Katy Hogan and Michael James
Katy Hogan and Michael James Credit: john sturdy

Rogers Park’s Heartland Cafe “is precariously close to shutting its doors for good,” said the press release, e-mailed on September 28. And a fledgling arts organization called the Seen will be holding a benefit to help keep it alive.

I’d never heard of the Seen, but the news about the Heartland was startling. Vegetarian-friendly and green back when both were considered lefty idiosyncrasies, the cafe has become the flagship of a little hippie empire that includes bars (Heartland, Buffalo, and the Red Line Tap), performance spaces (Heartland Studio, home to BoHo Theatre Ensemble, and No Exit, Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre’s intimate space), a radio show (Live From the Heartland, Saturday mornings on WLUW), a lakefront concession stand, and a general store (Yogi teas and dashboard hula girls). Harold Washington and Barack Obama spoke there at critical points in their campaigns.

The release was sent out by Heather Bodie, 25, an actor, painter, and—by day—freelance financial services rep. Bodie founded the Seen, which is meant to bring all kinds of artists together and is still in the process of getting its nonprofit designation. On her very first visit to the Heartland about two weeks ago, Bodie noticed a letter attached to the back of the menu. “Dear Friends,” it read. “The Heartland Cafe has arrived at a crucial fork in the road in terms of our financial survival. A severe cash flow crisis produced by two years of increasing bank charges and overdraft fees has placed us in a ever-deepening hole. Money we need to pay for everyday costs involved in running the Heartland has gone right into the hands of our bank. This bank has hurt more than helped our small business, and will not lend us money. . . .

“To be open for business next month, and alive and well for our 35th anniversary next summer, we desperately need your help and support right now.”

How much will it take to keep the endangered Heartland empire going? According to the letter, $50,000 by mid-October and over $50,000 more “very quickly in order to get through the winter.” Long-range goal: $1 million.

To raise the money, the Heartland—a for-profit business—is seeking cash gifts and low-interest loans and resurrecting an idea the owners first floated two years ago: selling memberships that offer a 10 percent discount on purchases at the cafe, Buffalo Bar, and store. The rates are $150 for a year, $500 for five years, and $1,000 for life.

That’s a lot of spicy vegan black bean burgers.

Bodie says she talked with Heartland co-owner Katy Hogan, learned about the storied past of the place, and vowed on the spot to help. At $10 a ticket, the benefit isn’t likely to make much of a dent, she admits, but “more than anything we’re trying to get bodies in the space. A lot of people don’t travel that far north. My big hope is to attract the attention of the community and the city, so they become aware that this is a place people really do care about and we can’t let it close its doors.”

But wait. Maybe it’s not as bad as all that.

“We’re not going out of business,” says Hogan’s partner, Michael James, adding that he’ll do “whatever it takes” to keep the Heartland going. “It’s a question of cash flow, the bad economy, and our relationship with a bank that’s charged us a lot.” About $18,000 in liquor and restaurant license fees are due October 15, he says, but the liquor license renewals can’t go through until the Heartland catches up on its state sales tax payments (he says they’re a month behind). That’ll require another $18,000. He also says he’s spent a whopping $118,000 on bank charges incurred—at the rate of $32 a pop—on overdrafts during the last 18 months.

Well, maybe it is as bad as all that.

James’s explanation for what would amount to 3,687 separate charges is that the bank he does business with was sold two years ago and the new owners instituted fees the old ones didn’t have. He says he accepts responsibility for not staying on top of it and “not really understanding how banks work.” They can’t afford to be “amateurs” about money and management anymore, James says, and they’ve already started making changes.

Community organizers and activists, James and Hogan met at a Holly Near concert in 1975 and founded the Heartland—with James’s ex-wife, who worked there for the first few years—in 1976 on an investment of only $4,000. They’ve always been undercapitalized, James says, expanding from two to 11 storefronts without a significant cushion. Now, with the neighborhood going condo, the economy in the tank, and his 69th birthday closing in, he says they’re “at a crossroads.” More than just “getting over this hump,” he wants to grow the business, which now employs about 40 people counting part-timers. If he had his million he’d put in a real roof garden (instead of the current bunch of bucket planters), winterize the restaurant patio, fully stock the store, develop the Heartland’s own line of products (including food, clothing, postcards, calendars, and a 35th-anniversary book), and resume publishing the Heartland Journal, a free seasonal tabloid of sport, culture, and progressive causes that’s been on hiatus for five years.

The cafe (motto: “Wholesome Food for the Mind and Body”) was shut down by the city’s public health department last year, cited for problems with food storage, mouse droppings, and the ice machine. They reopened a week later and, according to James, have improved procedures—along with their food, menu, pricing, and service. There’s also a new chef, Ryan Serafini. (I can vouch for his buffalo burger, consumed in the name of research with a side of garlic mashed potatoes.) Still, thanks to the economy, business is about 18 percent off from what it was in 2008. “People really love the Heartland,” he says, “but that doesn’t mean they show up.”

“We’ve been in tight fixes before,” Hogan adds, but “this fix feels differently tight.” She thinks their predicament, which she says started with a clampdown on credit by smaller banks two years ago, is shared by a lot of small businesses. Changes in state tax collection (it’s now taken directly from the bank account every month), along with the city’s revised policy on license fees—requiring that they be paid in full every two years rather than annually—are part of the problem.

“It’s a triple whammy,” Hogan says. “We’ve been greatly supported already by our customers and friends. You can only squeeze them so much when they’re not getting raises or are getting furloughed or laid off.”

James and Hogan have always regarded the Heartland as an informal community center. “We wanted to have a place with a lot of camaraderie, a place where people could nourish themselves and prove themselves and go forth in the world and do good,” James says. “And I think we’ve done that.” Now, “if we could figure a way to get some money we could take it to another level, really secure it.”

He’s sold one lifetime membership so far, and that was two years ago, when he first came up with the idea. But he hadn’t been pushing the memberships, he says, until the last few weeks, “when it just hit me in earnest that we’ve gotta make a move here.” Since then he says he’s sold “about 15, on the lower end. Some people just gave us money, too. Someone gave us $200, didn’t want a card.”

A business model for the new economy.