Hands gave an impassioned speech about her vision, which would pour money into the pockets of small-scale farmers. She dreamed of a chain of stores called Local Harvest and a delivery service with members who paid monthly for regular shipments of fruits and vegetables. A ring of admirers munched on organically grown hors d'oeuvres and sipped wine as she detailed her plans.
Hands projected sensibility and intelligence. She looked warm and friendly, with long, honey-colored hair and an earthy splash of freckles. That night, she might as well have been wearing a sash reading "Kansas City Hippie Queen 2003."
In the two years since that night, Hands built a chain of three Local Harvest stores and then, in a matter of months, watched as they crumbled financially. She has left a trail of debts and, so far, mostly empty promises to pay them back. Worst of all, the family farms that she vowed to help say they're out thousands of dollars, and some have been forced to go to court to get their money.
Hands tells the Pitch that she intends to pay her debts. She's working at a tapas restaurant downtown and e-mails reports on her limited progress. "It feels almost like I graduated from college and now I have to pay my student loans," she says. She calls her failure a learning experience. "But people hold the debt that I wish didn't hold the debt."
Hands started her business by growing wheatgrass and delivering it to the Nutty Girl, Juice Stop and Wild Oats. In early 2000, she realized that she could create one central pickup place and opened a River Market stall. Next to the wheatgrass, she stocked her booth with produce from five farms in the prairies surrounding Kansas City. Her plan was to hook up local chefs and shoppers with the farmers who didn't have time to market their own crops.
From the beginning, her business plan sounded aggressive and smart. It was similar in structure to successful organic-food programs elsewhere. As it grew, she moved her booth into a City Market retail spot, dubbing her new store Local Harvest. She even created a delivery service that promised regular shipments to members who paid monthly fees. Soon enough, Hands had secured investors (whom she would not reveal to the Pitch) to help her expand into a chain of stores. The way it happened was so natural, so organic, she explains.
Amber Allen, who worked for a short time in 2004 as the Local Harvest bookkeeper, says Hands has a special talent for keeping people happy with her. "She is the best apologizer I have ever met," Allen says. "She could ruin a relationship, but then apologize in the most perfect way, and it would be OK. She used her humility when she needed to."
Like many employees, Allen loved the Local Harvest environment. But many of the store's problems stemmed from simple communication difficulties. "No decision could be made without her, but she lost her cell phone a lot. So when you have to have the owner there for things and she's busy or in a meeting or unavailable, it's not possible."
John Kermann started working for Hands in June 2002 as the main contact for farmers. The business was on shaky ground financially when Hands decided to expand it, Kermann says. She opened a store on 18th Street, a little more than a mile from her first location. "There was no evidence that the desire existed in the neighborhood for the kind of store Heather wanted," Kermann says. "We weren't sure Kansas City was ready to support one store of this kind, much less two."
After the second store opened, Kermann says, Hands agreed not to launch a third store unless one of the two existing stores closed. Then, to Kermann's dismay, Hands announced in November 2004 the opening of a third store on 39th Street, just three miles from the second location. She now had three stores within a 10-minute drive of one another.
At that point, Kermann says, the stores' chief investor told Hands that he would no longer support the stores. It was his money that was keeping the unprofitable business afloat, Kermann says, and soon Hands was paying her bills with rubber checks. "You have to understand how Heather's mind works," Kermann explains. "She goes by, 'This is what ought to be, and if we believe in it enough and push enough, somehow it will happen.'"
In March of this year, bills had become so delinquent that electricity at the River Market store was shut off. The same day, gas service to the 39th Street location was halted. Shortly thereafter, Hands closed her three stores for good.
In her defense, Hands says her business failed in part because of personal problems. In December 2004, she says, an errant bullet flew through her car window as she drove, just missing her. One week later, her apartment caught fire. Then her daughter got the mumps. "It dawned on me finally that I was exhausted," Hands says. "I realized that if I was going to be the person that I think I am, someone who follows through on her word, who has integrity, I was going to have to stop the madness."
Whatever the source of Hands' woes, a growing number of people say she owes them money. The list starts with the landlord of the storefront she rented downtown to grow her wheatgrass. Bob Ehinger says Hands illegally broke her lease in order to open the City Market location. He claims that she left her former spot at 1519 Cherry filthy and crawling with rodents. "You should've seen it," he says. "You would have sworn off wheatgrass." Ehinger filed suit and won a judgment against Hands in October 2004 for $4,700.
But Ehinger isn't as bad off as some of the farmers.
Dan May, who runs a 10-year-old farm 120 miles south of Kansas City, says Hands owes him about $700. He says he has given up hope of being repaid. He says he received a letter from Hands that included the phone number of a debt counselor who was helping her manage her finances. The number never worked, he says, and Hands hasn't returned his calls since.
Dairy farmer Barb Buchmayer, who raises 60 cows on a 550-acre farm near Purdin, Missouri, says Hands owes her $3,000. In June, Hands tried to pay Buchmayer with a check that bounced. The dairy farmer took it to Linn County prosecutors, who charged Hands with passing a bad check. In September, Hands pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor charge and was sentenced to six months' probation, according to court documents available online.
"Part of her vision was to help farmers, but the way she ended it, I'm not sure they were happy with the situation," Buchmayer says. "We felt kind of used, I guess would be the thing, by design or desperation or whatever. I just know that when I can't make a payment, I call people and let them know and work things out so they're not surprised."
Hands steers conversations about the Local Harvest experience toward what she perceives as its positive results. Despite her debts, she says she believes that her customers learned about buying food produced by local farmers and eating with the natural rhythm of seasons. She's careful to admit some mistakes but not others.
Recently, however, she wrote Kermann an e-mail that hinted that she is coming to terms with some of her missteps: "In many ways you are/were right in the inner workings of Local Harvest and many of its flaws, I see that now," she wrote. "It's hard to see into the soul of another and to understand why others do what they do, but we learn nonetheless."