Last week, downtown office workers were stunned to learn that Kitchen Hearth, the home-style takeout spot on the first floor of the Tenney Building, would be closing its doors for good on Friday, March 19.
While business was good at the downtown location, Kitchen Hearth employees reported, the other arms of the business weren't faring as well. Kitchen Hearth owner Sue Alt confirms this, although she qualifies that "it's never any one thing" that makes a person close a business; it's a combination of factors.
Alt started the business in 1988 in the Clock Tower shopping center on Mineral Point Road, a storefront deli that provided homemade dinners to go. "This was long before you could get prepared food carryout in every grocery store," says Alt. Everything was made from scratch, "and that became our signature."
The business proved popular enough to expand several times, eventually including the downtown flagship, a catering arm, and corporate food service at four Dean health buildings, the UW Medical Foundation and Rayovac.
Kitchen Hearth had built an extensive new commercial kitchen as part of the Novation Campus in 2007, where it prepared food for its own local outlets as well as such dishes as green beans, sweet potatoes and pot pies for Swiss Colony. "That was a whole new market," says Alt.
But that market and corporate catering dried up in the economic downturn, as everyone cut back.
Moreover, health problems combined with the shaky economy robbed Alt of some of her entrepreneurial fearlessness. She'd come through hard times before and pulled it out, but having passed the age where many people have already retired, Alt worried that "in case things didn't turn around" she'd be gambling her retirement. "I always worked. I was a risk taker, optimistic - that was my nature. I really had to rethink that."
Alt and the Alexander Company are looking for a tenant for the extensive Novation kitchen space (Kitchen Hearth leased the space but owns the equipment, which is for sale). As for the Tenney Building space, there are three levels available for food prep on site.
Downtown staff learned the news on the Wednesday before the store closed, after branches at Dean had already been shuttered.
Alt has nothing but praise for Kitchen Hearth's many long-term employees. "It's an emotional time. It's very hard."
Here's a food event for hard times - the eighth annual "cook-off " hors d'oeuvre competition and Tenant Resource Center Housing Crisis Fund Benefit, which will be held Friday, March 26, from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Brink Lounge. The volunteer chef matchups are as follows: Michael Jacob vs. Heidi Konkel; Michael Quieto, Julia Kerr and Kate Golden vs. Cole Hubber; Jacque Pokorney vs. Brett Hulsey; and finally Wyndham Manning and Bessie Cherry vs. Judith Siers Poisson. Andy Heidt, Scott McDonell, Michael Basford, Shannon Henry Kleiber, Leslie McAllister and yours truly will do the judging. Kitchen drama awaits.