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Jeff Hart, owner of Harty’s Caddy Shack, 1101 Central Ave., has faced more than his fair share of adversity over the past two years.
Hart, who graduated from Fort Dodge High School in 1979, almost died on the operating table about two years ago.
“My intestines froze and I died for the most part” Hart called back. “I had a heart attack on the operating table. The day before I was released, my intestines leaked and they had to have surgery again.
Hart lost a lot of weight, he said. And many people encouraged him to enter a retirement home.
But it wasn’t something Hart was prepared to do.
“Everyone thought I was going to die and I made do with it,” he said.
The only thing he thought about was going back to work at the restaurant he opened in downtown Fort Dodge in 2012.
But soon after returning, Hart faced yet another setback
The building right next to Harty caught fire in April 2020.
The fire at 1103 Central Ave. caused smoke and water damage to Harty’s.
And, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic was in its infancy around the same time.
“For the past two years, I’ve only really been open for about six months,” Hart said. “So it was really difficult. I had no funding to help my restaurant. Nothing. I didn’t even have unemployment. Basically I was on my last dime and my daughter (Candy Hart) helped me reopen it.
The restaurant has had a facelift in recent months. The facade has been renovated with new windows, doors and the bricks have been cleaned.
But this work also comes at a cost.
“Their headquarters (subcontractor) while they were working here was right behind me,” Hart said. “So everyday they would come to work and take all the parking spaces, so my business was down while they were here. People will continue to drive if they cannot see a parking space. It is an imperative. “
And work took a little longer than expected due to supply shortages caused by the pandemic.
Hart said he was happy with the finished product.
“I’m happy with the arrangement,” he said.
And despite the setbacks, you wouldn’t know it from watching Hart work.
The long-time restaurateur is friendly to customers and enjoys being in the kitchen.
“Fort Dodge is a very close-knit community”, Hart said. “If you provide good service, good food, people find out. I learned that a bit. Because you need your returning customer in a city like this. It’s not like a big city where different people come every day. You want your loyal customers. “
After high school, Hart studied food management at Iowa Central Community College. He worked at Community Pizza, which was owned by his father, Truman Hart.
Then Hart moved to Des Moines where he managed and oversaw the KFC and Pizza Hut locations for 25 years.
“I actually went to Hollywood and did a national advertisement for Pizza Hut,” he said.
Another highlight has been catering at places like Principal Park (then Sec Taylor Stadium) and Community Choice Credit Union Convention Center (then Veterans Memorial Auditorium).
“It’s really a lot of hours,” Hart said. “A long job. But it’s gratifying to see young children growing up under your wing. You meet all kinds of different people. It’s very interesting.”
At the same time, Hart realized that employees weren’t necessarily as invested in the product as they would be if they were the owners.
“This is where if you’re going to dedicate the hours where you want to say it’s yours,” Hart said. “I have worked for companies and individual owners and gratitude is not yours.”
Finally, it was time for Hart to open the Caddy Shack in his hometown.
“I’ve been in the restaurant business all of my life,” he said. “Going to a little cafe was just something I wanted to dare. I had never done it before. Here I am open every day of the year. Every public holiday. I work everyday. It’s still long hours but I can say it’s mine.
The name and theme of the restaurant is based on the famous 1980 golf comedy film “Caddyshack.”
“As everyone knows, I am passionate about golf,” Hart said. “I have played golf my whole life. I love the movie “Caddyshack“And the theme – and that’s how I developed it here.”
Hart, who likes to stay busy most of the time with his work, uses golf as an escape.
“This is where you can go without worrying about your business” he said. “Get out there and relax. You don’t have to talk business or think about business. It’s good therapy.
Hart continues to recover from his health problems. He must have slowed down his pace a bit.
“They took about 12 feet from my intestines,” Hart said. “I’m getting better. Day by day I’m getting a little stronger. I used to deliver The Messenger on Sundays and part-time bartender. I used to work three jobs a day and I don’t think I can do it anymore. I just like to work.
He liked to deliver the newspaper.
“I liked it because of the outdoors,” he said. “Where I could think of what to do for my restaurant that day.”
Harty’s is known for its hearty breakfast options. The Wild Man Skillet is a signature item. It includes cut fried red potatoes, cheese with bacon, sausage, Italian sausage, onion, green pepper with two eggs on top.
“People love my cookies and my sauce,” Hart said. “The key ingredient – I put in my homemade Italian sausage.”
Breakfast burritos are also popular. Homemade breaded tacos are also on the menu.
Harty’s also serves lunch options including cheese burgers, Philly cheese steak sandwich, breaded pork tenderloin, and various wraps.
“I usually eat a home-cooked meal one day”, Hart said. “I have homemade meatloaf, homemade lasagna, hot beef and fried country steak.”
Finally, Hart said his ribs have become locally known for their tenderness.
“People say I have the best ribs around” Hart said. “I have them on the first Friday of every month. I have been cooking ribs for 40 years. You don’t need a fork or a knife, they just fall off the bone and I think that’s why a lot of people love them.
Despite the wide variety of foods Hart cooks and serves, sometimes when he comes home he just makes himself a frozen pizza.
“The other night, I have a young man who comes to mow my lawn and shovel me, so I bring him food from time to time.” Hart said. “So last Friday was coast night. I brought him two ribs. I said here are two ribs and I’m coming home to eat frozen pizza. Frozen pizzas are my favorite. Even when I worked for Pizza Hut, I ate frozen pizza.
Harty’s employs three people. One of the employees is Jaide Wetzel from Fort Dodge. She has been working at the restaurant since it opened.
“I have had her job for me since she was 16,” Hart said. “I have a good experience with the employees who have stayed with me for a long time. You have to treat them essentially like family. If you could get sick, you could count on them to make it work. The key to my success over the years is the people – they don’t get the credit they deserve. “
More recently, Hart was reminded why he loved catering.
“Yesterday (Wednesday) there were two older women here,” Hart said. “I’ve never been here before. I cook and it’s busy. And when they were done eating they came to the kitchen door and said it was the best breakfast they ever had and I must be a hell of a cook. And I told her that I had cooked my whole life and she said I could tell. It is satisfying. You go to chain restaurants and the cooks are there for a paycheck. They don’t care what’s going on. I want the person to be satisfied and full. Most people get doggy bags here because there is so much food.
Through all the obstacles of the past few years, Hart is grateful for his support.
“Stay afloat”, he said. “Bringing people back after COVID and my illness, showing their support, knowing they missed me and coming back for the good food they missed.”
Harty’s is open Monday through Wednesday, 7 am to 2 pm; Thursday from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday and Saturday from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Sunday from 7 a.m. to noon.