CHICAGO (WLS) -- Tamale Guy Chicago, the Ukrainian Village restaurant opened by and named for one of the city's nightlife legends, has reopened a couple weeks after owner Claudio Velez was diagnosed with and hospitalized for COVID-19.
Known to many as either "The Tamale Guy" or simply Claudio, Velez spent nearly two decades selling tamales out of his trademark red cooler, strategically hitting up bar patrons on the North Side.
"He comes through the bars, basically saying 'anyone want a tamale?' and occasionally I would buy some tamales," said Pablo Phillips, customer at Tamale Guy Chicago.
Velez built up a loyal following, so devoted that when the pandemic shut down the bars and Velez had no source of income, customers raised more than $36,000 through GoFundMe. That money was used to open Tamale Guy Chicago on Chicago Avenue, which opened in August with a line down the street.
"The first day, they sold 4,000 tamales in two hours," said Omar Abad, Velez's son.
But soon after opening, Velez was diagnosed with COVID-19.
"As soon as he started having symptoms, he quarantined himself and wasn't coming to the restaurant, and his condition worsened really fast after that," Abad said.
Velez has been on a ventilator at Rush University hospital for nearly two weeks. His family FaceTimes with him regularly.
No other employees tested positive for COVID-19, but the restaurant closed to put safety precautions in place. In the meantime customers started another GoFundMe, raising nearly $50,000 to help with medical expenses.
Velez is now showing signs of improvement and Tamale Guy Chicago reopened Wednesday. Jane Zamora came all the way from her far Northwest Side home just to buy several tamales.
"I love tamales because my mom raised me with tamales, so it tastes like what my mom used to make," she said.
"We just want to thank the community and everyone who came together for always looking out for him and being there on his most trying times," said Abad.