliver the meals.
“We ended up providing 1,300 Thanksgiving meals,” he said.
After Christmas, Magiet teamed up with Jason Vincent, owner of Giant in Logan Square, to drive a food truck around the city and feed people who are homeless.
“We’d pull up and made breakfast and lunch,” Magiet said. “It’s like, I have a restaurant. I have food. I know people who have restaurants and food. Let’s help people who need food.”
Magiet recently asked his friend Taylor Hammond, owner of The StopAlong pizza joint in Bucktown, if he could use Hammond’s kitchen to make pizzas once a week or so for hungry families. Magiet invites people on his social media pages to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and include their name, address, phone number and number of family members.
“What do kids want to eat?” he said. “Kids want to eat pizza.”
On Thursday, Magiet started his day buying 19 dozen tamales from a vendor near Kimball and Addison, and ended his day baking and delivering 20 pizzas to families who requested them.
“I’m not trying to save the world,” he said. “I’m just trying to help people who need food. If I have the ability to go help somebody, I’m just going to go help somebody. To me, it’s literally that simple.”
He collects donations from anyone who wants to help fund the tamales or the pizzas. He takes payments through Zelle at 773-807-0057 or venmo: @takoreacocina. He plans to distribute tamales to different Love Fridges around the city, as well as Breakthrough Urban Ministries in East Garfield Park and Franciscan Outreach’s homeless shelter in North Lawndale.
“If somebody in our neighborhood is struggling, we all struggle,” Magiet said. “That’s how I feel.”
And if somebody finds a way to help, we all see a sliver of light to lead our way. Then it’s on us to follow it.