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(MSP) Lenny Russo's Heartland move -- rant, ultimatum or done deal?

Fellow CHers, tell me how you interpret this.


Anyone have any further information? Would you say that the restaurant is moving to Minneapolis after June 2010? Is this an announcement or a threat?

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  1. Hard to tell. I wonder if If Lenny thinks that the Minneapolis City Council is any less wacky? As a life-long Mpls resident, I beg to differ. (Witness the lack of Minneapolis street food as compared to St. Paul.) I hope he decides to stay where he is - I really like Heartland's current location.

    But speaking as the aunt of a beloved niece with a peanut allergy, I think the parent was grossly lax in researching the peanut content of the item in question. My niece's allergy isn't life-threatening (yet), but I NEVER rely on just a server's or counterperson's word on ingredients. We do our research, we talk to the cook, we ask several times about all possible ingredients. And we ALWAYS ask if peanut oil is used.

    It's a shame that the legislator is punishing all restaurants for his mistake. A printed handbook is really overkill. While I like the idea of being easily able to determine whether allergens are in something, I think that a general allergen statement - like the one cited on the Candyland web site - would be quite adequate. If someone needs more information, they should bear some of the responsibility for doing their own research.

    I don't blame Lenny for being pissed. I am, too. And if I were a St. Paul resident, I'd contact my city councilperson to let them know how displeased I am.


    1. I see it as both an announcement and threat.

      His letter/article was extremely well written, IMO, giving all sides of the argument. We don't know for a fact whether or not Councilman Carter was aware that that store's popcorn products were made in a facility that also processed candy with peanuts in them and that the popcorn was made using peanut oil. Councilman Carter did fail to err on the side of caution before buying anything, as it seems as if he never checked out the company's website with its peanut allergy warning clear as a bell.

      While never having owned or run a restaurant, I completely agree with Russo's contention that it would be virtually impossible for him to have this "allergen book" on a daily basis, since their menu changes daily. The legislation is completely overwritten, and it sounds (to me) that Carter didn't do his own due diligence before choosing to buy an allergy-laden product for his daughter, but is now blaming the industry that puts it out there. Not a fair fight at all, and I wouldn't blame Russo for moving his restaurant to Minneapolis if the legislation passes with such restrictions on the restaurant chef/owners.

      1. omg. the sad result of legislation like this is that it favors the chains and penalizes truly unique and awesome restaurants like heartland. it would be so sad if heartland was forced to move, and sadder still if more independent restaurants pulled out of st. paul or never opened locations there. st. paul's downtown area is *just* getting an economic shot in the arm with new independent restaurants moving in, and they stand to wreak all of this potential growth with this ridiculous bill.

        restaurants with local and seasonal menus would be crippled by having to list out all of their ingredients daily, and it would discourage innovation and local sourcing of new ingredients, farmstead products, wildfoods, etc.

        i think russo's column is a threat, but i think the chef probably intends to double-down and move his restaurant if this legislation goes thru. from the industry side of things, this is such an incredible anti-restaurant PITA. i'd move or shut down if we were in st. paul and this got slapped on us. shame on the legislator for not doing due-diligence on the popcorn he fed to his daughter. double-shame on him for trying to make it everyone's problem, and making small-businesses pay the price. russo and his staff at every level are very diligent in accommodating people with allergies and dietary restrictions. his restaurant, heartland, is a treasure. st. paul should treat it like one.

        1. I will cry if either Heartland or Mancini's closes doors in St. Paul.


          1. I'll voice the perhaps unpopular opinion of "rant."

            I don't think the blog reflects particularly well on Russo. It actually makes me less likely continue going to Heartland, which I don't think was his intention.

            Now, I really like Heartland and think that his use of local produce and meats is particularly inspired and his ideals are very much in line with the way that my husband and I eat and how we like to spend our money (supporting local restaurants who in turn support family farms and do something creative with their cuisine).

            However, he starts out basically calling Carter a bad parent, which as a parent I find unpalatable (pun intended? maybe). Yes, I do agree that Carter should probably done a little more research before purchasing something at Candyland. I don't have a child with a peanut allergy (as far as I know, my child is only 10 months old, hasn't had peanuts yet) but I know from friends that you have to be super careful and err on the side of caution if you think there is any possibility of cross-contamination. And candy stores are a pretty obvious place where there would be such a possibility. But Russo's statement that Carter was buying his child "junk food" - which goes beyond whether Carter did his due diligence - was a bit uncalled for, in my opinion.

            Eventually, Russo does go on to make really good points. And I agree with him that the legislation as it was *originally conceived* goes way overboard. But therein lies my biggest beef (gosh the food metaphors are hard to avoid!) with the blog post. The legislation has been pulled for revision! Presumably in response to Russo and the concerns of others that feel that it places an undue burden on business owners in St Paul. I think we can be pretty sure that the city council of St Paul in no way wants to see businesses flee for Minneapolis or the suburbs or close altogether. Russo even admits that his council member was responsive to his concerns. That's how government works and it seems to actually be working in this case, for once.

            I believe Russo and other restaurant owners, and frankly, us as patrons, could be more effective by being involved more- talking to our council members, telling them we think the legislation needs substantial revision. I'm willing to bet that a fair number of chowhounds even live in Carter's district! Throwing up our hands and saying that the city council is effed up and taking our business elsewhere (both as business owners and as patrons) isn't really helping, is it?

            To end with the threat of taking Heartland out of St Paul- which he doesn't really present as a threat, more like a done deal- seems overly childish and pissy. And possibly unnecessary.

            2 Replies
            1. re: turtlebella

              I suppose it's not surprising that I agree with my wife (turtlebella)-- especially given that we talked about Mr. Russo's article before she posted this.

              It seems to me that Russo starts out with a rant, and then by the end of his article, has a more reasoned (and reasonable) position, but then he closes with his "bye-bye St. Paul." Very odd.

              I'd also point out that the account of Mr. Carter's actions (or lack thereof) is from Russo's perspective. It's entirely possible that Carter himself has a different recollection of what took place. So we should be careful about ascribing motivations or making judgements based on an antagonistic 2nd-hand account.

              1. re: turtlebella

                I've read the Russo column in today's Strib, and agree that it appears there has been overreaction on both sides -- Mr. Russo's and Mr. Carter's.

                And I have taken your advice as a St. Paulite and contacted the councilmember involved to let him know what I think.

                It would be a shame to lose Heartland. And if the ordinance involved was portrayed correctly, it would affect many other good places as well.

              2. An extra personally motivated parent protects their child by misusing the system of local ordinances. An extra personally motivated blogger reacts.

                The market should decide. Gluten free bakeries have begun popping up. If there's enough demand so will nut free restaurants. Restaurants presently are not equipped to function as firewalls against allergens and other dietary restrictions. Allergen free and prescribed diets are fully embraced by kitchens in hospitals. Dieticians, nutritionists, allergists, industrial hygienists all have pivotal roles, but they do not belong in the kitchens of small business owners. If a restaurant wants to serve a diet restricted market they will have to hire an expensive team of experts and pass the price on at the register. Nut allergies are a bummer, but city ordinances cannot create bummer free communities. What's next? Padded streets, so no one skins their knee?

                1. For the Record, Russo has updated his entry to note that Melvin Carter actually did take the time to look at the label. He then argues that this would seem to indicate the legislation in question is unnecessary.

                  I think Russo's updated assessment, that Carter is trying to garner some cheap acclaim by advancing popular legislation, is spot on. The popcorn anecdote was probably largely fabricated in the first place, and so the fact that there are two versions are unsurprising. Carter is just trying to use his daughter to put add a personal bent to his political ambitions. That's the way these things usually go.

                  The councilman probably assumed that the legislation would be a slam dunk, and therefore didn't bother to do any real research into its impact. The fact that Carter has decided to delay the decision for a month would gel with this explanation.

                  Lenny Russo is responding appropriately. Carter is Russo's employee, not vice versa. This law would make Russo's business model untenable. As such, it is important for him to make a lot of noise and draw attention to it before the council can pass it.

                  Russo's argument that the bill is unnecessary is persuasive, and so the fact that the bill has been "pulled for revision" is irrelevant. It is unconscionable for a public servant to offer something so potentially disruptive to an entire industry in his city on a whim. As Russo's employee, Carter would be fired in any normal. What he has done is dangerous and incompetent, and he deserves to be called out in the harshest terms.

                  That said, Minneapolis City Council is no less loopy (Cam Gordon, anyone?) or politically ambitious (Gary Schiff has been salivating over Rybak's spot for quite some time). Maybe he should consider Roseville or New Brighton. A restaurant like his would fill a real need in those areas, and they are sure to be more business friendly than the cities themselves.

                  6 Replies
                  1. re: kevin47

                    Isn't that a pretty huge leap to decide that the original incident was "largely fabricated"? Do you have personal knowledge of this situation other than reading this website? I seem to remember that there were quite a few food science and medical people outside of the restaurant industry who were consulted by Carter in putting the original bill together. I think it's a bad bill, I think attacking someone's honesty and intentions unless you have more information than has been shared here and in the Trib is pretty poor. I live in St. Paul, and think Carter is really good in most areas.

                    1. re: Haricotsv2

                      It's a leap of sorts, but certainly not a large one. Politicians sensationalizing personal anecdotes for the purpose of advancing legislation is commonplace. But since Carter hasn't bothered to put any of his information online for public consumption, information is hard to come by.

                      That Carter consulted scientists outside of the restaurant industry is not at all impressive. What did they tell him? That peanut allergies exist? Why not consult the, um, restaurant industry?

                      The most generous possible assessment is that Carter performed incompetently, which is sufficient grounds for Russo's letter. The idea that Russo is overreacting by using the power of the press when Carter has the power of the law is ludicrous.

                      1. re: kevin47

                        I was intending to respond to your post, not Russo.

                        1. re: Haricotsv2

                          And I was responding to yours. At best, we can assume Carter acted foolishly and hastily. However, Carter is a rising star, and (as you mention) has shown himself capable of getting things done. He seems like a guy who knows very well what he is doing.

                          But maybe he let his own frustration cloud his ability to govern. Neither possibility speaks well of Carter.

                          In summary, I think Russo is right about Carter's intentions, but I concede that he might not be. He is right to call him out even if he is not. I think he is quite serious about the possibility of leaving St. Paul, but being proactive.

                    2. re: kevin47

                      I'm not sure what you mean by saying that Mr. Carter is "Russo's employee." I mean, he is a public servant and works for all of his constituents, but he certainly is not meant to be at the beck and call of business owners (though he shouldn't be hostile to them, either). My point is that, whatever the genesis of the proposed law, Carter has received feedback from business owners and responded appropriately. That's how the legislative process is supposed to work. Or so it seems to me.

                      1. re: mtullius

                        I mean that a public servant is an employee of the taxpayers. What else could I possibly have meant? But no, I was not insinuating that I think he should bring Russo a coffee or do his taxes.

                        Business owners should not live in fear that their investment will suffer at the whim of a zealous councilman who has failed to do his research. That is not what we pay our city councilmen to do. They are not to enact policy based on whatever sticks in their craw. Russo called out Carter for failing to do his job.

                        That is not overreacting, or "ranting", or "antagonistic". That is holding an elected official accountable for his actions.

                    3. Looks as though Mr. Russo updated the blog post the day after it first hit the website. The amended version provides a lot more clarification about why so little of his opening scenario was actually real:

                      I gather from the last paragraph of the most recent post that the "so long" is an ultimatum rather than a done deal.

                      Right now, the thing that is supposed to happen is taking place: an idea that might help people has arisen, it was proposed through the normal governing process, and the public is having a say on whether it's any good.

                      The result so far is that proposed ordinance has been pulled, to get exactly the feedback that Russo says is missing. This sort of information-gathering and re-thinking takes time to do correctly.

                      For Heartland, it could be truly unfortunate if the new site needs action before the ordinance decision is done, one way or the other. If St. Paulites have an opinion, by all means give it to your council rep. But I don't see that changing the Council's timeline, do you?

                      1. Two other thoughts:

                        I like Russo's restaurant and I really do get his objections to the proposal. Still, the original post 's bombast-to-accuracy ratio blows a hole in his overall credibility.

                        He's not earning any support from me by questioning Carter's motives, either. Picking at Carter's "methodology" tells me that Russo is only partially informed about what it takes to find some safe public options when an allergic child is out with family or friends.

                        I know my sister checks food outlets to ask about allergens beforehand so that she doesn't set up her son for disappointment. I also know the outcome after a gelateria owner failed to check whether his Italian-sourced flavorings were dairy-free as he believed. She really does have to buttonhole people, and if they don't think hard about their ingredients or don't have the info at hand, wrong answers have bad consequences.

                        Like most people, my sister knows better than to leap from "bad consequences" to "bad intent." Russo should work at the distinction, lest he burn more bridges than he intended.

                        1. Hmm. That was a prompt post deletion.

                          Okay, here's another try.

                          This topic is back in the news. The Councilmember's proposal has been re-introduced:

                          The Star Tribune news report:

                          The Star Tribune article:

                          The Pioneer Press article:

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: KTFoley

                            And on the Midwest board, you can read about a recent experience that pertains to the topic of this thread 100%.


                            1. re: KTFoley

                              "When the food came, Hayden took a few bites and broke out in hives from egg whites in the dish. Hayden recovered, but for some people with food allergies, such a situation could have been deadly."

                              If someone else has posed this hypothetical questions already, I apologize, but if you (or your child) have an allergy that is life-threatening, why would you ever put the preparation of your/his/her food into someone else's hands? Hell, doctors make mistakes and they go to school for a long time to learn how not to make mistakes. I respect waiters and cooks, but can't imagine putting my life in their hands. I don't think we can legislate horse sense.

                              As a child, my hippy parents fed my brother and I a non-processed, probiotic, scratch-everything diet. This meant we brought our own food to parties, we had our own (carob, yuck) "treats" at school, when we ate out, we packed-in...and we weren't even allergic to anything. (At some point my parents tired of making yogurt since this stopped by the time I reached high school.) Perhaps this idea of owning one's food affects my worldview in such a way that I would simply expect people to take responsibility for what goes into them, perhaps that is expecting too much...I really have no idea.