When Jessica Rothacker imagined a restaurant all her own, she dreamed of combining the best of what she’d experienced working elsewhere. At Ike & Jane, she saw a bustling community built around a beloved place. At Farm 255, she learned the importance of knowing your farmers. At Muss & Turner’s, she found an empowered staff in an uplifting work environment.
She opened Heirloom Café in 2011, with the communal, local, seasonal, and inspired at the forefront of their offering. It was a fast success in a town that cherishes all of the above.
As the years pass, Jessica has continued to evolve and hone the mission of Heirloom: To create community, celebrate local farmers, and tell a story through food.
“For the first several years we were open, we only focused on the first two, but we came to realize that really what we were most excited about was the story behind our food and drink, the feelings it evoked for people, and the memories that it created or was created out of,” she says.
The celebration of tradition is in their name—Heirloom meaning a thing treasured between generations. Jessica and her staff keep this meaning at the heart of all they do, even as trends come and go.
“There are so many technological innovations happening right now and so many new ways of looking at food. All of that can be so intimidating and honestly is just not what we are about, so we just try to make really good food that makes people feel like home and provide a very comfortable service experience,” Jessica says. “Perhaps comfort and nostalgia inherently can't become irrelevant.”
Heirloom Café is among the Athens restaurants making farm-to-table cooking standard fare. Evolutions on that front, like the emergence of Collective Harvest, create an ever-expanding bevy of farm-fresh options for restaurants and households alike.
“The growth of the farming community in Athens and the ability of Collective Harvest to organize the way that farmers sell directly to restaurants has made it worlds easier for restaurants to access local food,” she says. “We are no longer special in that way, but I am excited that so many businesses are purchasing from farms, making it often a given in tight-knit communities like ours.”
Focus is essential for any business, and that’s proven true at Heirloom.
“Things often don't go as planned, and inevitably when you think that you should be focusing your attention on one aspect of the business, something else comes to the forefront of your focus. The most important thing is staying true to your company values when you try to make changes and grow.”
Everyday is a little different at Heirloom. Athens can be a transient town, with fresh new faces arriving each season for school. Yet rooted in the Historic Boulevard Neighborhood, Heirloom provides an enduring sense of place. For Jessica, it’s a vision realized.
“I want to see people happy. I want them to enjoy great food that evokes emotion for them, surrounded by loved ones, and made to feel comfortable and glad to be in our space. I want them to feel at home here, and to invite others to feel that way, too.”
Written by Jodi Cash
Photographed by Paige French