Forest Park’s Weinstein Wholesale Meats teamed up with State Rep. LaShawn K. Ford to bring gifts and food to students at George Leland Elementary School in Austin last week. Weinstein employees stayed up till 1:30 a.m., Dec. 15, wrapping presents. Later that morning, employees and two Santas delivered gifts for 176 children, as well as a 20-pound smoked ham for each child. Staff and teachers each received a turkey.
“We wanted to do something, and this sounded good,” said Scott Weinstein, the owner of the company at 7501 Industrial Dr.
Earlier in the season, Weinstein had tried to donate Thanksgiving turkeys for the Oak Park-River Forest Food Pantry, but the offer came too late for the pantry to process.
“It was frustrating for both of us,” said Food Pantry Director of Operations Michele Zurakowski. “We had already told our clients that we would not be giving away turkeys this year.”
Weinstein said Ford called him when the law firm that usually sponsored a holiday gift party at Leland School, 5221 W. Congress Pkwy., backed out.
“He told me [the law firm] didn’t have the resources to do it this year. I said it sounds perfect for us.”
Leland students wrote letters to Santa asking for three possible gifts.
“We read the letters and, for people who live in the suburbs, they were heartbreaking. The kids asked for things like a pair of socks, a box of crayons,” said Weinstein.
Previous years, each child got one gift each, he said, but he made the decision to just buy everything on the list for each child. “We’re a company, so we made a spreadsheet and sliced and diced it.”
Most of the toys came from Toys R Us. “Our employees went out shopping and bought everything we could find. It was fun. We enjoyed it.” The USDA facility is open 24 hours. Employees stayed till the wee hours wrapping.
Weinstein contracted to buy 20-pound hams for each child from a supplier, but when he explained the giveaway, Gusto Packing in Montgomery, Ill., donated the hams for free. Weinstein gave free turkeys to staff and teachers.
When employees got to Leland School, two Santa Clauses were on hand. “They called the kids’ names and Santa Claus handed them each a stack of presents, took a picture with them and told them ‘Merry Christmas,'” Weinstein recalled. It was a really great day.”
According to the Illinois Center for Education Policy, 98.1 percent of George Leland School’s students are low-income. The school is on the Chicago Public Schools watch list for low-performing institutions. Weinstein hopes to keep partnering with the school for future holidays, he said.
Weinstein Wholesale Meats has been in Forest Park since 2006, moving from the West Loop near Oprah’s Harpo Studio after gentrification made running a 24-hour trucking company difficult.
“My father started the business selling meat out of the back of his car,” he said. Forest Parkers often see Weinstein trucks pulling onto the expressway with the company’s distinctive logo of 1950s-style oriental lettering. “The company became a wholesaler for 300 Asian restaurants in Chicago,” he explained. Today the business sells beef, poultry, pork, lamb and veal to grocery stores and retail food service distributors in 28 states. Weinstein has their own Produce Delivery Service trucking company and also owns Heartland Steaks, an Internet steak business.
“We stumbled upon this building in Forest Park after outgrowing our business in the city,” said Weinstein, adding that access to the expressway and the central location made Forest Park a good choice. “We retrofitted the building and converted it to a USDA facility.”
Weinstein said the holiday giveaway is the start of a tradition for the company. “We measure our performance as a company and there are different metrics that we use. [The holiday gift giveaway] is at the top of my list of things I’m most proud of that we’ve been able to do as a company. It was a wonderful day for our people, and for me personally.”