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Downers Grove restaurant one of 500 businesses to receive $2,000 Heinz grant

DOWNERS GROVE – Wendy Villarreal wants everyone to succeed.

Wendy and her husband, Alex, have been serving hot dogs, Italian beef and other favorites at their restaurant, Cozzi Corner, located at 75th Street and Lemont Road in Downers Grove, for almost three decades.

The Villarreals regularly help out schools and organizations with fundraisers. Alex Villarreal coaches youth sports. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Wendy Villarreal nominated another restaurant, the Country Cup in Countryside, for the Heinz for Diners COVID-19 relief initiative.

Through the program, Heinz is awarding $2,000 grants to 500 local restaurants to help get them back on their feet during the pandemic.

“I know what it is like to own a place that has to support your family,” Wendy Villarreal said. “I don’t ever wish bad will on anybody. We’re all just trying to get by and survive.”

The good work by Cozzi Corner’s owners didn’t go unnoticed.

Downers Grove resident Heather Franck nominated Cozzi Corner for the Heinz program, and the Villarreals found out about two weeks ago that they had been selected as a recipient. The check came in the mail late last week.

“During the pandemic, Cozzi has provided gift cards for low-income families to enjoy meals,” Franck said. “They also provided gift cards for prizes for a local carryout/dining Facebook page. During the year, they regularly support local schools and organizations. They truly represent the spirit of Downers Grove.”

High school sweethearts, the Villarreals met working together at the former Kentucky Fried Chicken on 75th Street and Clarendon Hills Road. Wendy Villarreal’s mom’s cousins opened Cozzi Corner a year later, and then her parents bought it. While Wendy worked after college for a company that did market research for McDonald’s, the plan was for her husband and dad to become business partners.

When her dad decided to walk away from the restaurant business, Wendy quit her job and bought the restaurant with Alex. They had four children, and the rest is history.

In October they will have been in business together, side by side, for 29 years.

“Who would have ever thought,” Wendy Villarreal said.

Cozzi Corner hasn’t had to close or adjust its menu during the pandemic, but COVID-19 has had an effect. Business ground to a halt the first month of the state’s shutdown, and lunch and dinner rush is confined to small windows of the day, she said.

The eatery lost most of its summertime catering for graduations, birthdays and company picnics. Most Junes they would be cranking out catering every weekend, money the Villarreals stow away for the slow winter months. Now they’re lucky to have one catering job, with catering reservations from March still on hold, she said.

“I get it. We haven’t been to parties, either. I understand completely,” Wendy Villarreal said. “It’s a whole learning curve for a lot of businesses. We’re all working as hard as we can.”

They’re helping who they can, too.

When the pandemic hit, Villarreal emailed all the principals of local schools to ask about families in need. Cozzi’s Corner donated 50 $25 gift cards. She emailed the restaurant’s customer base to see if they knew of anyone in need and also reached out to the Woodridge VFW and American Legion. Wendy Villarreal estimated that she’s given out more than 130 gift cards, some with funds paid forward by customers.

“Even as a family, if we aren’t doing well, there are people that are in more need than us,” she said. “The Downers Grove community has been fantastic to us. It is helping the community. We get goodwill. If people use the gift card, we might get a new customer.”

Villarreal appreciates the helping hand of the Heinz grant.

“Every little bit helps. It’s $2,000 more than I had. For a small business, that is huge,” Villarreal said. “We’ll survive this. It might not be pretty, but we’ll get through.”

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