Heart of America flies forward

King Air C90B and Cessna 182 let management visit 13 hotels and 17 restaurants across Upper Midwest.

By Mike Potts
Contributing Editor

Michael and Kim Whalen on the ramp at DVN with the Cessna 182 and King Air 90B they rely on to support their growing restaurant and hotel network.

When Davenport IA native Michael Whalen graduated from Harvard Law School in 1978, a bright future in the legal profession lay before him. There was just one problem. While he enjoyed studying law, an internship with a prestigious Beverly Hills law firm had convinced him that he hated practicing it.

So, just 2 days after taking the Iowa bar exam, Whalen embarked on an altogether different career path—he opened a restaurant.

Of course, there's more to the story than that. Whalen's father owned the building where the new restaurant would be located and it was something of a distressed property. It had been the site of an earlier restaurant, called Yummy's, but the place wasn't very popular—Whalen says people had taken to calling it "Crummy's"—and before long it had gone out of business.

Whalen's father, whose only role had been as the landlord, was stuck with a place costing him $8000 a month and no prospects for a tenant. "I said, 'No problem, Dad—I'll open a restaurant,'" Whalen recalls. "He told me I was crazy, but I was 23 years old and was dumb enough to think I could do it."

He had no background in the restaurant business—a notoriously difficult field in which to succeed—"but if you spend 18–20 hrs a day doing something, you can usually figure it out," he says.

The original Yummy's restaurant, which failed, sparking creation of the 1st Iowa Machine Shed, which still operates on this site.

And that's pretty much what happened. Michael Whalen and his wife Kim threw themselves wholeheartedly into the business—he as the on-site and ever present manager, she as the accountant—determined to make the business work by dint of sheer will and effort.

They also started with a good idea. Their concept was The Iowa Machine Shed—a restaurant dedicated to the American farmer and decorated with farm tools and implements, some dating back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. "It's more than just being 'farm themed,' Whalen says. "We wanted a restaurant that farmers could be proud of.

We use only the best beef, pork and poultry. We cook everything from scratch, using fresh ingredients. And we still peel our own potatoes—even today."

Michael Whalen had another goal as well. When he opened, he vowed that one day his restaurant would not only be successful—it would be world famous. It was, he acknowledges, a lofty goal.

Times and conditions were not conducive to a start-up restaurant. It was late 1978, interest rates were at 17% and the economy was down. Perhaps worse, the Iowa winter of 1978–79 was one of the worst on record. Whalen recalls that "it snowed every single Friday." In the restaurant business, he says, snow on Friday is much worse than snow on a Monday or Tuesday.

But, despite the weather, the economy and a less than stellar location, Michael and Kim Whalen, working 18 hrs a day, managed to make the business work. In Mar 1979 they turned their first profit—$3100. "At that rate," Whalen says, "I figured we would make our investment back in about 35 years."

Fortunately, the profits grew and the payback came quicker than that. Before long they were doing well enough to buy a rundown hotel which was next door to the restaurant. After some renovation, it too began to generate a profit, and the business that would become Heart of America Group was on its way.

Spectacular growth

This Hilton Garden Inn in Olatha KS and the Holiday Inn & Suites in West Des Moines IA are typical of the hotel properties Heart of America owns and operates in Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska and Wisconsin. A new HoA hotel is under construction in Davenport IA.

Today, Heart of America (HoA) is a $100-million business with 17 restaurants and 13 hotels in 6 major markets—Davenport IA/Moline IL, where it also has its headquarters, Des Moines IA, Kansas City MO, Milwaukee WI, Omaha NE and St Paul MN.

The 17 restaurants are spread among 4 branded identities, as follows.
The Iowa Machine Shed, now in 6 locations—Davenport (the original), Des Moines, Appleton and Pewaukee WI, Rockford IL and Lake Elmo MN.

Johnny's Italian Steakhouse, a Sinatra/Rat Pack themed "high-end dining experience" with locations in Moline, Des Moines (2), Omaha, Middleton WI, Olathe KS and Peoria IL.
Thunder Bay, featuring a hunting lodge theme, with locations in Davenport, Peewaukee and Rockford.

Gramma's Kitchen in Walcott IA.

HoA's hotels are branded to fit their market location and include brands with IHG, Hilton, Marriott, Wyndham and Choice as well as HoA's own boutique branded hotels—The Wildwood Lodge. The company has 6 hotels in Des Moines, 2 in Kansas City, 2 in Milwaukee, 1 in St Paul and the original location in Davenport. A new hotel is under construction at a second location in Davenport and another in Peoria.


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