MCKINLEY PARK — After 70 years in business, Veteran Tamale is closing.
"My dad's sick," said Mike Szczytko, the 51-year-old son of Veteran owner Bob Szczytko. "We're going to close it down the end of January."
Over the last year, the 79-year-old tamale chief has been struggling with clogged carotid arteries. A number of "mini strokes" landed him at Lemont's Mother Theresa Home.
"He's been through a lot," said Mike Szczytko, standing behind Veteran's legendary counter at 3133 S. Archer Ave. "It's tough. ... Right now he can't feed himself."
On the business side, Veteran Tamale hasn't been making the money it used to. There's a need for new equipment and more customers. In Mr. Szczytko's absence, it's been difficult for the family to drive sales while running the shop.
"It's just not a lot of business," Szczytko said. "We're keeping it running the best we can."
The Veteran Tamale origin story begins in 1946 at 33rd and Morgan streets. With a business partner, first-generation tamale slinger Edmund Szczytko opened a butcher shop there and began making and selling "corn rolls" — seasoned ground beef rolled up in cornmeal.
In 1947, Ed bought out his partner and bought a building at 3133 S. Archer Ave. Using a special machine, he made thousands of tamales. His five kids hand-wrapped every one.
Bob Szczytko was one of those kids. He raised his own three children at Veteran Tamale. They often pumped out 1,200 tamales at a time — three times a week.
The Szczytko recipe — different from husk-wrapped Mexican tamales — has evolved over the years. It's a recipe that has set Veteran Tamale apart from Chicago's two other family-owned tamale makers: Tom Tom and Supreme.
The family stopped using meat in the 1960s after inspectors with the United States Department of Agriculture hassled them. Veteran Tamale switched to spiced, textured soy protein cooked in lard, but ditched the lard for vegetable oil.
The final vegetarian recipe was ideal for Catholics abstaining from meat during Lent.
For a long time Veteran Tamale made money supplying those tamales to hot dog vendor carts all over the city. But the sidewalk eats business has largely dried up, pushed out by police crackdowns and hefty fines, although the first licensed food cart under a new law hit the streets in April.
"A lot of the people that were still out there have passed on," Mike Szczytko said.
Veteran Tamale eventually expanded its business to sell steaks, hot dogs, Polish sausage, burgers, Italian beef and condiments in bulk. Today's customers include neighborhood restaurants, churches, schools and backyard chefs looking to cater packed cookouts.
Though Veteran Tamale will shut down come the end of January, Szczytko said the business might someday return.
"We may reconstitute it later," Szczytko said, "but we're not sure yet."
Veteran Tamale Foods is open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays, 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays and closed on Sundays. Phone: 773-927-1282.
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