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The Grub Game

Recipe for Long Life: How the Heartland Cafe's Antiestablishment Founders Built an Institution

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Recipe for Long Life: How the Heartland Cafe's Antiestablishment Founders Built an InstitutionBuilding a pillar of stability in an ever-changing community wasn't exactly what Katy Hogan and Michael James had in mind when they opened the Heartland Cafe. As radical political activists and followers of nutritionist Adele Davis, they had other ideas. "We were casting about for a new way to organize people, to provide jobs, and maybe make a living," says Hogan. They didn't have any restaurant experience between them, and anyway they only planned to run the place for about two years. "We didn't think beyond that," says James. They shook hands on the deal under an oak tree in New Orleans during Mardi Gras 1976. Twenty-five years later, not only is the cafe thriving, but it's even grown into something of a multimedia conglomerate. What has become a Rogers Park legend almost got its start in Lakeview. "We had this place on Belmont picked out," says James, but they only had $4,000 to stake, and "we would have had to pay too much in up-front costs." Then a landlord in Rogers Park offered them three months' free rent, and Hogan, James, and James's first wife, Stormy Brown, took over the dilapidated former site of Lackey's steak house, in the shadow of the el tracks at Glenwood and Lunt. The neighborhood suited Hogan just fine: raised on the city's southwest side, she came to Rogers Park to attend Mundelein College in 1968, and she'd grown attached. "It'd become my adopted neighborhood."New York-born James took a more circuitous route to Lunt Avenue. In 1960 he drove a souped-up 1940 Ford coupe from his home in Connecticut to California, where he worked for a while in a cannery in Sunnyvale. In 1962 he moved to Mexico City, but by the mid-60s he was back in California, a grad student at Berkeley and heavily involved with Students for a Democratic Society. In 1966 he doubled back to Chicago to work for SDS on a project to improve interracial relations among the poor in Uptown. Three years later he founded the radical youth organization Rising Up Angry and its eponymous newspaper, befriending Hogan in 1975 as the organization was folding.Originally, says Hogan, they had three objectives for the restaurant: "First, to provide a good, healthy, wholesome menu at a reasonable price--fish, chicken, brown rice, beans, good vegetarian fare if you wanted it. Two, to provide a more positive work experience for our employees than could be found in the industry at the time. Three, to provide a center for exchange of information that was important to us.""We were not opposed to meat," says James. "We were more interested in a small-planet type thing," using foods that were processed in a way that was less destructive to the environment and more capable of sustaining large populations.By the time the Heartland opened, Rogers Park was a community in transition. Once Jewish and Catholic and under control of the Daley machine, it was becoming one of the country's most diverse polyglot neighborhoods, with significant black and Latino populations. It was also growing more independent politically, and in 1979 would elect David Orr as 49th Ward alderman.Healthful food, low prices, and a leftward political tilt helped the Sweet Home Chicago Heartland Cafe (as it was originally called) find an immediate customer base. The addition of music and entertainment didn't hurt: the Smashing Pumpkins, still in their formative years, appeared there, as did the great jazz bassist Charlie Haden.In 1977 the Heartland expanded into the storefront next door, which once housed an IVI-IPO office; the following year it took over another adjacent space, a former TV repair shop. With the extra space they opened a "general store," offering racks of left-wing and arts literature along with an oddball conglomeration of products that made it a sequel to the previous decade's head shops. They began publishing an arts and politics tabloid, the Heartland Journal, in 1979. The Buffalo Bar, between the store and the two dining rooms, was added in 1981, featuring an assortment of fine beers and a few wines and liquors; an underage Liz Phair sipped whiskey there.Hogan, who also teaches urban politics at the Associated Colleges of the Midwest, took time out in 1983 to serve as Harold Washington's north-side campaign coordinator. In 1997, Hogan and James took over the old Roy's bar, just north of the restaurant on Glenwood, and opened the Red Line Tap. Last year they bought the No Exit Cafe, half a block south. "I'm an expansionist," chortles James, who married his present wife, Paige, in 1991. He's been hosting a Saturday-morning talk show from the restaurant for the past four years; Live From the Heartland airs at 9 AM on WLUW-FM and covers politics, sports, and culture. He also opened a performance space down the block as a venue for readings, small theater, and performance art.Through the years, the menu--maintaining its "clean food" orientation--grew slowly to include a host of Tex-Mex dishes and, of course, pasta and pizza. To an extent it was reflecting the diversity of its surroundings. "Our chefs came from the neighborhood, and each one made little changes," says Hogan. "Until recently, almost the entire staff walked or rode bikes to work."It took more than 15 years for red meat to appear on the menu, and then it was in the form of farm-raised buffalo. "It's lean and healthy--and farming is helping bring back the buffalo from extinction," James says. The bacon and sausage served at breakfast are turkey products, and very tasty--especially the well-seasoned sausage.Today the buffalo burger and the tamari-maple glazed chicken breast sandwich are the Heartland's biggest sellers. French fries--both white and sweet potato--have also been added in response to popular demand. But originals still remain, like the house rendition of eggplant parmesan, constructed directly on half an eggplant, and the rich baked avocado with melted cheese.Perhaps the most notable change in 25 years is at the Buffalo Bar. A wave of rehabbed housing has turned this renters' neighborhood into a substantially home-owning community with somewhat more upscale tastes, and you can now order fancy liqueurs, a dozen wines by the glass, nine different tequilas, and an organic mescal. Manager Brian McIntosh confides that you can even get a cosmopolitan."What the hell is that?" asks Hogan, who often tends bar at the Red Line. "I wouldn't know how to make one."The Heartland Cafe is at 7000 N. Glenwood, 773-465-8005.

--Don RoseThe DishIna Pinkney, formerly of Ina's Kitchen on Webster, will reopen Ina's at 1235 W. Randolph in February. oPartners Atha Moe and Rebecca Gleason opened Flying Saucer in late December at 1123 N. California in Humboldt Park. Their menu features American comfort food with vegan-friendly options and daily specials. oNorthern Italian restaurant Trullo opened December 3 at 1700 Central in Evanston.--Laura Levy Shatkin

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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