By Chris Mohney
All Zagat Stories are written by our editorial team. This story is presented by our partner Chase Sapphire®.
Through the difficulties of the past year, restaurants have been there for their communities. They’ve pivoted to takeout, provided meals to essential workers, and so much more. The Sapphire Supports Restaurants Contest is awarding $50,000 business grants from Chase Sapphire to 20 small-business restaurants across America to provide COVID-19 pandemic recovery assistance. Zagat Stories is featuring interviews with all of our Sapphire Supports Restaurants Contests grant recipients.
Robert Magiet is the owner of Takorea Cocina, a Korean-Mexican restaurant in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village.
We opened in July of 2019. At the same time, a close friend of mine purchased a bar-restaurant. It was a larger purchase than mine. I was helping him for seven or eight months while I was trying to run my own restaurant. When the pandemic hit, he just closed because he relied on big parties and events.
We closed Takorea for the first six weeks while we were trying to figure out what was going on with all the new codes and everything. I actually was getting ready to sell the place. I even had an agreement to sell. But I said, “I just want another couple of days to think about it.”
I was watching a Shark Tank episode with my then-7 year old who said, “Dad, when are you going to reopen? I want to work with you.” Like the people she saw on the show. I swear to God, that’s what happened. So then I was like, there’s no way I can close. I told myself there was no way that I was going to go out that way, and I rededicated myself to my place. We reopened May 1st, and now the rest is history.
I used to be a partner at another restaurant in the neighborhood—a burger concept—so I’ve been in this area for the last seven or eight years. I have contacts. I’m part of the Facebook community pages. I know a lot of people. I knew that a lot of people were in need. Some people didn’t have jobs. Some people weren’t eligible for unemployment. During the six weeks that we were closed down, I had access to masks and gloves through my food supplier, so I posted on the community pages that if anybody needed them, I would deliver them. They didn’t even have to worry about coming out of their houses. That kept me busy for about five or six weeks from when we closed to when we reopened. When I reopened on May 1st, people were like, “Hey, let’s go support this place.”
If I saw that somebody needed food, I’d say, “Hey, I’ve got some burritos for you. Come get it.” We have a restaurant. We can make food. You need food, come get it.
Around August of last year, we got something that was called the Love Fridge. Neighbors could drop off food and anyone who needed it could pick up food. The second day we had it, a woman came in with her daughter and said, “Hey, I’m here to grab food for my neighbor.” The little girl, who couldn’t have been more than six or seven, said “Mom, what neighbor? I thought the food was for us.”
At that time I had a 7 year old, a 6 year old, a 3 year old, and a newborn. I couldn’t even imagine my children not having food to eat, or having to hear us telling people that the food wasn’t for us. That’s when I really started ramping up offering food for people in need.
We started taking food out to homeless encampments. People started offering to buy food for people. We were not doing that for profit—we were doing that at cost. I created a startup called West Town Feeds, where we were taking gifts and donations from our community and doing Thanksgiving meals, Christmas meals, Easter meals. We were using a food truck from one of our friends and going out and making fresh meals. I am a for-profit business, and I need to be able to support my family. I need to be able to support my staff. But I think it’s our responsibility, being a neighborhood restaurant, to also help our less-fortunate neighbors. We’re looking for a food truck that we can use for events and catering for our restaurant that we can also use to provide meals to our neighbors experiencing homelessness.
In January 2021, we had a three-week stretch where we got so much snow and subzero temperatures. In Chicago, we have these tamale vendors that are all over the city. One Friday, I was driving and saw one, and she looked miserable and cold. I stopped and asked if she could go home if I bought out all her tamales. I posted it on one of the community pages, and it just went viral to the point where I was on CNN. I had to turn down hundreds of interviews. It started to bring too much attention to my restaurant, which wasn’t the intent. I didn’t want my restaurant to benefit from helping other people.
I then started meeting different people from different groups and organizations. We probably ended up buying over 100,000 meals a month and distributing them all over. It definitely opened my eyes to the struggles that certain people and certain neighborhoods and certain demographics have, like food deserts. One of my dreams now would be opening in a lower-income neighborhood and letting it be the training spot for people in that neighborhood to learn how to be cooks.
Hopefully we’ll be able to secure a food truck. There’s nothing like being able to go out and make a fresh, hot meal for somebody. When we did the food truck last winter for a week, we were making fresh breakfasts with eggs, sausages, pancakes, and hashbrowns. When someone says, “Oh my God, I haven’t had a breakfast like this in years,” and then they come back the next day, it feels good. But it’s also heartbreaking that these are things that we take for granted.