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Angela Harrington at Panka Peruvian Restaurant

7/3/2024

Angela Harrington is a developer, hotelier and civic promoter of the I-80 corridor from Des Moines to Iowa City. We asked her to lunch and met at Panka Peruvian Restaurant, a marvelous, minority- and female-owned café on Ingersoll. 

Mariella Maya’s restaurant upgraded recently after she closed her rotisserie chicken shop in the Drake neighborhood. Panka now serves a unique brunch six days a week with excellent bargains and rare South American delights. 

Maya has been telling me for years that Peruvian cuisine is the world’s sleeping giant. It might be waking up now after the international successes of Nobu Matsuhisa and Gastón Acurio plus the stunning news that Mitsuharu Tsumura’s Maido in Lima has been named to the top five of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. 

Over pork belly sandwiches, zucchini soup, fried sweet potatoes, arepas and empanadas, we talked about the Iowa hospitality business. Harrington built, owns and manages the boutique Hotel Grinnell in a longtime closed former junior high school building. She also revived and owns the 1960s Highlander Hotel and Supper Club in Iowa City. Such ambitious restorations usually are done by nostalgic lifelong locals. Harrington is a Denver gal.

How did she get from there to here?

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“I was a city girl, graduated from Denver East High and Denver University. I met my husband 25 years ago while working in Minneapolis. I planned on scrapping him when I was done there and moving back to Denver. He changed my mind. He’s from Iowa, and I quickly loved it here. We live in Grinnell, and I love it.”

Iowa has traditionally been called a great place to grow up, or raise kids, or retire. But what was it like coming to small town Iowa to launch a career?

“Iowa is a great place to work. Seriously, I can call the city manager, the mayor, the president of the bank, the head of a board of directors, etc. and they take my calls or call back. That does not happen in big cities.”

No one who isn’t born into the business ever plans on being a hotelier. How did she?

“I did work my way through college at the desk of a downtown Denver Holiday Inn. I ran the Chamber of Commerce in Grinnell for 10 years, mostly thinking we needed an events center. Finally, it occurred to me that a hotel was the greater need. I talked to a trustee at the college, and he agreed to be an investor. Grinnell Mutual Insurance and Priority Plastics got behind it; the whole business community did. Historic tax credits helped, too.

“I loved the old junior high school. It was right on Central Park, positioned to anchor a vital new downtown. I love old buildings because I love stories — telling guests that Mickey Mantle, Joan Baez and Arnold Palmer stayed at the Highlander and Joe Biden stayed at Hotel Grinnell. We converted the school into a deluxe, boutique hotel between 2008 and 2017. I am tenacious if anything. And my husband is a contractor.”

So why move on quickly to a second project?

“It’s a bitch being an independent in a world of chains. You need partnerships and alliances to become more economically viable. That’s why I joined Historic Inns of America. The Highlander is a local historic landmark, and Hotel Grinnell is local and state. Without the support systems that a chain has, I realized I had to upgrade my tech. I think I did that because I just heard from Google that my hotel has received three million Google searches. 

“The Highlander Inn and Supper Club were built in 1964. When I first saw it in 2019, it was distressed. The Clarion had covered up the sunken bar. The first thing I noticed were its giant windows. Walking through a room with buckets everywhere, I could see (“Mad Men” character) Don Draper with a cigarette and martini.  

“I bought it, and then COVID happened. I had to use my entire renovation budget just to stay afloat. Thank God my husband is a contractor. He did almost all the work restoring it.”

Are these hotels more alike or different? 

“The Hotel Grinnell is sexy and chic. Its spirit animal is a sexy librarian. The Highlander Hotel is just crazy. Janis Joplin is its spirit animal — barefoot, carefree, maybe a little drunk. We host weddings there, and some guest rooms come with a free pizza and six pack of local beer. We restored its famous sunken bar — that’s very retro — and added a large arcade — not very retro. The pool is huge and the focus for family travelers. A city bus runs downtown and back every half hour from 7 to 7. The Supper Club is an attraction at the Highlander. It’s a basic steak and seafood place. Prime rib is by far the most popular dish. I want to enlarge on entertainment, expanding live music. 

“At the Hotel Grinnell, the bar is the restaurant with just charcuterie, salads and pizza (including Indian butter chicken, chimichurri steak and mahi mahi). It’s called The Periodic Table, because — Grinnell. We want to complement downtown restaurants, galleries, bars and shops rather than compete with them. Great places are within three blocks like Saint’s Rest Coffeehouse, Solera Wine Bar, Prairie Canary café, Grin City Bakery, and a nine-hole golf course, plus the college. We have free bicycles for guests so they can visit places like the Faulconer (now Grinnell College Art Museum).

“And I bought a Bon Jovi bus. It looks like it might have transported his band four decades ago. We will take that to the Newton Speedway, to Solon for all its breweries, to football games and concerts — anywhere to tailgate.”

So, what’s next?

“I have a management contract with Jake Christensen’s Molo Hotel. (That will rebirth the old Howard Johnson’s motel and restaurant in Des Moines.) I can’t wait to get going there. Clam strips and 28 flavors of ice cream. That reminds me of childhood trips down the California coast. The Molo is where I see Don Draper as spirit animal now.”

What are Harrington’s favorite hotels elsewhere? 

“Hotel Emma in San Antonio. It’s amazing, in the old Pearl Brewery. And Iron Horse Hotel in Milwaukee, in a 100-year-old warehouse and in the middle of everything downtown.” 

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