ROGERS PARK — The Heartland Cafe, an iconic neighborhood restaurant with roots deep in the hippie movement of the 1960s and 70s, entered a new era this past summer as a majority stake of the restaurant was sold.
Michael James, Katy Hogan and James’ ex-wife, Diane Libman — who worked at the restaurant for the first couple years — founded the Heartland 36 years ago with their combined life savings of $4,000, and they’ve worked day-to-day operations there ever since.
But after business slowed and financial strain began to take a toll, James felt the business needed a change.
Thus, Tom Rosenfeld, the owner of Earth First Farms in Berrien County, Mich., was able to buy a majority stake in the company, which includes the Red Line Tap, a bar and music venue just around the corner on Glenwood Avenue.
Rosenfeld’s no stranger to the neighborhood. He’s lived in Rogers Park since 1999.
Rosenfeld said he began to look into different locations to open a restaurant, but then his neighbor, one of the original chefs of the Heartland, told him to consider buying it.
“I hear from people who say, ‘I just can’t imagine this place not being here,’” Rosenfeld said. “It’s a definite neighborhood institution.”
James wouldn't say the percentage of ownership he and Hogan sold to Rosenfeld, but said having a farmer bring produce directly to the kitchen adds to the restaurant's wholesome image.
"He owns one and a big chunk of the other," James said of Rosenfeld's farm-to-table operation.
Rosenfeld, who principally grows apples, said two-thirds of his farm's produce ends up at the Heartland.
Financial struggles have hit the restaurant hard during the Great Recession. By 2010, they were asking customers for donations to pay off the banks.
But now, Hogan said, they had more time to focus on other projects, like their live Saturday morning radio show that’s featured such guests as then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2005.
They're also looking to reboot the Heartland Journal, a community newspaper filled with neighborhood happenings and progressive commentary that hasn’t been published in several years, and to finish a book about the history of the Heartland Cafe, which James said he hoped it could be published before next Christmas.
"I think that with Tom," Hogan said, "we have a lot more time to work on stuff like that."
The reaction in the neighborhood, she said, had been for the most part positive. Some people are worried initially when they hear the restaurant's been sold. But those that have been following the restuartant through the years seem to be understanding.
“We’ve done a lot of things with pure motivations, which is why we’ve been allowed to exist,” Hogan said.
There's no reason for anyone to worry about the future of the restaurant, she said.
“The Heartland will remain the Heartland,” Hogan said. And James added, sitting at a wooden table in the restaurant's bar: "I think it'll have a new wave of influence."
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