A near death experience, a pandemic and a fire haven’t stopped Jeff Hart from cooking at Harty’s Caddy Shack
Jeff Hart, owner of Harty’s Caddy Shack, 1101 Central Ave., has faced more than his share of adversity over the course of the past two years.
Hart, a 1979 Fort Dodge Senior High graduate, nearly died on the operating table about two years ago.
“My intestines froze up and I basically died,” Hart recalled. “I had a heart attack on the operating table. The day before they were going to release me, my intestines sprung a leak so they had to do surgery again.”
Hart lost a significant amount of weight, he said. And many people encouraged him to enter a nursing home.
But that wasn’t something Hart was willing to do.
“Everybody thought I was going to die and I pulled through it,” he said.
The only thing on his mind was returning to work at the restaurant he opened in downtown Fort Dodge in 2012.
But not long after his return, Hart was confronted with another setback
The building right next to Harty’s caught fire in April of 2020.
The blaze at 1103 Central Ave. caused smoke and water damage to Harty’s.
And, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic was in its early stages around the same time.
“For the last two years, I’ve really only been open about six months,” said Hart. “So it’s been really tough. I haven’t had any funding to help my restaurant. Nothing. I didn’t even get unemployment. Basically, I was down to my last nickel and my daughter (Candy Hart) helped me reopen this.”
The restaurant did receive a makeover in recent months. The facade was remodeled with new windows, doors and the bricks were cleaned.
But that work also came at a cost.
“Their (contractor) headquarters while they worked here was straight behind me,” Hart said. “So every day they would come to work and take all the parking spots, so my business was down while they were here. People will keep driving if they don’t see a parking spot. It’s a must.”
And the work took a little longer than anticipated due to shortages in supplies caused by the pandemic.
Hart said he is happy with the finished product.
“I’m happy with the arrangement,” he said.
And despite the setbacks, you wouldn’t know it by watching Hart work.
The lifelong restaurant worker is friendly with the customers and enjoys being in the kitchen.
“Fort Dodge is a close-knit community,” Hart said. “If you put out good service, good food, people find out about it. I’ve learned that quite a bit. Because you need your return customer in a town like this. It’s not like a big city where you’ll have different people coming in 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.
Next, Hart moved to Des Moines where he managed and supervised KFC and Pizza Hut locations for 25 years.
“I actually went to Hollywood and was in a national commercial for Pizza Hut,” he said.
Another highlight was catering to places like Principal Park (then Sec Taylor Stadium) and Community Choice Credit Union Convention Center (then Veterans Memorial Auditorium).
“It’s definitely a lot of hours,” Hart said. “Long work. But it’s gratifying to see young kids grow underneath your wing. You meet all kinds of different people. It’s very interesting.”
At the same time, Hart realized the employees were not necessarily invested in the product like they would be if they were the owners.
“It’s where if you’re going to put in the hours you want to say it’s your own,” Hart said. “I’ve worked for companies and the individual owners and the gratitude is not your own.”
Eventually it was time for Hart to open the Caddy Shack in his hometown.
“I’ve been in the restaurant business all my life,” he said. “To go to a little cafe was just something I wanted to venture. I had never done it. Here I am open every day of the year. Every holiday. I work every day. It’s still long hours but I can say it’s my own.”
The name and theme of the restaurant is based on the popular 1980 golf comedy film “Caddyshack.”
“As everybody knows, I’m an avid golfer,” Hart said. “I’ve golfed all my 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 work, uses golf as his escape.
“It’s where you can go and don’t worry about your business,” he said. “Go out and relax. You don’t have to talk business or think about business. It’s good therapy.”
Hart continues to recover from his health issues. He’s had to slow his pace some.
“They took like 12 feet of my intestines,” Hart said. “I’m getting better. Day by day I am getting a little stronger. I used to deliver The Messenger on Sundays and part-time bartend. I would work three jobs a day sometimes and I don’t think I can do that 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 I had to get done for my restaurant that day.”
Harty’s is known for its hearty breakfast foods. The Wild Man Skillet is a signature item. It features cut fried red potatoes, cheese with bacon, sausage, Italian sausage, onion, green pepper with two eggs on top.
“People love my biscuits and gravy,” 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 items including: cheeseburgers, Philly cheese steak sandwich, breaded pork tenderloin and various wraps.
“I usually have one day of a home cooked meal,” Hart said. “I have homemade meatloaf, homemade lasagna, hot beef and country fried steak.”
Lastly, Hart said his ribs have become locally known for their tenderness.
“People say I have the best ribs around,” Hart said. “I have them the first Friday of every month. I’ve been cooking ribs for 40 years. You don’t need a fork or a knife, they just fall right off the bone and I think that’s why a lot of people love them.”
Despite the wide variety of foods cooked and served by Hart, sometimes when he gets home he’ll just make himself a frozen pizza.
“The other night — I have a young man that comes and mows my grass and shovels for me, so I bring him food home every now and again,” Hart said. “So last Friday was rib night. I brought him two ribs. I said here’s two ribs and I’m going home to eat a 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, of Fort Dodge. She’s worked at the restaurant since it opened.
“I’ve had her work for me since she was 16,” Hart said. “I’ve had good experience with employees that stay with me for a long time. You have to treat them basically like family. If you could get sick that you could rely on them to run it. A big key to my success through the years is employees — they don’t get the credit they deserve.”
Most recently, Hart was reminded why he loves the restaurant business.
“Just yesterday (Wednesday), there was two older ladies in here,” Hart said. “Never been here before. I’m cooking and it’s busy. And when they got done eating, they came up to the door of the kitchen and they said that was the best breakfast they ever had and I must be one heck of a cook. And I told her I’ve cooked all my life and she said I can tell. It’s satisfying. You go to chain restaurants and the cooks are there for a paycheck. They don’t care what’s going out. I want the person to be satisfied and full. Most people get doggy bags here because there’s so much food.”
Through all of the obstacles in recent years, Hart is grateful for the support.
“Staying afloat,” he said. “Having people come back after the COVID and my illness, showing their support, knowing that they missed me and are coming back for the good food that they missed.”
Harty’s is open Monday through Wednesday, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Thursday 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.; and Sunday from 7 a.m. to noon.