Updating an icon: New owners celebrate what made Alfalfa great

New owners Cameron Heathcoat, left, and Salvador Sanchez said they are keeping what made Alfalfa great but hope to bring in new energy and a fun atmosphere.
New owners Cameron Heathcoat, left, and Salvador Sanchez said they are keeping what made Alfalfa great but hope to bring in new energy and a fun atmosphere.

When customers come downtown to Alfalfa for the grand re-opening, they may be hard pressed to put a finger on what is different. But new owners Cameron Heathcoat and Salvador Sanchez hope things will be more energetic and more fun.

They’ve heard from many people on what not to change. They’ve stopped for conversations with longtime customers who want to make sure they can still get Hoppin’ John, red beans and rice, avocado grill cheese, buckwheat pancakes and cabbage salad, Heathcoat said.

“We’re not taking away anyone’s favorite menu item,” Heathcoat said.

But you might find some new favorites, too, or maybe things that you forgot were there in the first place.

For the grand opening on Sunday, expect to see the traditional pancakes of the day, breakfast poutine and farmers market omelets, but there also will be chorizo breakfast tacos and vegetarian jackfruit tacos, too.

Heathcoat, who is vegetarian, said she’s heard from a surprising number of people who ask if Alfalfa will have meat. It always has, she said, pointing to the local sausage, bacon, hamburger, chicken and salmon on the menu.

Another puzzling question has been “Are you going to bring back brunch?”

Sanchez said that also never went away. But they will do more things with breakfast, including adding breakfast tacos.

Other new items also will include pirogis and those jackfruit tacos that Heathcoat swears will be a revelation even for meat eaters.

Other changes: Alfalfa has typically been closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, but now it will offer grab-and-go breakfast and lunch items on those days, as well as a full-service coffee bar, tapping Sanchez’s expertise with his Cup of Common Wealth and Magic Beans Coffee.

Soon, Alfalfa expects to receive a liquor license, opening up new possibilities for a drinks menu, too.

Heathcoat, who grew up coming to Alfalfa to eat, had always wanted to run a plant-based restaurant, but her husband, Kevin Heathcoat, co-owner of Bourbon ’n’ Toulouse, nixed the idea of building one from scratch.

So she and Sanchez paired up to marry strong “front-of-house” savvy with an established kitchen and clientele.

Sanchez said that since they decided to buy Alfalfa together this spring, they’ve heard from lots of former customers, some of whom are coming back after drifting away in recent years.

The restaurant thrived for 31 years in a low-ceilinged, rustic building at 557 South Limestone near the University of Kentucky, before moving downtown in 2004.

When it opened in 1973, with two menu items, it gave a free meal to anyone who contributed a chair to the restaurant.

To honor Alfalfa’s traditions, the new owners plan to install a wall of history, including photos. And there are now two community benches along the walls, loaned by the city from the old courthouse, that they hope foster a community feel.

The restaurant’s “hippie” vibe might feel a little bit less laid-back, too, with a new emphasis on quicker service.

But chef Paul Nowacki, who has been there for more than 20 years, is staying on, as is most of the staff.

And you can still get a glass of Red Zinger tea. And a cup of cinnamon coffee. But now you’ll also be able to get a fountain Coke, too.

Which may prompt cries that the city’s last bastion of tofu and sprouts has been co-opted by “the Man.”

But Sanchez and Heathcoat are comfortable with the shift.

“That’s something the public wanted,” she said. “If they don’t want to drink it, they don’t have to.”

The most important thing is to make Alfalfa’s feel fun, even if customers do still have to have a bit of patience, Sanchez said.

“We want it to be fun while you wait,” he said. “We want some new energy.”