Gaetano Di Benedetto, known as Chef Gaetano and owner of Gaetano’s Italian Restaurant in Forest Park, said it’s the human contact he misses most these days.

“I miss hugs. I miss smiles. You can’t see a smile from behind a mask,” said Gaetano.

He related a story, about his long-time customers who moved out of town but recently returned to his restaurant. He hadn’t seen them in months. When they stopped by to pick up food, his instinct was to hug them. But he couldn’t.

“It’s sad,” said Gaetano, who doesn’t foresee things going back to the way they were in the near future. “There is no ‘normal’ anymore. People in my restaurant used to come and sit close to each other. It was an intimate place. I can’t foresee that happening any time soon.”

But Gaetano said he was determined to keep providing jobs for his employees and fresh, healthy food for people. In order to do that, “changes needed to be made.”

The biggest change? Becoming what Gaetano calls a “gourmet market” in addition to his current establishment.

“We will have fresh pasta, homemade sausage, smoked cheese, meat, and vegan meat,” said Gaetano, who’s been experimenting a lot lately with vegan products. “It’s important for people to eat healthy.”

In addition to developing tasty and healthy vegan food, Gaetano said his staff can accommodate allergies, and people interested in gluten or allergen free foods can call and talk to him or his employees. And he’s adding items like a crustless pizza to cater to people on low-carb or keto diets.

“I want people to be healthy,” said Gaetano.

But health isn’t the only consideration. Gaetano says it’s important to offer nutritious food at low prices. He’s worried that with loss of jobs and an economy in decline, many Americans won’t be able to afford to eat in restaurants. Gaetano’s already lowered the takeout prices on his own menu, but even so, he acknowledges that it’s expensive to buy prepared foods.

A pasta dish that used to cost $17 at his restaurant now costs $12. But that’s a lot compared to a meal for four that can be prepared at home and will cost less than $20 at his market, he said.

And safety will be a top priority for his market, just as it is now for his restaurant. At supermarkets, said Gaetano, people habitually touch products, which can spread germs like the COVID-19 virus. He used an avocado as an example. When a shopper is looking to buy one, he or she will likely pick up several to feel them, looking for the proper ripeness.

“How many people have touched it before you pick it up?” he asked.

At his market, all employees wear a mask and gloves, and the fresh food is packaged by a limited number of people. And customers coming for pickup aren’t allowed inside the restaurant; food is brought to them outside.

To supplement the market, Gaetano’s working on video tutorials of how to prepare simple but nutritious foods using the ingredients he’ll be selling. The videos will be available on the restaurant’s website.

“I want to help people cook, and I want to help people save money,” said Gaetano. “For me, it’s not about making money. It’s about helping people survive.”

Part of that means keeping his workers employed, and Gaetano said he hasn’t had to let a single employee go. In fact, he’s hired a new one since the COVID-19 pandemic took off. They are on reduced salary but are still working.

And he will be hiring more people since he plans to open a second market in downtown Chicago. The Forest Park location will handle most of the production work, the baking and sausage making, for example. And the food will be transported to the Chicago location and sold there, in addition to being available in Forest Park.

Gaetano acknowledged that it’s been a big transition for his business over the past few weeks.

“The entire logistics have changed,” said Gaetano. He said making physical changes to the building, like removing the front windows, broke his heart.

“This place is my baby,” he said. But he admitted that the changes needed to be made. And he’s added a smoker, a bigger oven to accommodate baking he and his staff are doing, and a huge pasta and ravioli machine, since making it by hand, as they’ve been doing, will be difficult if they’re selling large amounts for people to take home and cook.

Customers of Gaetano’s can expect restaurant menu offerings as well as new gourmet market products, freshly made in Forest Park. For now, he will continue to offer both.

“We will play it by ear,” said Gaetano. “Every day is different right now.” But planning ahead and adapting to change are essential. “It is always an evolution.”

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