Alfalfa’s new owners will update offerings, keep local-food roots

Cameron Heathcoat and Salvador Sanchez, the new owners of Alfalfa, photographed at Chevy Chase Inn on Euclid Avenue.
Cameron Heathcoat and Salvador Sanchez, the new owners of Alfalfa, photographed at Chevy Chase Inn on Euclid Avenue. Provided photo

On April 8, 1973, the way Lexington ate began to change, as an iconic restaurant was born.

Alfalfa’s website says it all: “We were local before local was cool.”

New owners Salvador Sanchez and Cameron Heathcoat want to keep that slogan and the restaurant’s iconic status top of mindnow that, 44 years after Alfalfa opened, local food is a defining force among area restaurants.

The restaurant had been for sale since November, when owners Jim Happ and Betsey Moses announced that they were putting it on the market.

Sanchez said he and Heathcoat want to capitalize on the changes and new energy in downtown Lexington, where Alfalfa moved in 2005 to its current address, 141 East Main Street.

“We plan on adding some new menu options while keeping the staples,” he said in an email while traveling abroad. “We will also be adding a coffee bar, alcohol and a grab ’n’ go menu. We want to increase the catering program and blend in a little of the cultures found at A Cup of Commonwealth, Chocolate Holler, Magic Beans Coffee Roasters, Bourbon n’ Toulouse and Chevy Chase Inn.”

Sanchez is behind Cup of Commonwealth, Chocolate Holler and Magic Beans; Cameron Heathcoat and her husband, Kevin, are with Bourbon n’ Toulouse and Chevy Chase Inn. Kevin Heathcoat will help with the ownership transition, Sanchez said.

“Between all six businesses that our two groups own, we have over 20 years of experience in the food and beverage business,” Cameron Heathcoat said. “We believe that customer service and the experience you have when you walk through the door is first and foremost.”

Staples including red beans and rice, Hoppin’ John and tomato bisque will remain on the menu. Heathcoat said the restaurant will experiment with new plant-based entrees and sides; the most popular items will make it onto the menu.

Items being tested have included chickpea “chikin” salad and various veggie burger recipes, she said.

Sanchez and Heathcoat, who used to run the Health-Ology plant-based food service, will operate the restaurant as of July 1.

Sanchez said in an interview that he and Heathcoat are “the next stewards of the brand.”

“Alfalfa is such a Lexington icon,” Sanchez said. “From A Cup of Common Wealth’s perspective, there are few things that speak more to community than Alfalfa and the culture that they have built for over four decades.”

Heathcoat remembers her mom driving her from Cynthiana “to go eat at this weird and funky place that was like nowhere else we would dine.”

After she became a vegetarian in her 20s, Alfalfa “has always been my go-to restaurant where I can eat plant-based and my husband can order the bacon that he doesn’t get at home,” Heathcoat said.

Look around Lexington restaurants today, with the locally sourced this and locally inspired that, and you might think that Lexington food had always been free of instant potatoes and pie filling in gallon cans. But when Alfalfa served beans and rice, cabbage salad and thick slabs of whole-grain bread, that was the start of a quiet revolution in local eating.

Alfalfa was where you went for cinnamon coffee long before coffee shops became a $5-a-cup industry, to pick up leftist and alternative healing tracts at the entrance, to see others of a liberal, arty local bent. The original Alfalfa had a tiny, almost toy-like restroom.

It was blessed with a small but bustling spot, 557 South Limestone, prime University of Kentucky territory, and it was started by six twenty-somethings with about $3,700.

The restaurant’s menu was modeled after that at a health-food store; Alfalfa employed 25 people and didn’t have enough chairs. On opening day, the restaurant promised a free meal to anyone who contributed a chair.

Alfalfa has seen glamor, notoriety and tragedy.

Actors Kirsten Dunst and Orlando Bloom ate at Alfalfa while filming “Elizabethtown” in 2004.

Nearly 30 years earlier, in 1975, Alfalfa became known for having employed Susan Saxe, later identified as one of the FBI’s 10 most wanted persons, as a cook. Saxe was part of a bank robbery in Brighton, Boston, in which her accomplice shot and killed a Boston policeman. Saxe was arrested in 1974 and pleaded guilty to manslaughter. She was paroled in 1982.

In 1979, Alfalfa co-founder Leslie Bower was killed in Georgia while on a trip. A truck stop employee was convicted in her death.

“We will definitely honor the past” in the updated Alfalfa, Sanchez said. “We will be hanging pictures of former owners, posting old articles, and tying in as much of the storied history as possible.”

Heathcoat sees the new ownership as a way to synergize all six businesses that the new owners oversee.

“Walk into Cup of Commonwealth and try to find an unhappy employee,” she said. “Go to Bourbon n’ Toulouse and look in the kitchen. You can feel the fun the moment you walk in. I’ve seen firsthand how tough it is to be a small-business owner. It isn’t easy, but we plan on having fun while working hard.”

Cheryl Truman: 859-231-3202, @CherylTruman