My partners and I began to learn the ins and outs and challenges of running our business as we pioneered our community-oriented, left-leaning business model.
[In this series, Michael James is sharing images from his rich past, accompanied by reflections about — and inspired by — those images. These photos will be included in his forthcoming book, Michael Gaylord James’ Pictures from the Long Haul.]
After the Heartland Café opened Wednesday night, August 11, 1976, “Heartland life” took root and I began the part of my life I term “activist entrepreneur.” Katy, Stormy, and I entered a new world, one in which we were the bosses. We were now responsible for dealing with the government and its agencies, no longer as outside critics but as small business owners required to comply with what seemed at times to us unnecessary, ever-changing rules and regulations. We essentially took a crash course on “doing business” in Chicago.
Pictures from the Long Haul
For the previous10 years I had moved throughout many Chicago neighborhoods, engaging in outreach, selling Rising Up Angry, cooling out fights, talking about unity and revolution, and organizing around police misbehavior, women’s rights, farmworkers’ rights, and ending the war in Vietnam. Now I was in one spot, spending a lot of time at the corner of Glenwood and Lunt as we started to carve out something new and special.
We got to know our workers and customers, and acquired many new friends. We put in long hours at the Heartland. We all had other work: Stormy had a household and was raising three sons, and Katy and I both taught — she in the Urban Studies Program of the Associated Colleges of the Midwest, and myself at Chicago’s Columbia College.
Then shortly after we opened I landed a role in Andy Davis’s first film, Stony Island. Andy knew of me through Rising Up Angry; he thought I was a street tough guy from the South. I soon cleared up that misconception — I informed him my dad had been an actor who produced Broadway plays — but despite my East Coast heritage and Lake Forest/UC Berkeley studies, I got the part.
And it turned out that when he was young Andy lived right next door to the Heartland, at 1412 West Lunt. He remembers men in uniform coming home from the war and asking as they got off the Morse-Lunt El stop, “Are you my dad?”
This was actually my second paid acting gig. Jack O’Reilly, a friend of my father’s who produced commercials, hired me in St. Petersburg, Florida, in 1952. I was 10 and on a business and fishing trip with my dad; my role was to swim in the background of a Camel Cigarettes commercial that featured baseball players Red Schoendienst and Joe Garagiola. I was paid $5.00.
Twenty-four years later, in Stony Island, I made a bit more playing a hillbilly bad guy, one very mean ol’ Uncle Roy who takes out his frustration and rage on his nephew. The nephew was played by George England, a saxophone player and the son of actress Cloris Leachman. Getting a part in this film helped the Café score its first catering job, providing “craft service” snacks for the actors and crew.
My partners and I began to learn the ins and outs and challenges of running our business.
My partners and I began to learn the ins and outs and challenges of running our business as we pioneered our community-oriented, left-leaning business model. Our mission was to serve the people and the community, offering “good wholesome food for the mind and body” while also providing “right-livelihood” jobs, which we understood to mean being able to make a living while doing good in the world.
We wanted those employed at the Café to have a positive work experience that provided the time and opportunity for pursuing personal passions and projects, including activism in the larger local and world communities. Beyond those goals, as always I was looking for cadre, activists with a comprehensive consciousness committed to the cause of building a better world.
In the early days the Café and its open kitchen were located in the eastern-most storefront, on the corner of Glenwood and Lunt. Work on improving the place would be forever ongoing, a kinetic sculpture of people and place. Clayton Stamper, Junebug Boykin, and plenty of others helped to enhance the space. A small room we originally built to be a sound booth soon became a walk-in cooler — one refrigerator was clearly not sufficient to serve a restaurant.
By Thanksgiving the second storefront was transformed from a workshop into the west dining room. The workshop was in turn moved further west into the third of four storefronts on our corner. This first expansion came in time for a visit from my sister Melody and her comrades from the San Francisco Mime Troupe, who were in town and performing at the Moming Dance space in Lakeview. That first Thanksgiving we served dinner to employees, members of the troupe, and miscellaneous family and friends, including Bill, the grill man from one of my inspirations, Chicago’s Japanese greasy spoon Hamburger King, aka Chester’s.
The basic ingredients we used for Heartland’s menu included brown rice, bulgur wheat, whole-wheat flour, buckwheat flour, cornmeal, soy flour, tortillas, vegetables, tofu, chicken, canned tuna, frozen halibut, fresh fruits and vegetables, juices, eggs, milk, and cheese. In later years we added fresh fish, turkey, buffalo, and some organic pork now and then.
The Community Coffee we served was thanks to Howard and Nancy Shapiro, early customers who became friends. The Shapiros moved to Chicago from Baton Rouge and Louisiana State University and were at the time teaching art classes at the School of the Art Institute Chicago and Loyola University. They turned us on to several Louisiana products, including Zatarain’s mustard and Community Coffee. Howard, Nancy, and their daughter Stephanie lived in the Pilsen neighborhood, part of the early artist gentrification of that longtime Mexican community.
I often stayed at their hip storefront crib on Halsted on nights before our Café market runs. Then, after an early breakfast of hot tortillas, rice, beans, tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and Community Coffee, I made the rounds: first next door to Jack Tuchten’s Produce House on the corner of Halsted and 18th Place to buy avocados, a new food staple for both me and the Café; then to South Water Street Market to get the bulk of our cooking commodities; north to China Farm at the Fulton Street Market for the mung-bean sprouts required for our stir-fry dishes and to pick up halibut at Isaacson & Stein Fish Company; and finally to a Forest Poultry on George Street for chicken thighs and legs.
These foods were gathered in twice weekly runs, originally in Katy’s Chevy sedan.
These foods were gathered in twice weekly runs, originally in Katy’s Chevy sedan that was also the car I used in Stony Island, and later in my ‘69 Chevy pickup truck. The pick-up was also used to haul all manner of things: my kids; a volleyball team; a neighbor, his dog, and his motorcycle.
In the early 1980’s these market runs came to an end after we began to have food delivered directly by wholesalers and distributors. That’s also the decade I began to claim that Heartland Café probably sold more brown rice than any restaurant in the Western Hemisphere. However, I rejected the label “health food” restaurant, which never seemed to truly capture what we conceived our place to be.
Our intention was to serve wholesome food for both the mind and body, using fresh, high quality ingredients, including organic ones, when they were available and affordable. And from the very beginning, we encouraged people to work for change in the world. I think our first review in The Reader got it right when the reporter referred to the Heartland as “more than your ordinary granola hut.”
We were building our home base, our urban base camp. Our expanding circle of friends, customers, and employees included Katy’s students, her high school pals and early mainstays of the business Helen Doria and Susan Rans, and her Mundelein pal Celeste Kelly. Celeste ran the kitchen after Art Davis (“aka Chink”) and Debbie Young. Through the decades plenty of others with culinary gifts would be in charge of the kitchen, always the heart of the Heartland Café and all the associated entities to come.
There was Earl Manesky, “Chef Earl,” who learned to cook when he spent some time in a federal pen. There was the late Dan Graham, from New Hampshire. And there was the late Tania Blacke. This wonderful friend came to us after she had worked cooking food for the horse walkers at Arlington Park racetrack. For years she incorporated her Mississippi and Caribbean heritage into our wholesome food menu. In her spare time Tania hosted lavish food and entertainment affairs on the Southside for literally hundreds of her lesbian friends.
There was Inez Torres, from Oaxaca, one of many members of his large, extended family who worked at the Café, who started as a dishwasher, then mastered many other jobs, including cooking in and managing the kitchen.
Over the next three decades many valuable employees stepped up and kept it all going. Keeping it all going eventually included feeding over 700 people on a busy Sunday, plus prepping food for Heartland on the Lake, our food concession on Loyola Beach — aka the Stand in the Sand — as well as regular catering jobs.
The late folk singer-songwriter Tom Dundee came in as a customer, put in an early stint working the grill, and quickly returned to his status as a loyal customer. On rare and special occasions over the next 30 years he performed on the Heartland stage. Tom had a way of making everyone he met feel like they were his best friends. He was certainly one of mine. Tom was about to return to the Heartland stage with Alice Stuart in May of 2005 when he died in a tragic motorcycle accident. A few weeks later the show became a tribute and memorial to him. I truly miss Tom.
Another guy who showed up and became a lifelong friend is Dan McNeal. The first time I spotted him he was wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the handwritten motto “Love Strong.” A poet, a drummer, a performer, an activist, a spirolina salesman, a physical trainer, and above all, a deeply spiritual and wonderful man, Dan worked Heartland special events and lived for a time in one of the 10 storefronts in what became the Heartland Building.
Perhaps the enduring good vibes in that space, which later became my studio office, originated because that was the birthplace of Dan and his then-partner, Carolyn’s son. Jason is the first and only child born in the building and like his dad is now a musical poet and rapper, known as MOsley WOtta.
The Heartland is in Rogers Park, Chicago’s 49th Ward, perhaps the most racially, ethnically, and religiously diverse place in the country.
The Heartland is in Rogers Park, Chicago’s 49th Ward, perhaps the most racially, ethnically, and religiously diverse place in the country. Located two blocks from Great Lake Michigan, our neighborhood has single-family homes alongside large apartment buildings, is home to Loyola University and the former Mundelein College, and is diverse in class, race, and ethnicity.
The 49th Ward encompasses some rough areas as well as ongoing gentrification. In the ‘70s and early 80’s our Café neighbors included Roy’s Bar, No Exit Café, Round Records, Lunt El-foods, a pottery studio, and Second Hand Blues clothing store. Over time both Roy’s and the No Exit would become part of the “Heartland Empire.”
A good number of Café customers and employees from Rogers Park and beyond were (and continue to be) involved in the arts. They include the late Jerry Smith, who started as a dishwasher and evolved into a renaissance man who did the books, cashiered, hosted, performed, and helpfully caught burglars and thieves — including a few employees. A gifted painter who once sold two pieces at a New York City gallery for a few thousand bucks, Jerry’s other passion was writing about — and forever engaging anyone who would listen to him talk about — the Kennedy assassination, a subject on which he became an expert.
Many actors, artists, writers, and musicians have visited the Café over the years.
Many actors, artists, writers, and musicians have visited the Café over the years. In those early days I remember the likes of Aiden Quinn, Mike Farrell, Tina Fey, and Brian Dennehy. A young actor named Greg Sporletter, aka Spoony, worked there, and his pals Jeremy Piven and John Cusack hung out for a time in the Buffalo Bar. Years later director Andy Davis brought producer Peter Macgregor-Scott and Harrison Ford to my office for a visit.
I would work in The Fugitive and I loaned them a videotape of Lonely Are the Brave, the Kirk Douglas film that like The Fugitive features a one-armed bad guy. Then we all had a drink together in Heartland’s “red star, warm heart” Buffalo Bar. After they left, more than one Heartland employee sat on the bar stool where Harrison had sat.
Years later I hired a server who’d grown up on an Ohio pig farm — I liked her because I helped butcher pigs as a kid and she and I had both been members of the 4H Club in our youth. After Crystal Bowersox left the Heartland, she went on to become a runner up on American Idol, and later sang with B.B. King on a commercial for One Touch electronic glucose monitors used by diabetics. She and many other notable musicians have graced the Heartland’s stage, and musicians from the world over have visited for a wholesome meal, and often a drink.
Our restaurant business grew and expanded. Many factors contributed to our longevity. Of course, we believe the major one is that we served up delicious, healthy food and good vibes. But we were also helped enormously by our friends’ networks and the supportive nature of the community where the Café is located.
In front of the building there is a large open space between the building and the sidewalk. Then in Chicago there were few — if any — outdoor dining places. That outdoor space on the corner of Glenwood and Lunt became “the Patio.” The City of Chicago didn’t have clear regulations on how to handle serving food outside while we were developing the space. We put out an eclectic assortment of colorful tables and chairs, planted a birch tree, tore up the cement of the outer sidewalk to make a garden, and created shade with a wood frame and truck tarps.
People loved it, and began flocking to the patio during spring, summer, and early fall. Business was slower during the cold winter months. To bolster our bottom line we began to present music and host special events, and prepared catered lunches for daycare centers and schools.
Having a business without significant start-up capital would present many challenges. Our first major crisis, though, began when I got a phone call at 4 a.m. on January 16, 1979, which happened to be my 37th birthday. The caller, a patron of Roy’s Bar on Glenwood behind the Heartland kitchen, informed me there had been a fire at the Café.
John Prochaska and I were scheduled to head to the market, but instead made our way through snow-covered streets to the Heartland. The fire trucks were the first vehicles to traverse Glenwood Avenue following a blizzard that hit two days earlier. They smashed out the west dining room windows. The place was waterlogged in the aftermath.
Employees, neighbors, and friends made their way through cold, snow, and ice and helped us deal with the devastation. As the remarkable four-day rising from the ashes began, I yelled “Get these plants out of here before they freeze!” and we proceeded to move our botanical dining room jungle to Roy’s Bar around the corner on Glenwood, directly behind the Heartland kitchen.
Two days before the fire, we had a burglary of the petty cash bank. After the burglary we hid the money in a grain bin. Apparently the perpetrator had come back for a second helping but, finding no cash, angrily committed arson by starting a fire in the dishwashing area. We put the Café back together and acquired our first safe. We never learned the identity of the culprit(s), but Heartland Café reopened and continued to grow and serve thousands of people, influencing their food choices, their health, and their way of being in the world.
Find more articles by Michael James, including previous installments of this series, “Pictures from the Long Haul,” on The Rag Blog.
[Michael James is a former SDS national officer, the founder of Rising Up Angry, co-founder of Chicago’s Heartland Café (1976 and still going), and co-host of the Saturday morning (9-10 a.m. CDT) Live from the Heartland radio show, here and on YouTube. He is reachable by one and all at email@example.com. ]