Small Town Diner Gets Second Lease on Life
By Susan Thompson
This is the sort of tale that delights those of us who love small town Iowa living. It’s the story of how a diner in Redfield closed, and a couple living in New York decided to reopen it. The woman in this tale is a native Iowan, and now the sixth generation to live on the family’s Sunny Crest Century Farm.
As soon as Katie Harvey graduated in 1995 from West Central Valley in Stuart, she headed to New York City to study musical theater and voice. She took a part-time job in a video and music store, where she met Rick Martinez, who grew up in the Bronx.
The pair started dating and Harvey found success in entertainment. She performed on Broadway and toured the country in the production of Footloose. “It was a dream come true for this 22-year-old,” she says.
But the travel kept the couple apart, once for three months at a time. Harvey eventually transitioned into a job as a placement counselor with a temp agency. A well-known Italian steakhouse was looking for a manager. She struggled to find someone who was a good match, and one day hopped in a cab to visit, in what she says was an effort to keep from losing the account.
“They offered me the job,” she says. “I worked during my high school years at Des Moines Golf and Country Club, so had been well-trained in customer service. But I didn’t have any restaurant manager experience. I called Rick on my way home and said I may have just done something crazy.”
She spent 11 years at Macelleria, which means Butcher Shop in Italian. She was the general and special events manager, and worked in every aspect of the restaurant. “It was the hardest, most rewarding experience of my life,” she says.
By now the couple had married. Rick Martinez worked in television and film post-production in Times Square. Katie Harvey-Martinez loved the restaurant business, but wanted to own her restaurant. Working together would be an added bonus.
“We considered opening our own restaurant in Brooklyn, but there isn’t a need there,” Harvey-Martinez says. “There are restaurants everywhere, all different types. And the rent on restaurant space is very high. We just couldn’t see making that work.”
Back in Iowa, change was underway. Katie’s grandparents, Gerald and Virginia Harvey, moved out of their farmhouse and into a Stuart nursing home. A farm auction was planned. The house wasn’t part of the sale, and there was talk of finding a renter.
The couple discussed leaving the big city behind. “I have a huge family here, so that was a big draw for me,” Harvey-Martinez says. “Rick has been coming to Iowa at least twice a year for many years, and loves it. The cost of living in New York is so high, we could never have afforded to buy a house there.”
On an Iowa visit in spring 2016, the couple talked to Katie’s grandfather about renting the Sunny Crest farmhouse. Her parents, Robert and Ruth Harvey, live just across the road and farms the land. Not surprisingly, Grandpa Harvey was happy about the idea, and so were Katie’s parents. Her grandparents have since passed away, and the couple is in the process of purchasing the farmhouse.
The next part of the couple’s plans involved taking a look at the Dexfield Diner in Redfield. Created and owned by R. Joe Smith, the restaurant had recently closed after 17 years. Smith is the founder and CEO of National Investors in Redfield. He was a teacher and coach at Dexfield Community School, and led the football team to a Class A championship in 1973.
“We had incredible meetings with R. Joe and Nancy Smith,” Harvey-Martinez says. “We know they had better offers, but he said he had a good feeling about us.” The couple purchased the 100-year-old building and restaurant. They tore out the carpet, and took down some sports memorabilia. The huge trophy case, which showcases that 1973 winning football team, remains.
Harvey’s Diner opened in June 2016. “We wanted our food to be as ‘made from scratch’ as possible. For instance, we make our own ketchup,” Harvey-Martinez says. “We wanted to keep the idea of a diner, but elevate the cuisine. We still have the fryers going all the time, but we change our menu with the seasons and use local ingredients as much as possible.”
Martinez admits his only fear about the Iowa move was what role he could play at the restaurant. “Katie has all the experience, and she’s the brains of the business,” he says. Harvey-Martinez quickly adds Rick is the “brawn. There is always something that needs to be fixed or cleaned or moved,” she says.
Martinez also has responsibility for the outside smoker, which he fires up three or four days each week, and tends throughout the day. The result is smoked prime rib dinners every Friday and Saturday night through the fall and winter. Several menu items and occasional specials also feature the smoked prime rib, as well as smoked beef brisket, bacon, pork chops, chicken and turkey.
The single burger on Harvey’s menu is a house-chopped sirloin and burger blend, topped with a fried onion ring, white cheddar and sage mayo. A “burger of the week” is introduced each Monday. A recent offering was the Spicy Cowboy, which featured Harvey's one-third pound house-ground burger blend, white cheddar, smoky bacon, two chicken-fried onion rings, iceberg lettuce, local yellow tomato and roasted jalapeño barbecue mayo.
Other sandwiches are a tenderloin, adult grilled cheese, meatballs, The Redfield Reuben and more. For dinner, current specials are hot beef with mashed potatoes, country toast and gravy on Wednesdays. Thursday is “burger and brew” night with the house burger and a beer pairing for $10, or the burger of the week and beer pairing for $12.
Or consider the smoked turkey potpie, country fried chicken, smoked pork chop or braised beef short rib. A unique selection of greens, sides and small plates – such as pigs in a blanket, which includes house-made sage sausage in a puff pastry served with cowboy mayo – round out the offerings for both lunch and dinner.
At just 24 years of age, Justin Ahlberg is the head chef. He was born and raised in Des Moines, and has been working in restaurants since he was 14 years old. He was the kitchen manager at the Continental in Des Moines, and the sous chef at Harvey’s before taking over the top job. “Cooking has been my passion since I was a child,” Ahlberg says. “They saw the potential in me, and now I have a chance to shine.”
There are separate menus for lunch, dinner and a Sunday brunch. There also is a menu for craft cocktails and sweets.
The craft cocktails are courtesy of bar manager Andrew Luce. Before Harvey’s opened, he was listed as a reference for someone who had applied for a job. Luce was living in Colorado when Harvey-Martinez reached him by phone. She was so impressed, she asked him to come to Iowa for two weeks to set up the bar. So he did.
Those two weeks stretched into the year-and-a-half Harvey’s has been open. “I love it here,” says Luce, who had never been to Iowa before. “It’s quiet, the fishing is great, and there are genuinely good people. I’ve never been given the freedom to do what I wanted behind a bar before. Here I’ve been able to learn by experimenting, being creative. We’re on our third menu offering specialty cocktails people enjoy.”
Tricia Foster, a high school friend of Katie’s, was recruited to handle desserts. Foster, who lives in Stuart, had been doing some custom baking in her home. Now she’s in Harvey’s kitchen three or four days a week, whipping up special cakes, cookies, crisps, apple dumplings and more.
Foster makes her own brown sugar, marshmallows and graham crackers. “I love working with Katie, she gives me free rein to do what I want. Everything is homemade, and it’s nice to be able to create fresh desserts the way it’s supposed to be done,” she says.
The sweets menu includes German Chocolate cake, chocolate chip cookies, s’mores and a fresh fruit crisp. Specialty cakes change weekly. Foster also takes orders for carryout dessert items, such as decorated cakes for special occasions.
The restaurant features a wall of wooden booths, a bar lined with stools, and tables and chairs that can be moved around to accommodate various group sizes. There is room for about 60 customers.
The walls are decorated with historical photos of the Redfield area, on loan the diner’s previous owner. The couple added art from two local artists. Ron Smith does charcoal art on barn boards. Jennifer Carrico offers bright color photos of farm scenes, framed in a variety of sizes. All the art pieces are for sale. “People just take them right off the wall,” Harvey-Martinez says.
In the summer months, an enclosed beer garden in the back allows Harvey’s to double in size. While food isn’t served in the garden, four tap beers are offered on weekends and there is live music from local musicians every Saturday evening.
The Redfield community has embraced Harvey’s Diner, and the new owners. “We could have opened a restaurant anywhere. But we wanted to be in a community where there was a need. Even with all the crazy things we try, the community has always supported us,” says Harvey-Martinez. “We’re happy to be here.”
Promptly at 2 p.m. each Friday and Saturday, a group of about a dozen men and women file in the back door. These loyal supporters serve themselves coffee, tea or water, and clean their tables before they leave, promptly at 3 p.m. “They solve all the world’s problems here,” says Harvey-Martinez. “They also are regular customers for lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch.”
Customers well beyond Redfield have discovered Harvey’s Diner and Pub. People drive from several surrounding communities, both big and small. Some regulars come from Lake Panorama, others from Des Moines.
Harvey’s is open every day but Tuesday. Lunch is available 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., then the doors close for an hour, and reopen at 4 p.m. for dinner. Sunday brunch is 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Harvey’s also offers catering services.
“People can go anywhere and find good food,” says Harvey-Martinez. “Our philosophy is, if you’re not listening to your customers, you’re closing. We’re here constantly. We feel it’s important for us to be present, to greet our customers and get to know them. We and our entire staff take pride in providing great service.”
The move to Iowa brought Katie close to her family, but widened Rick’s distance to his family in New York. His mother, sisters and a niece visited last summer. “They were skeptical about Iowa, and wondered why I would want to move here. But once they got to our farmhouse, all they wanted to do was sit in the backyard and enjoy the quiet and serenity,” Martinez says. “They loved Iowa, and now they understand.”
To learn about daily specials and events, follow Harvey’s Diner and Pub on Facebook. Menus are posted on Harvey’s website at harveysdinerandpub.com.