Lenny Russo

Russo is currently the chef and proprietor of Heartland Restaurant & Farm Direct Market in St. Paul. Russo has more than 30 years experience in the food and beverage industry including executive chef, general manager, food and beverage director and corporate chef for several Twin Cities companies, among them being U.S. Restaurants, Aveda Corporation, W.A. Frost & Company, Faegre’s, the Loring Cafe and the New French Cafe. Read more about Lenny Russo.

Heartland to St. Paul: "So long. It was great while it lasted."

Posted by: Lenny Russo Updated: August 26, 2009 - 11:05 PM
This is an update with some corrections to the previous post:

Earlier today I received a call from Molly Grove of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce.  As I stated yesterday, I haven't actually met or spoken directly to Melvin Carter.  The information that I have has all been second hand through emails forwarded to me by Council Member Pat Harris and from my conversations with him, Pat Mancini and Mayor Chris Coleman.  I was under the erroneous impression that Council Member Carter had actually fed his daughter food that contained or had come into contact with a peanut product.  This is not the case.  According to Ms. Grove who spoke directly with Mr. Carter, Mr. Carter entered the establishment in question, which I have been led to believe was in fact Candyland, while on his way home with the expressed purpose of purchasing some popcorn.  Upon arriving there, he questioned at least one employee as to whether or not the popcorn was popped in peanut oil.  As the story goes, he was told that no peanut oil was utilized in its preparation.  Ms. Grove has told me that Mr. Carter repeated the question more than once and received the same answer each time.  Finally, he asked to see the label on the actual container of oil only to discover that is was indeed peanut oil.  He then left without purchasing the popcorn.

On the one hand, I am very relieved to know that Melvin Carter was acting as a responsible parent when he insisted upon knowing what type of oil was utilized in the preparation of something he was about to feed his child.  On the other hand, It raises for me serious questions about his motivation in bringing forward this legislation.

The exercise he performed was sufficient to ensure that his child was protected against consuming any offending ingredients.  In doing so, he acted in the same way that any reasonable individual should be expected to act.  He made sure that he protected the health and well being of his child in much the same way that he would in making sure that she doesn't play in traffic, get her hands on a box of matches or swallow toxic chemicals from the cleaning supplies stashed under the kitchen sink.  He did that without the aid of an allergen ordinance.  Everyday there are thousands of people across the country doing the same thing, and they also do it without the aid of such an ordinance.

So why, then, does Melvin Carter believe it is necessary to bring such an ordinance before the St. Paul City Council?  I can't really answer that.  Only he can, but I find it more difficult now to believe that he is doing so in the best interest of public safety.  Could it be that since no such ordinance exists anywhere in the country that he is finding that it might be politically advantageous to him to be the first person to author one?  I mean, haven't we seen a rash in recent times of ordinances banning trans fats as well those establishing menu labeling guidelines?  It seems to be so much in fashion these days to require everyone but the person who is actively feeding himself to be responsible for what that person eats.  And what about his methodology?  Why did he go into that establishment and repeatedly ask the same question?  Perhaps Mr. Carter sees this as as a way to exploit a health issue in order to springboard his own political career and to do so at the expense of restaurant owners and catering companies.

What further leads me to question his motives is the fact, according to Molly Grove, that itinerant food vendors such as hot dog stands as well as school cafeterias such as those located on campuses across St. Paul are exempt from this legislation.  If he is truly and deeply concerned about the public health, why is he only targeting the restaurant and catering industry especially given the fact that cafeterias very likely feed far more people each day than do most restaurants?

I am not making any assumptions about the motivation behind the ordinance.  I am only saying that for me, given the new information I have just received, it casts some serious doubt on his agenda.

I have one last thing for now.  In response to the person who commented that I might be crying wolf when I say that we are actively looking at Minneapolis as a new locale for our restaurant, a story by Chris Havens in today's Star Tribune states that Council Member Carter pulled his proposal for some fine tuning which he intends to do over the next several months.

I'm sorry, but this man is messing with our livelihood and the livelihoods and future well being of our entire staff.  Such a proposal as now intended would destroy the brand we have created over the last seven years.  I do not plan on waiting to see to what extent this gentleman plans on making that happen.  I plan to fight him in whatever way I can to make sure that this ordinance dies a quick and silent death.  If I fail in that pursuit, then we will have no other choice but to relocate the restaurant to different municipality or risk having our concept regulated out of existence.

Updated at 5:45 PM on Thursday, September 27, 2009.


Original Post, Wednesday, September, 26, 2009, 11:30 PM.


Imagine this scenario:  A parent, who is also a duly elected member of a city council and has a child that suffers from a peanut allergy, doesn't take the necessary time to educate himself about the potential risk that eating junk food may pose to that child by learning that so called junk foods are very often processed in facilities that also process peanuts and foods containing peanut products.  Included in that are candy bars and other snacks that most kids love.  He also doesn't realize that peanut oil is a rather ubiquitous ingredient in many of these snacks including something as innocent as popcorn.

While entertaining his child, this parent takes her to a candy store located within the municipality he represents that manufactures all of their own sweets and a variety of flavored popcorn in a facility that cross utilizes equipment for a multitude of confections.

In an attempt to be diligent in protecting the health and well being of his child, this parent inquires as to whether or not peanuts might be an ingredient in the popcorn he wishes to purchase for his daughter.  Upon being assured by someone at the store that there are no peanuts in the popcorn, the parent purchases it for his daughter who subsequently suffers an allergic reaction resulting in a scary and potentially life threatening situation.

As a result of these events, this parent not only chastises the candy store but also initiates legislation that is intended to require every business
located within the boundaries of the municipality that serves any sort of prepared food to have on hand at all times an allergen handbook listing every ingredient in every item served.  Not only must this handbook be updated to reflect any changes to the items being offered for sale, but it must also be available for viewing by anyone who desires to do so regardless of the fact that the handbook likely contains proprietary information that any competitor may access at his or her own discretion.

An advisory board that includes experts from allergists to health department specialists to attorneys, but conspicuously lacking anyone who actually manufactures or sells and serves food, is then created to aid in crafting this legislation.

After a number of drafts and despite objections from the restaurant industry as well as prior to soliciting comment from the general public, the bill is scheduled to be brought in front of the city council for its first reading.


By now, most of you must be wondering who could possibly be so misguided and so much in denial of any sort of personal and parental responsibility that he would bring forth such a thing.  Ladies and gentleman, I give you Melvin Carter III, St. Paul City Council Member representing Ward 1.

Apparently, Council Member Carter took his daughter to Candyland.  Candyland has been doing business on Wabasha St. in downtown St. Paul since 1938, first as Flavocorn and then under the current name since 1950.  A quick visit to the Candyland website reveals this information:

Peanut Oil Information:

We use peanut oil in our popcorn products, except the carmel
(sic) corn, because it lends the silkiest texture and most delicate flavor. Peanut oil has no cholesterol and is an unsaturated fat ingredient.

The popcorn that we use for carmel
(sic) corn is air-popped popcorn. Therefore, our famous carmel (sic) corn contains no peanut oil.

Like most all makers of fine confection, the equipment used for making our chocolates can occasionally come into contact with peanut and nut products.

Alas, we wish it were otherwise, but it would be unwise to indulge in our hand made
(sic) fine chocolates if you want to be completely sure that you will not have any contact with peanut or nut oil and have an allergy to peanut products

While I am very sympathetic to a parent's concern for the health and well being of his or her child, I seriously question the extent to which to this ordinance goes in trying to alleviate that concern and ensure the safety of the general public.  In fact, it seems that a quick visit to a proprietor's website or accessing some well researched materials concerning potential hazards that are relevant to people with allergies would be much more effective.

As many people well know, our restaurant changes its menu on a daily basis due to the fact that we purchase locally produced ingredients that are sourced from small, family farms that practice sustainable agriculture.  In addition, all of our menu items are produced from scratch utilizing whole foods.

In analyzing the operational impact of this ordinance, I did an approximation of how many recipes are employed on a daily basis in order to produce our menu.  I found that number to be in the range of 120 recipes and sub-recipes on any given day.  If I created an allergen handbook as required by the proposed ordinance, my entire day would be devoted to writing recipes and ingredient lists.  That would leave no time for managing my business let alone actual cooking.  Since the menu changes daily, such an exercise would have to be repeated each day and might have to be repeated more than once in the same day if we were to run out of a certain item and insert a new item as a substitution.  Not only is this impractical; it is virtually untenable

Furthermore, such an allergen handbook would contain all of our proprietary information which would be available to anyone upon request.  This would put us at a distinct competitive disadvantage and would damage our ability to remain a unique and successful restaurant enterprise.

Given all of that, we would no longer be able to operate Heartland in its present form within the city limits of St. Paul.  The alternative would not be a successful formula for us since our reputation has been built upon our commitment to locally sourced ingredients.  Anything that would prohibit us from continuing to do so would damage our brand irreparably.

Currently, we at Heartland take extensive care to ensure that all of our guests are asked about dietary concerns or constraints including allergies.  We also keep that information in our computer data base which is being continually updated.  That said, we are open to suggestions about how we may better serve our guests in this regard.  For instance we find it perfectly reasonable and acceptable to carry a statement on our menu reminding our guests to alert their server to any allergies or dietary concerns that they might have in order to ensure that the kitchen is made aware of those issues and can make sure to eliminate any offending ingredients.  In addition, including enhanced training of allergy awareness as part of the required food service handler's certification class seems to be a perfectly reasonable way to help educate those who are supervising others in the preparation of food for public consumption.

I do not wish in any way to downplay the importance of our responsibility as food service professionals when it comes to the health and well being of our guests or to suggest that a human life can be measured by way of cost benefit analysis.  At the same time and on the practical side of things, it seems to me that given the relatively small number of people as a percentage of the population who are allergic to various foods, that this ordinance as it is now written overstates the degree to which the public health will be positively impacted.

The timing of this ordinance is of particular concern to us here at Heartland.  Our current lease runs out on June 1, 2010.  We now find ourselves in the uncomfortable position of deciding whether or not to continue to operate within the boundaries of the city we so love and within which we make our home and livelihood.  Consequently, we have been scouting properties in Minneapolis including the possibility of purchasing a restaurant ready building that could continue to house Heartland for many years to come.  While we have often entertained the idea of opening a secondary location in our twin to the west, the idea of operating our sole business in and paying taxes to a municipality within which we do not reside is a less than desirable scenario for us.  Nonetheless, we have only eight months according to the terms of our lease to decide whether or not to move forward at our present location.  Given how long it takes to negotiate a lease or a purchase agreement of this sort, we do not have the luxury of waiting on our City Council while they debate this legislation.

I do not stand alone in these sentiments.  In fact, I have maintained a continuing dialogue with Pat Mancini of Mancini's Char House as we try to anticipate in which direction the political winds will blow concerning this ordinance.  He and I, along many others in the St. Paul restaurant community, are gravely concerned about how this will affect us should this bill gain any serious traction.  As St. Paul residents and property owners, we are equally concerned about what the long term fiscal fallout will be at a time when our city is struggling to make up budget deficits and as property taxes rise in order to help maintain essential services.  It seems to us that it is serious folly to not only force St. Paul businesses to seriously consider relocation but also to discourage future investment through the passage of onerous ordinances that bring scant benefit to the people of St. Paul.

To be fair, in the seven years that we have owned and operated Heartland we have enjoyed very amicable relationships with and extraordinary access to our City Council, our Mayor and many of our city agencies including Planning&Economic Development as well as those officials in Licensing, Inspection and Environmental Protection.  In fact, it was Ward 3 Council Member Pat Harris who, besides being one of our greatest supporters over the years, solicited my comments on the Food Allergy Ordinance.  As a result, those comments might have resulted in some modifications to the original draft of the bill.  In addition, Mayor Chris Coleman was gracious enough to provide me his ear on this subject in the same way he has been concerning numerous other topics.

It is also only fair to say that I have never met Melvin Carter.  Those people with whom I am acquainted who know him personally speak very highly of him and of his commitment to the people of St. Paul.  I do not suppose to presume any motivation on his part besides the intention to better provide for the public good.  Nonetheless, I do believe that an event occurred that affected him in a deeply personal way; and to that end he might have lost some of his objectivity to the degree that he has become unable to make a sound judgment that is in the best interests of everyone in our city.  While it important that our elected officials maintain their empathy and remain sympathetic to the concerns of everyone, it is also important that they legislate with equanimity and a clear head.

Also, by way of full disclosure, I must reveal that I am not nor have I ever been a parent.  I do not pretend to know what it must feel like to see one's child hurt and helpless.  I am sure that Council Member Carter had the living daylights scared out of him once he realized what had happened to his daughter.  Perhaps he should take that fear as motivation to better educate himself and to assist in helping educate those around him about how to take better personal and parental responsibility when it comes to these issues instead of passing this responsibility to someone else.

Finally, I must add that on the day this bill was to receive its first reading before the City Council, Council Member Carter pulled it from the docket and agreed to hold it over for one month to allow for further review.  He agreed to this in response to concerns expressed by those of us in the food service industry.  We have taken this as a sign that he is retaining an open mind.  Unfortunately, it might be too late to keep Heartland in St. Paul.  By further delaying action on this, we are left with even less time to make a decision about the future of our business.  We aren't in position to gamble on the chance that this bill will be defeated in chambers or that the Mayor will exercise his veto power and that his veto will be sustained in the event that it passes.

So, so long St. Paul.  It was great while it lasted.






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