Heartland Restaurant & Wine Bar, St. Paul’s pioneering farm-to-table dining powerhouse, will close its doors on Dec. 31.
“People are going to ask me to blame it on the increase in the minimum wage, or rising property taxes, or something like that,” said chef and co-owner Lenny Russo, a standard-setting dean of the local foods movement with an influential, decades-long career.
“No. The restaurant is closing because we’re done, and we want to do other things. I’m 58. I don’t have any peers my age. They’re all much younger than me. It’s time.”
Russo and wife Mega Hoehn opened Heartland in a 2,700-square-foot storefront in St. Paul’s Macalester-Groveland neighborhood in 2002. Their goal: showcasing Midwestern ingredients, culled from a meticulously nurtured network of nearly 50 family-owned farms, each practicing humane and sustainable agriculture.
Eight years later, the restaurant relocated into 26,000 square feet on the two lower floors of a 114-year-old redbrick shoe factory-turned Lowertown condominium complex. The ambitious new location — across the street from the St. Paul Farmers Market — succinctly telegraphed the restaurant’s role as a game-changing rural-urban nexus.
Every day, Russo and his cooking staff rewrite the dinner menu, reflecting the ingredients currently filling the kitchen’s extensive larders.
Fourteen years ago, that kind of seasonal spontaneity and commitment to locally raised foods was a relatively unusual business model. Today, it’s standard operating procedure in restaurants across the region.
“The fact that people have adopted our principles, well, we wanted them to do that,” Russo said. “If you’re not doing the stuff we were doing 14 years ago, at least to some extent, you’re not even in the game. So I think we had an impact in that regard.”
Changing demographics are also nibbling at the restaurant’s future. Upscale dining rooms in the Heartland mode are losing ground to casual, more moderately priced environments.
And when CHS Field went up across the street from Heartland, Russo was — and remains — one of its biggest proponents. But the popular new home of the St. Paul Saints proved to be less than ideal for his business.
“Our clientele isn’t going to the ballpark,” said Russo. “They’re going to the opera.”
Minor league baseball did prove to be a boon in one regard: It drove up the value of the restaurant’s real estate. After quietly fielding offers for nearly a year, Russo and business partner Kris Maritz accepted one last week.
The restaurant’s 40-plus employees were told the news Monday evening.
“We’re selling the property,” said Russo. “We’re essentially losing the lease to ourselves, as weird as that sounds. It’s that simple. Yes, we could keep going if we wanted to. We don’t want to.”
Terms of the sale — the price, the buyer’s identity and their plans for the property — were not disclosed.
Russo is a six-time nominee for the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef Midwest award, most recently this past May.
As a member of the American Chef Corps, Russo traveled to Italy to represent the United States at Expo Milan 2015 and toured Slovenia as a 2013 culinary ambassador.
Earlier this year he published his first cookbook: “Heartland: Farm-Forward Dishes from the Great Midwest.”
“In my wildest dreams, I never thought those doors would open for a kid who grew up two flights up in the Italian ghetto in Hoboken” New Jersey, said Russo. “They’re all the result of having the restaurant, so I’m really thankful for that. But I’m ready to do something else. What that is, I’m not quite sure, yet.”
Meanwhile, the countdown to New Year’s Eve — and the final Heartland dinner — has begun.
“We have a lot of friends that we’ve met through the restaurant, and in these next few months, we want to welcome them in and say, ‘Thank you,’ ” said Russo. “That last night, New Year’s Eve, I don’t know how I’m going to get through it. I’m a huge crier.”