As I enter downtown Iowa City’s newest lunch spot (the Java House’s recent expansion into the space next door) I find myself in a pleasant space painted a sophisticated charcoal gray with enlarged vintage photos of Iowa City hanging on the walls. It has the feel of being decorated by a Midwesterner who loves catalogs from Pottery Barn and West Elm and the idea of what New York lofts must look like. It is urban-“ish”, very clean with attractive metal bistro chairs and tables. In the center area is a warehouse-style cart with candy, chips and grab-and-go bevvies—upscale mini-mart fare—in an open cooler.
Looking forward, I see an open-faced refrigerated unit full of attractive bright green lettuces available in either small or large to-go containers. I look left and see a hot bar of pasta. Pasta?! Yes. Heirloom Salad Co. also has a pasta (and sandwich) bar. Although I actually wanted to try both, I was caught in a scene reminiscent of the old board game Mouse Trap, with myself and several other patrons confusedly jockeying in and out of the multiple lines; I don’t dare attempt a combo lunch.
The staff, to be fair, are working really hard, but Heirloom isn’t designed with service in mind; the cafe greets patrons not with a smile, but with a sign full of arrows. When I finally reach the counter, though, I am met by a cheerful employee dressed in a black chef’s coat who takes my salad and asks which add-ins I desire. I choose a deluxe salad of black olives, broccoli, egg, feta (mistake), mushrooms, raisins (not a mistake) and steamed shrimp with a (delicious!) creamy garlic dressing. The “chef” chopped it all up for me and sent me alongto checkout.
Once seated, there is yet another sign reminding me not to study at my table. Heirloom isn’t the first place to eschew “service” points in favor of other ideals—like assembly-line efficiency, made-in-front-of-your-face freshness, or can’t-beat-em prices—but, for this new location, all of these dreams are as yet unrealized. Efficiency was a joke; on a second visit (to try the pasta) the freshness of the stored sauces and meats looked and tasted quite dubious and on my first visit, that $3.99 salad, admittedly stacked, ended up at $11.42. This is comparable in terms of ingredients and price to a Cobb salad at any mid-to-upscale sit-down lunch spot, so is it worth it to give up so much in terms of service? I’m not sure.
What’s certain is that Heirloom is not yet this chicken’s “#1 choice for healthy dining in Iowa City,” as the company touts on its website. But will I go back and see how the idea has developed? Sure, as long as someone else is buying.
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