DAVENPORT --- Mike Whalen compares his business to the Lionel electric train he played with as a child.
"I had more fun redoing my train set, rearranging the tracks and the equipment into different layouts," Whalen, the founder and president of Heart of America Restaurants & Inns, said. "What we do with our restaurants is no different."
Indeed, Whalen is staying on track, only on a much bigger scale. Starting out with Davenport's Iowa Machine Shed in 1978, he has put together a hospitality group that now owns and operates 29 restaurants and hotels in 10 metropolitan areas of six Midwestern states.
He has been named the 2009 Iowa Restaurateur of the Year by the Iowa Restaurant Association. The award, which he also received in 1996, honors a person the association feels best exemplifies service, quality and originality to customers. He also was awarded the association's 2009 Champion for his unwavering support of its membership and goals.
Doni DeNucci, the association's executive director, said Whalen not only has business savvy, but also is extremely creative. "He absolutely epitomizes entrepreneurship," she said.
That entrepreneurial spirit extends to real estate development. Heart of America's real estate division is working on office and commercial projects in Davenport, Moline and Des Moines.
They include the Shoppes at Prairie Crossing near Des Moines, a 760,000-square-foot, open-air retailing venture featuring architecture inspired by the Prairie style of Frank Lloyd Wright. Another project in the Des Moines area is a 35,000-square-foot office building at the Galleria at Jordan Creek in West Des Moines.
In the Quad-Cities, Heart of America is developing Elmore Marketplace on a 23.5-acre site on Davenport's Elmore Avenue and anchored by the Great Escape retail store. The company has helped spur development in downtown Moline by renovating a long-empty warehouse building on River Drive near John Deere Commons into its corporate headquarters and retail space.
Birth of the Shed
Whalen, 55, the second of three sons of the late Dan Whalen, a lawyer, and Mary Lou Whalen, graduated from Notre Dame High School in Peoria, Ill., majored in political science at the University of Illinois, where he earned Bronze Tablet academic honors, and then graduated from Harvard Law School. While at Harvard, he interned at a Beverly Hills law firm but found that the practice of law was not really for him.
He returned to the Quad-Cities to become managing partner of what had been a 100-seat Yummy's restaurant on Davenport's Northwest Boulevard that his father, along with Lawrence "Happy Joe" Whitty and Whitty's son, Larry, had purchased. Because of the restaurant's semi-rural location, Lawrence Whitty suggested that it celebrate the American farmer. The first Machine Shed was born.
While the food business was grueling work, Whalen found he liked the immediate feedback he received from customers and soon was opening other restaurants. In 1987, he renovated a Regal 8 hotel next to his Davenport Machine Shed into what now is an EconoLodge, a move that established his business model of pairing hotels and restaurants.
In 1991, he opened a Machine Shed near the Living History Farms in Urbandale, Iowa, his first venture outside of the Quad-Cities.
Joining his team then as marketing director was Carmen Darland, who stayed with Heart of America for more than 18 years until she became executive director of Quad-City Arts.
"He has a level of energy, combined with an intellectual curiosity, that is unlimited," she said. "He is driven, sets the standards high and expects you to surpass them, That can be hard to do."
Evolution of taste
In his 31 years in the restaurant business, Whalen said the biggest change he has seen is that customers, exposed to television food shows and celebrity chefs, have become more sophisticated than ever. With that in mind, he recently revamped his Thunder Bay Grille in Davenport, giving it a more urban look and adding small appetizer-like dishes called tapas, a first for his restaurants. One of them, "blue devils on horseback," features Maytag blue cheese-stuffed Medjool dates wrapped in applewood bacon.
Public policy interest
Off duty, he enjoys escapes to his vacation home in northern Wisconsin with his family, wife, Kim, his business partner as well as spouse; and son Christopher, a student at Drake University in Des Moines; and daughter Katie, a senior at Bettendorf High School. His philanthropic activities include the Wildwood Hills Ranch, a 400-acre camp southwest of Des Moines that he spearheaded for at-risk children ages 8 to 16.
A Republican, he made an unsuccessful bid against Bruce Braley of Waterloo for the U.S. House of Representatives from Iowa's 1st District in 2006, but has not ruled out another run for public office. Meanwhile, he hones his interest in public policy by serving as policy chairman for the National Center for Policy Analysis. He also writes columns for the Washington Times, where he has not been afraid to express his views.
In his Aug. 11 column, for example, he minced no words in his assessment of federal borrowing. "We are collectively broke. It is a horrible legacy we are leaving to our children. Can common sense be restored?" he wrote.
He enjoys the feedback he gets from his columns and the satisfaction of putting his ideas out to a large audience. "In a democracy, there are lots of different ways to express your ideas. But as a columnist, it is an honor to do so," he said.