Omaha Culinary Tours: New company hopes to make Omaha’s burgeoning food culture a tourist attraction
It wasn’t so long ago that when you thought about food and Omaha your palate memory went to steakhouses, Italian restaurants, a few other Old World ethnic eateries, and the usual assemblage of local diners, drive-ins, and dives. Fine dining options were, well, rather limited. With a few exceptions, it was a bland, one or two note food landscape dominated by Euro-American influences. Locally owned, chef-led restaurants were relatively few and far between. Food trends took a long time to get here. The use of locally produced fresh food products was rare. Innovation and experimentation was not much on the menu. There was a dearth of food from Africa, South America, Asia, India, et cetera. Many ethnic foods simply couldn’t be found here. But as the Omaha cultural scene has blossomed the last two decades, so has the local food culture and scene, so much so that you can now pretty much find anything here that you can find anywhere else in the States, with the possible exception of New York City or Los Angeles. The cuisine has dramatically increased in terms of, variety, nationality, daring, and quality. I don’t claim to know all the reasons for this phenomenon but a few may be: The Insitute for Culinary Arts at Metropolitan Community College is a feeder of highly trained chefs; Omaha’s seen an influx of new immigrants from many different parts of the world and their national dishes have been introduced here; more and more Omahans travel for busines and pleasure and they bring back a demand for the eclectic flavors, ingredients, and dishes they sample; social media and the Food Network have similarly opened the horizons of diners and proprietors alike to vast possibiltiies in food; more chef-owned eating spots have opened under the direction of cutting-edge artists who craft meals to appeal to the growing foodie population and their ever broader, more sophisticated tastes. These same trends apply to a growing number of gourmet and specialty food stores here. A local startup, Omaha Culinary Tours, is taking full advantage of these trends by making the burgeoning food culture a tourist attraction. Learn about this company in my Reader (www.thereader.com) story below. Look for a coming cover piece that attempts to take stock of how Omaha’s gone from a food deadend to a food mecca.
Omaha Culinary Tours: New company hopes to make Omaha’s burgeoning food culture a tourist attraction
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The recently launched Omaha Culinary Tours looks to capture foodies and urban explorers alike.
Owners Jim Trebbien, Jen Valandra and Suzanne Allen are banking this town’s rich culinary scene is destination worthy enough to support their business. For a fee OCT offers guided tours of locally owned restaurants and food stores and the historic districts they reside in.
Satisfied with test tours conducted in December, OCT is now taking reservations for walking tours that are also urban adventures. Its Midtown tour is the lone active trek right now but new ones are in the works for the Old Market, Dundee, Benson and downtown. A craft beer and pizza tour is likely to be a staple along with a ballpark fare tour come College World Series time.
A Valentine’s tour is also being planned.
Transportation-provided journeys will be offered, including steakhouse and comfort food tours.
Each walking tour covers about a mile while visiting six or seven venues in a span of 2 1/2 to 3 hours. At each stop guests sample food prepared fresh on-site just for the visit and meet the venue’s owner, chef or manager.
A well-informed guide leads the way, sharing back stories about the food places and the neighborhoods. OCT limits public tours to groups of 6 to 16. Private tours can accommodate more guests. Private tours can be designed to fit whatever theme clients desire.
The set Midtown tour features Chef2 (Trebbien is part owner), Brix, The Crescent Moon, The Grey Plum, Marrakech and Wohlner’s. In addition to tasting different cuisines it’s a sampling of three distinct districts – Blackstone, Gold Coast and Gifford Park.
On the December 28 Midtown tour superstar Grey Plume chef-owner Clayton Chapman personally greeted guests and intro’d the tastings menu served. He even stuck around to answer questions. It’s all part of what Allen calls an “interactive thing.” “
Valandra says, “Part of the experience is seeing the pride in the owners when they talk about their food and tell their stories. They’re sharing part of themselves.”
“It’s communion, it’s sharing food and conversation with other people and community. You learn about an area, you sample the food there, you meet some of the people there,” says Trebbien.
Allen says OCT’s getting strong buy-in from venue owners.
“They want to be a part of it, they see the value of it. They’re getting potential customers. They’re getting a chance to wow people that maybe wouldn’t have walked through the door before.”
“A “novice foodie” with “an appreciation for the culinary scene,” Allen holds a regular job doing sales and heads OCT’s marketing efforts. She got the idea for a food tour company on her travels across the U.S. She noted food tourism’s a popular activity for folks to explore the cultural landscape of cities they inhabit or visit.
“More of the masses are wanting food as as event. I’ve taken these tours around the country and I’ve loved the experience. I thought Omaha’s ready for this.”
Trebbien and Valandra felt the same way and began pursuing the same vision. He’s dean of culinary arts at Metropolitan Community College and an Omaha Hospitality Hall of Fame.inductee. She’s an MCC culinary arts graduate and works under Trebbien as culinary project coordinator. She previously ran the Medusa Project, a now defunct local presenting arts organization. The self-described “serial entrepreneur” has established several startups. The first time the pair heard of Allen is when she called for advice on her planned food tour startup. Rather than compete, the threesome decided to partner.
“It became obvious we needed each other,” says Valandra. “We work really well together and complement each other.”
“We have three different skill sets that intertwine,” says Trebbien.
“It was very clear we could get a lot more accomplished together than we could alone,” says Allen. “it’s taken off since we came together.”
Allen says they share a bullish passion for Omaha’s assets. They feel the depth of the emergent food scene and resurgent urban environment may be what finally puts Omaha on the map, It’s why they’ve moved fast since forming the company in August. Sporadic tastings and festivals may celebrate food here but they say there hasn’t been a dedicated food tour operation. Noting that successful food tourism businesses operate all over, even Des Moines and Kansas City, they feel the local market’s overdue to be tapped.
“Years ago in Omaha if you wanted to go out for fine dining you were pretty much confined to a steakhouse and now fine dining is the best cuisine from anywhere,” says Trebbien. “There’s a number of James Beard Award nominated chefs around town. The culinary scene has changed tremendously and it changes tremendously every year. Omaha’s being discovered for its amenities and food is part of that.”
Allen says OCT’s not just for visitors but for locals.
“Omahans have their favorites but taking a tour like this allows them to get out and experience six or seven new places in one afternoon or evening. They can find a new favorite or add a couple new places to their comfort zone.”
While not a progressive dinner, the food served on OCT tours should fill most guests, the owners say. Then there’s the added sustenance of discovering new places and learning some history along the way.
“It’s part of the culture,” says Allen.
For schedule and booking details, visit http://www.omahaculinarytours.com.
Food, wonderful food. A food movement and subculture is well under way in America that finds urban dwellers growing their own organic produce, even tending chickens for fresh eggs and raising rabbits for fresh meat, in order to create healthy, sustainable, self-reliant food production and distribution models that bypass dependence on corporate, profit-driven systems with their higly processed, pre-packaged products and that provide relief for the food deserts found in many inner cities. This trend towards fresh, locally produced ingredients is well-entrenched among the culinary set, where enligntened chefs and restaurants often grow much of their own produce or else get it from local farmers. At Metroplitan Community College the Institute for Culinary Arts operates the Sage Student Bistro, a public eating venue whose gourmet meals are prepared by students under chef instructor supervision. The Bistro works closely with the Horticulture program across the street to serve up menus thick with fresh ingredients grown in the campus gardens and greenhouses and aquaponic tanks. My new cover story for Edible Omaha features this culinary-horticulure marriage. You can find my related stories on this blog about the Omaha ventures No More Empty Pots and Minne Lusa House.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in the Harvest issue of Edible Omaha
Culinary arts and horticulture studies are close, interdisciplinary tracks and next door neighbors at Metropolitan Community College’s Fort Omaha campus.
With the whole farm to table and sustainable movements in full bloom, it’s no surprise collaboration happens there to give students and diners at MCC’s Sage Student Bistro fresh, organic food grown by the horticulture team.
It’s all about working with and enjoying quality ingredients as close to the source and ground as possible.
Metro’s quarter-acre production garden is just a few hundred feet from the Bistro, which also has a cutting herb garden on its patio dining area. Locally sourced food “doesn’t get any closer than this,” says chef instructor Oystein Solberg.
“It’s hyper local,” says horticulture instructor and garden manager Patrick Duffy.
“It’s an incredible difference being able to talk to guests about it and point to where a lot of the vegetables grow,” says Solberg. “During the summer when we’ve got the herb garden going our guests can sit out there and smell the basil and mint and oregano we’re using to cook with.
“There’s few restaurants that do what we do, that are a learning environment teaching both our guests and our students.”
Solberg says this is only the third or fourth harvest season for the garden and the Bistro is making more and more use of it.
“It’s marvelous. By growing we’ve been able to use more local than we’ve ever done. Keeping it growing and evolving is excellent.”
He says having the school’s horticulture program be a key producer for its culinary program is “a little bit outside the box,” adding, “There’s not that many schools that have it, but there’s a lot of restaurants starting to have it. Like they maybe have a little garden up on the roof. When you go to Calif., really all along the west coast, there’s a lot of restaurants that have attached gardens, so it’s getting more common
“Our goal is not really to try and be as everybody else, we want to try and push the boundaries and see how far we can go with it.”
Institute for Culinary Arts dean Jim Trebbien says, “We have had people come to study our model from across the country. It is quite unusual because most culinary programs do not operate a restaurant such as ours and have the expertise we do and most horticulture programs have not adopted new sustainability methods into their curriculum as quickly as we have.” He says this integrated, collaborative resulted from discussions with local leaders in food sustainability, including MCC’s own Brian O’Malley, Jen Valandra and Todd Morrissey and No More Empty Pots’ Nancy Williams and Susan Whitfield.
Solberg oversees the Bistro. Under his and fellow instructors’ supervision culinary students prepare gourmet meals for paying customers and are graded on their performance. Solberg works closely with Duffy to determine what can be effectively grown and delivered to meet the Bistro’s schedule and end up on its menus. The garden is also a teaching tool for both horticulture and culinary students. The Food Cultivation course uses the garden as an outdoor laboratory.
“Patrick tells me what they want to do with their classes and then I write a menu of what I want to do with my classes. We met back in Jan.-Feb. and tried to figure out what they were going to plant, what was going to be done when, then we tried to make the menus out of that. With the greenhouses they have over there we can start growing fairly early because they keep the temperature and the soil fairly high.
“Then if I’ve got some changes, if i have other stuff I want to play with, to kind of fit in spots here and there, or I randomly think of something I haven’t worked with in a while, I’ll pitch it by him to see if it’s something he can grow. We’ve got to work within the timeline. Starting in Jan. we’ve got to have ready greens by June. We have to see what we’re able to get with the weather and climate. It’s a lot of stuff that has to match up. It’s kind of a never-ending process.”
Sage Student Bistro
Duffy says, “I’m getting better at timing things out. We need to make sure our peaks coincide with the school quarter, so we don’t have too much excess. It’s challenging. Down the road we’d love to do a farmer’s market where that excess would feed into, but that’s a couple years away. But it’s certainly like the next level where we would bleed off that excess. Right now it gets composted.”
For this summer’s menu Solberg’s arranged for Duffy to grow a long list of ingredients to be used in various ways and dishes:
“It’s an early summer menu, so there’s no tomatoes, and there’s more likely zucchini blossoms than zucchinis,” says Duffy. “Then when the Bistro opens again in Sept. there’ll be big sexy stuff like tomatoes. We’ll grow a lot of tomatoes. We do a pretty intense production. We do vertical trellising. We’ll focus more on red tomatoes this year and less colored tomatoes. We’ll play around a lot. We’ve done some grafting on tomatoes. To up the vigor of our hybrids we take an heirloom and graft it onto a hybrid root.
“We’ve backed off on things like pumpkins because they take up so much space and we don’t have that much use for them. When you go from being a backyard gardener to a production grower you need to start doing more lettuces and cabbages and lots of them and all these background things that go into salads.”
Duffy says young culinary students can particularly benefit from learning about the production side.
“The truth is they don’t know what’s available, they don’t know there are white tomatoes, white watermelons. One thing I do is walk them through everything and say, ‘These are your options.’ I tell them you’re only as good as what’s coming off the truck if that’s what you’re going off. Wholesale distributors are only delivering certain things. Once you know your options then you and your imagination as a chef is the limiting factor.
“So I try to push them.”
The more students understand the food chain, Solberg says, the better. “It just makes them respect the food in a whole different way. It makes them see what labor and blood, sweat and tears go into growing those things. It makes them think twice before throwing it away or using it carelessly.” Solberg also impresses upon students the varieties available to them. He uses tomatoes as an example.
“Some are better for roasting, some are better for stewing. You can use different tomatoes for different end products. Like the Striped Cavern has thick hearty walls great for scooping out and filling and roasting. There are differences in flavor and texture. The Nebraska Wedding and Amish Paste are sweet and delicious.”
He always advises to go with what’s fresh and best.
“Like getting tomatoes in Dec..Yes, you can do it but you really shouldn’t. You shouldn’t be doing BLTs and caprese salads in Dec. It just ties into menu-writing and the way you think. It ties into everything we should be about. If you’re writing a Christmas menu you use more winter hearty greens because the product will be at its best instead of getting cardboard tomatoes from wherever. It’s just wrong.”
Solberg says he’s learning all the time himself about varieties. “It’s awesome.”
Duffy’s also open to Oystein’s opinions. He recalls first meeting the chef, a native of Norway, at the Metro garden and Oystein asking, “Where are the currant bushes going to go?” Duffy says, “I had not even thought about putting currant bushes in but being from Norway he immediately went to berries and I went and bought 10 currant bushes and we’ve grown that. They’re a permanent part of the garden. It’s a commitment you make.” Duffy also added raspberries.
Additionally, Duffy grows apples and pears on the trellises “Those are just now starting to come into their own,” he says.
Horticulture supplies more than just things that grow in the ground. Its aquaponics tank raises tilapia and its barnyard provides fresh eggs, rabbit, squab and honey.
As a result Metro is offering a small animal husbandry class and a small farming degree. “We’ve had a lot of interest already,” says Duffy. “It’s going to start this fall.”
The more the relationship between horticulture and culinary grows, says Duffy, “I’m learning what to bring – greens, root vegetables. We grew potatoes one year but those take up a lot of space. I bring catalogs and we go through them together. I usually start with what I call the Christmas List and have them say everything they want. I don’t want them to edit themselves on their side and then I see what I can do on my side and then we try to meet in the middle. It’s a back and forth.”
Duffy adds, “When I deliver things I try not to edit myself. I was at first. Like I was cutting off the radish tops before I brought the radishes but he (Solberg) wanted the radish tops too, so I have to make sure I don’t edit myself and just give them as raw and complete a product as I can because then they have more uses.” And when he sees something like bok choy on a menu plan he inquires what variety’s desired.
He says he occasionally pitches things to the chefs. One year he tried selling them on dandelions. “It didn’t really fly. Too bitter. I might try it again sometime.”
His goal is for the garden to receive USDA organic certification. He envisions more gardens around campus one day. The barnyard could one day also raise pigs and goats.
Both men agree the collaborative is a success.
Duffy says the burgeoning relationship “better then we ever could have imagined.”
“It’s been a joint effort really,” says Solberg. “Like I’ve always enjoyed cooking out of the garden and they’ve always enjoyed growing stuff for us to use. It just happened pretty organically. It didn’t ever have to be forced.”
And if some things don’t turn out, Solberg adds, “I’m flexible, I just work with whatever Patrick gives me.”
The Bistro is open for lunch and dinner this fall. For menus, hours and reservations, call 402-457-2328.
- New film ‘Growing Cities’ takes road trip look at urban farmers cultivating a healthy, sustainable food culture (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- The Top 10 Best Jobs For Foodies (collegefeed.com)
- Culinary Arts Club Expose (denobis.wordpress.com)
- How to Grow Your Own Herb Garden (epicahome.com)
- Crops and the Classroom: Milton Hershey School Culinary Students Get Creative With Produce During Pa.’s Peak Growing Season (prweb.com)
The Old Market in Omaha is a both major attraction and a laidback state of mind that’s made up of the places and personalities, past and present, expressed there. Two of this historic arts and culture district’s longest sustained restaurants, M’s Pub and Vivace, share the same owners and executive chef, and in 2013 these each of these eateries celebrates a milestone anniversary. M’s Pub is 40 years old and Vivace 20 years old. Owners Ann Mellen and Ron Samuelson discuss their successful enterprises in the following story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) and along with Old Market pioneer Roger duRand they look back at the force of nature who started M’s, Mary Vogel, and who personified the visionaries and characters that have made the Market the singular destination and experience that it is.
Two Old Market Fixtures Celebrate Milestones
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Signature Old Market spot M’s Pub celebrates 40 years in business this year. It’s a milestone for any independently owned restaurant. But reaching four decades takes on added meaning because when M’s opened in 1973 (a planned 1972 opening was delayed), the fledgling Market’s survival looked unsure.
The Market though went from counter culture social experiment to mixed use success story. M’s owners Ann Mellen and Ron Samuelson doubly appreciate a thriving Market as their highly reviewed eatery is a fixture along with a second respected restaurant they own there, Vivace, which marks its 20th anniversary this fall. The establishments are emblems of the district’s sustainability and growth.
The well-connected woman who founded “M’s” and was its namesake, the late Mary Vogel, wanted to be part of the emerging Market scene. She commissioned architect John Morford from the Omaha firm headed by Cedric Hartman, who designed the French Cafe, to transform the former Sortino Fruit Company warehouse into a sophisticated, cozy environs inspired by her favorite dining-drinking nooks from around the globe, particularly the pubs of England and Washington DC. Some argue M’s is more bistro than pub but whatever it is M’s owns a reputation for quality food, superior service and laid-back charm that’s both cosmopolitan chic and homespun Midwest.
The small space is dominated by a three-sided green marble topped bar, exposed white brick work, a high ceiling, large mirrors, which make the room seem bigger, and picture windows that provide a glimpse of 11th Street on the east and peer into Nouvelle Eve on the south. The open kitchen is about the size and shape of a train’s dining car and overflows with activity, though the culinary action mostly happens in the downstairs prep rooms.
“It’s just a great open plan,” says Samuelson. “Timeless. And that’s why we don’t change anything about it because we see a lot of fads come and go and as tempting as you might be to say, ‘Well, it seems like that’s what everybody’s doing today – maybe we should try that,’ it’s not going to work here.”
M’s is indelibly of the Old Market. Like its neighbor shops it resides in a historic, 19th century building that exudes character earned with age. It adheres to tradition. It pays attention to detail. Its personality can’t be replicated or franchised.
“I don’t think we could take our sign and throw it in a place out west or anywhere else really,” Samuelson says. “I just don’t think it would transfer.”
The affable, attentive, knowledgable wait staff wear crisp white and black uniforms with none of the attendant starch.
Samuelson says, “We’ve worked really hard for a really long time to position ourselves as a place where you can come sit by side with the table that has a $150 bottle of wine and a couple steaks and you can have a beer and a Greek sandwich and not be treated any differently by the waiter. A lot of our people have been around here for a really long time. We have people that we trust.”
When Vogel sold M’s in 1979 to Mellen’s parents Floyd and Kate Mellen she stayed on as hostess and matriarch. Ann Mellen began working there around then and she soon grew fond of this force of nature.
“She would sit at the bar every day after lunch and count how many drinks we sold,” Mellen says of Vogel. “She was a trip. A very energetic lady, very world traveled, very knowledgable, very opinionated. But very helpful – when things went wrong here she knew who to call.
“She had a passion for this place. She knew exactly what she wanted it to be and she did it right. She totally designed M’s after her favorite places all over the world. She was like the mother of M’s pub. It was her baby.”
Market pioneer Roger duRand writes:
“Mary Vogel was a dame, A socialite with a heart of brass (polished). Mary was equal parts Mayflower pedigree, finishing school gloss and ribald cocktail raconteur. When she courageously cast her lot with the Old Market demimonde of 1972, she found a welcoming environment among the artists and adventurers. Her vision of a tearoom for ‘ladies who lunch’ that doubled as a bistro for ‘lads who lust’ became the elegant and reliably satisfying M’s Pub that remains little changed from its first days.”
Samuelson, who went to work there in 1986 after restaurant experience in Omaha, Texas and Colorado and then quickly partnered with Mellen, admired Vogel’s “indomitable spirit,” adding, “I think she was way ahead of her time. I think that’s probably why she got along with the Mercers so well. They needed people like that to incubate ideas and to establish a core of anchor businesses.”
Mellen’s parents, who’d never operated a restaurant before, bought it with the intent of their restauranteur son Joe running it but when he passed Ann stepped in to lend her folks a hand. Her passion for the business bloomed.
“I liked working for myself basically,” says Mellen, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism grad who worked as a reporter and advertising copywriter before M’s. “Then I came here and never left.”
She and Samuelson pride themselves on being hands-on owners. One or the other or both are at their restaurants most days. A tunnel connects the two sites.
Though an institution today, M’s first decade was a struggle.
“Times were hard,” she says. “The Old Market was a totally different place then.
The Omaha (homeless) mission was just up the street. A lot of people were afraid of the Old Market. But even then it had a family, neighborhood feeling and I liked that a lot.”
“It gets under your skin,” Samuelson says of the Market.
By the early ’80s, Mellen determined the Market was here to stay.
“It just got busier and busier and we saw more tourists coming to the area. You could just tell it was an exciting, upcoming area.”
She and Samuelson, both Omaha natives, make a good team.
“We’re a good fit personality-wise and professionally,” he says. “We share the same passion for the Old Market and the same visions and goals for M’s and Vivace. It’s rare we have a disagreement about and when we do we do it respectfully.”
“I don’t want to seem like an old married couple but a lot of people think we’re married. We’re not,” says Mellen.
She does all the books. An acknowledged foodie, he deals more with the culinary side. Both partners enjoy engaging with people.
“We feel the same way about how to treat people – our clientele as well as our employees,” he says.
The fierce devotion of M’s regulars is appreciated but it can be too much.
“Somebody who’s been coming here for awhile may have an opinion about what you’re doing and if you don’t take their advice you can ruffle some feathers that way,” says Samuelson. “We listen to people a lot and we always end up making decisions based on the good of the whole, which I think is responsible ownership.”
He says that with M’s “in good hands” he and Mellen decided to launch Vivace in 1993 ” to fill a gap we saw in the landscape of the restaurant scene in Omaha for Mediterranean-influenced Italian food. We wanted to fill a niche for the community but also complement what we do at M’s.” He’s proud of its pasta and pizza.
Vivace’s larger space is perhaps warmer than M’s but not as intimate.
Executive chef Bobby Mekiney is in charge of both kitchens. “He’s young and kind of bridges the generation gap for us in a lot of ways,” says Samuelson. “He’s as talented a guy as we’ve ever had here. He makes it work.”
Samuelson’s proud that M’s Pub and Vivace express the same “meticulously adhered-to, single-minded vision of passionate, locally-owned” venues that make the Market “a community treasure.”
- Old Market Pioneer Roger duRand (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- OmahaNightOutGuide.com Announces its Arrival as Omaha’s New Internet Directory for Dining, Entertainment and Night Life; Making it Easy to find something to do in Omaha. (prweb.com)
- The Troy Davis Story: From Beyond the Fringe to Fringes Salon (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Chocolate. Say no more. This delectable indulgence makes anyone with a taste for it weak in the knees with anticipation. Count me among the afflicted. When I heard about a local festival dedicated to chocolate I thought perhaps I had died and gone to heaven. This is a story I did advance of the most recent Great Omaha Chocolate Festival held earlier this fall.
Chocolate Gone Wild
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader
Year two of the Great Omaha Chocolate Festival at UNO celebrates one of popular culture’s great food indulgences.
Organizers of the September 30 event, which benefits the Omaha Section of the National Council of Jewish Women, say chocolate’s diversity will be highlighted in displays by 44 vendors. Sample wares ranging from cupcakes to cookies to candies to frozen yogurt to dog treats. Chocolate lotions, candles and clothing items, along with cookware, will also be available.
Big O 101.9-FM radio personality Dave Wingert will emcee the proceedings.
Bakers Candies of Greenwood, Neb, is the corporate sponsor and its general manager Todd Baker says the event will offer “chocolate made to almost every conceivable taste, from the highest end elite artisan confections all the way down to the mass produced broadly available consumer products.”
Festival co-chairs Beth Friedman and Joanie Jacobson, who’ve partnered on several NCJW projects together, say whether you’re a connoisseur or not the fest’s Willy Wonka-like sampling should please anyone looking to get their chocolate fix.
“It’s the variety,” says Friedman, a Brooklyn transplant. “I think it’s the fact that no matter what you may want you can find something to satisfy your chocolate fancy. A lot of it is about the vendors, we could never ever do it without the vendors’ participation and support. They provide the samples that fuel the festival.”
Jacobson, a Des Moines native, doesn’t believe the strong response to last year’s inaugural fest, which drew 2,200 people, has anything to do with a foodie fad.
“I just think chocolate is the ultimate, quintessential comfort food,” she says. “It is ambrosia. It’s this staple that’s a part of people’s lives. There’s T-shirts and mugs and greeting cards and lewd magazines that talk about chocolate. Chocolate’s everywhere and I think it always will be because I don’t know anything else like it.
“It’s amazing the appeal of chocolate. It makes people happy.”
Jacobson’s enthusiasm for the subject is personal.
“I’m a registered, card-carrying chocoholic. I’m 66 years old, so I’ve been eating chocolate for a long long time and I really believe with all my heart and chocolate soul that a good 75 80 percent of the public is in love with chocolate.”
Todd Baker says while chocolate never goes out of style there are trends and the festival showcases what’s new or hot in the chocolate universe.
“The festival will be a great place for not only vendors but the general public to see what’s happening within the industry,” he says. “What you’ll continue to see this year and actually got a hint of last year is really unprecedented manufacturing attention in the field of dark chocolate. As the American palette has matured more Americans have developed a taste for dark chocolate.
“Industry studies also point to the superlative health benefits of dark chocolate – everything from lowering blood pressure and stroke risk to increasing happiness and well being. The only thing people needed to eat more chocolate was an excuse and the studies have provided that for us.”
He says Bakers will not only scout for new products and ideas there but introduce new flavors at the company’s own booth.
“We’ve worked very hard on three new meltaway chocolate flavors to debut at the chocolate festival this year, which is the most new flavors we’ve ever added in any one year.”
In 2011, he says, “Bakers Candies became the first candy company in the world to mass produce a chocolate potato chip cluster.” It was introduced at the fest, where samplers were blissfully unaware of the logistics behind it. “It took a tremendous amount of work on the automated production technology side to get potato chips and chocolate solidified before they got soggy and ruined the formula,” he says.
Baker, whose father Kevin launched the company after a career as a missile defense contractor, realizes most chocolate lovers don’t care about where the chocolate they enjoy comes from. But Baker says they might be interested to know the U.S. now has “access to all kinds of coca we’ve never had access to before,” adding, “The variety of chocolate available to the American consumer is unprecedented anywhere in the world. It’s quite fantastic.”
It’s why he says there’s never been a better time to be a chocolate fan, though he says the automation that’s allowed companies like his family’s to grow comes with the price of compromising the flavor of old-time, hand-made recipes. On the other hand, he says some of the best chocolate innovators are small shops just like the ones slated for the festival.
Proceeds support local social action projects by the Omaha Section of NCJW, whose mission, Friedman says, is improving the lives of women, children and families. While she concede chocolate won’t fix bullying or domestic violence, it’s a safe, fun, family-centric thing. The Iowa Western Community College Culinary Arts program will offer hands-on chocolate activities for kids along with The Cordial Cherry. Cooking demonstrations are planned too.
The noon to 5 p.m. event takes place at the University of Nebraska at Omaha Field House. The $5 admission includes buys five samples. Children under 10 get in for $3 and receive tickets for three samples. Extra samples may be purchased.
The irony for Friedman is that since becoming co-chair she’s been diagnosed as pre-diabetic, meaning she’s had to eliminate all sweets from her diet. No matter, she’s just glad to carry the chocolate banner for a good cause.
For details, visit http://www.omahachocolatefestival.com.
For a long time I had in mind experiencing the Sage Student Bistro that’s part of the Institute for Culinary Arts at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, Neb. It’s reputation for fine dining precedes it. I finally got around to eating there late this past summer and the experience fulfilled all the expectations I had built up over time. You can read all about my experience there in the following piece that I filed for The Reader (www.thereader.com). The food is entirely prepared by Metro culinary students under the supervision of instructors. The results are divine. A visit to this different kind of bistro is well worth it.
A Different Kind of Bistro
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Among the first things you notice at Sage Student Bistro is the staff’s earnestness. Greeters, servers and cooks are all students in Metropolitan Community College’s respected Institute for Culinary Arts, whose sleek building is the face of the Fort Omaha campus’ south entrance.
This hidden dining gem occupies an intimate corner space just off the lobby. The contemporary, neo-industrial decor is accented by warm touches. Windows help open up the room and overlook the horticulture department greenhouse, the main supplier of Sage’s locally-sourced produce. Some of that fresh goodness is grown in a herb garden surrounding a small, semi-secluded patio outside the bistro.
Culinary students rotate from kitchen to dining room any given night as part of a well-rounded experience both in back and in front of the house. Students don’t have to worry about job security there but their performance in this live, public venue is graded and has everything to do with getting them ready for food industry careers. That aspirational motivation translates into eager-to-please service.
Diners are asked to fill out an evaluation form to offer much-valued criticism.
“Sage Student Bistro is an essential part of the student curriculum here. Having a paying customer that expects a restaurant quality meal makes for some honest and direct feedback,” says chef instructor Oystein Solberg, “Giving students as close to as possible real life experience hopefully takes away some of the dear-in-the-headlight feel once they’re out in the world getting paid for their craft.”
If you go on a slow night as I did you’re in for a pampered, privileged fine dining experience that could easily spoil you for your next eating-out adventure. The set-up included white linen tablecloths, lit candles and soft recorded music.
Wait staff did a good job explaining the menu’s dishes, including ingredients, preparations and techniques. For an appetizer I chose the bistro’s play on a BLT, a delightful deconstruction of the staple sandwich with bacon, toasted brioche, tomato relish and shredded butterhead lettuce.
The entree selections variously featured chicken, beef, salmon and duck. Following my servers’ suggestions, I ordered the free range chicken breast, well-complemented by chipolata apple sausage and a nice medley of beets and broccoli flowers, all tied together by an apple gastrique. Everything practically melted in my mouth.
A basket of piping hot brioche spread with sage butter added a final satisfying note.
The gourmet meals and sensible portions are reasonably priced, with appetizers at $5 or $6 and entrees from $16 to $18.
I found my table-side servers engaging. For instance, I learned my charming wait person, Yuka VanNorman, is from Okinawa, Japan. She says she was attracted to come from half way around the world to train at the Institute by the quality and affordability of its offerings. My other server, Forrest Whitaker-look-alike Jason Mackey, is a well-traveled Omaha native who one day hopes to impress diners like me at his own eatery. Their heart and passion overflowed.
All of it, the ambition and proving ground and attention to detail, result in a one-of-a-kind, give-and-take transaction that found me rooting for the students to wow me. If my one visit is any indication, they have the chops to pull it off, too. By the end, I felt as invested in the students as they seemed invested in me and this practicum.
It’s just what Metro’s culinary faculty hope for.
“I really believe culinary arts education must be guest-entered in order to be effective,” says chef instructor Brian O’Malley. “We have to learn to ply our craft to the expectations of others and Sage has grown to really drive that home throughout our curriculum.”
He says the bistro’s come a long way from its predecessor student operation, which served mainly Metro students and faculty in a no-frills cafeteria-like setting in Building 10 and was only “a side piece” of the culinary program. Now it’s a full-fledged public forum and integral training component all students participate in.
O’Malley, who helped found Sage, says, “It moves the classroom into a working restaurant-like environment. It brings an enormous sense of realism without actually being the real thing. As an industry professional I saw the great deficiency in culinary school grads was knowledge without application, and here we’ve worked hard to move towards that application. We’ve added this very deep middle layer (between test kitchen and internship) of operating a restaurant in-house.”
There’s a fine balance at play to make sure students are challenged, not crushed.
“We want them to get their butt kicked, we want it to be tough and difficult and hold their feet to the fire but we don’t want them to actually get burned,” is how O’Malley puts it. “We’re supposed to still be a safe place for a student to kind of push and grow and develop, so when they fall down it’s supposed to still be quiet to the rest of the world.”If missteps happen, and they do, he says “we kind of have to ask for your forgiveness.”
An OpenTable poll recently named Sage the best overall restaurant in Nebraska, a recognition Solberg says “we don’t like dwelling on” and he takes with a grain of salt given the small voter pool. Just as Solberg finds surprisingly few people in the metro know about the Institute, O’Malley says Sage is a best-kept secret on purpose.
“We certainly want to be known,” he says. “I mean, there’s a piece of the reputation of the school that rides on the quality of Sage, so we want it to be excellent, but we also don’t really want it to be crowded. We’re not trying to run Upstream Brewing company, we’re trying to get our students ready to work at Upstream.”
He says Sage does enjoy a regular following and business generally picks up as the quarter moves on and word gets out the bistro’s open again (it closes when school’s not in session). Thirty dollar prix fixe five-course dinners, resuming in October, have proven popular.
Sage is open Monday through Thursday for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For hours and menu details, visit http://www.mccneb.edu/bistro.
- KCC opens new kitchen learning center (thegardenisland.com)
- First-class culinary education comes at a price (napavalleyregister.com)
- Making a culinary difference in the classroom, and beyond: Culinary instructor Aristotle Matsis (thefoodiejournal.com)
- MCCTC Restaurant Open to the Public for Lunch (wytv.com)
- Unique Dining Experience Debuts in Canfield (wytv.com)
When proclamations start getting made about some new area of my city, Omaha, being a hot new spot my natural cynicism tells me I need to see for myself if there’s anything to the claims or if it’s just manufactured puffery. That was my cautious, cynical first response (in my head) when an editor asked me to write a piece about the purported revival going on in a neighborhood, Benson, I know fairly well from having grown up a mile east of it. Specifically, it is the Benson business district that many proprietors and observers say is undergoing a revival or rejuvenation or transformation that is making this strip a destination place. I must admit that though I had my doubts about it I have now seen it for myself and while I may be giving what’s happening there more credence than it deserves it is clear that something vital is unfolding in Benson that cannot be ignored. The dynamism there is well under way. It’s one part of a redeveloping North Omaha whose next big awakening and remaking will be playing out in the northeast boundaries once known as the Near Northside. It all bodes well for parts of the inner city here that have too long gone to seed. It only shows that with the right care and cultivation these older neighborhoods can be born again to blossom anew.
Revival of Benson Business District Gives Omaha a New Destination Place
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the Sept/Oct 2012 issue Omaha Magazine
The quaint, sleepy Benson you once breezed through to get somewhere else is suddenly the hip new place to be.
This working class neighborhood’s old-line business district has been made new again as a full-fledged entertainment strip. Music, drinking, dining establishments, along with art galleries, line both sides of Maple Street from 58th to 70th, many attractions housed in historic century-old buildings. The nightlife joints mix with anchors Haney Shoe Store, the Benson Community Center, a U.S. Postal Service station, bank branches, Kremer Funeral Home, thrift stores and Jane’s Health Market.
The activity really picks up at night, when parking’s tight.
Enhanced street lights and historical signs add ambience. Plans call for more amenities and streetscape improvements, including a revamped East entrance, better traffic flow, more pedestrian-friendly walkways and communal green space.
Benson’s revival is reminiscent of when the Old Market went from tired warehouse district to vital arts-culture hub. Some feel it’s already a destination.
“The Old Market has nothing on us,” says Hargiss Stringed Instruments owner and Benson historian John Hargiss.
Few but Hargiss saw this in store for Benson, where six years ago vacant storefronts and empty streets made it a ghost town at night.
“I knew it was coming, I knew it was on its way. It’s hard to keep this little town down,” he says. “I mean it’s seen the worst. It’s seen the Easter Sunday tornado it’s seen annexation, but it’s pretty damn resilient. It comes right back. When I got here in 1987 it was really going down the tubes. And then you saw this weird period when nobody would come to Benson because it wasn’t a nice place to come to.”
“In the last six years it’s exploded. Benson is definitely party town now,” says Hargiss. “There’s a young generation that owns this town in the evening.”
“We’re inspired is what it is,” says Ryan. whose enthusiasm led her to acquire the old Benson Theatre, which she hopes to restore as a multi-use arts-community space. “The news on the street is that Benson’s so much fun. People are really enjoying it.”
Espana restaurant-tapas bar helped make Benson a destination but the real catalyst came when The Waiting Room Lounge and live music venue opened in 2008.
“The Waiting Room was huge. It was the big solidifier for the neighborhood,” says John Larkin, co-owner of Jake’s Cigars & Spirits and The Beercade.
Benson Business Improvement District co-chair D’Ann Lonowski, whose Mint Design Group is in downtown Benson, says “gone are the days when Espana and The Waiting Room were the only two reasons people came down here.”
Indeed, a half-dozen eateries have opened on the strip or nearby, the cuisines ranging from New American (Lot 2, Mantra) to cajun (Ethel Mae’s) to Peruvian (Taita). Some hold-over diners (Leo’s, Joe’s) remain. A gourmet sandwich shop (Star Deli) is coming.
Craft beer bars have entered the scene, including The Sydney and Krug Park, whose owners, Marc Leibowitz and Jim Johnson, are the men behind One Percent Productions and The Waiting Room. New bars, including a brewery, are on tap.
“The bars are the driving force behind what’s happening down here,” says Larkin, but increasingly restaurants are too. Lot 2′s proved a sensation.
Paper Doll vintage clothing store, the Pet Shop Gallery and the 402 Arts Collective. are new entries.
The buzz, affordable property rates, tight-knit community and brisk Maple Street Corridor make Benson a prime site biz location.
Larkin says opening in Benson was a no-brainer because “the price was right.”
Lot 2 owners Brad and Johanna Marr already lived in Benson but now they’ve put business stakes there. “Benson is a great neighborhood and the perfect fit for our concept,” says Brad. “We saw the activity and energy going on and we wanted to contribute to the neighborhood’s progression.”
Community events bring added exposure. The July Benson Days celebrated Benson’s 125th anniversary with fireworks and concerts. Block parties and a weekly farmer’s market bring people out. First Friday art walks initiated by artists Alex Jochim and Jamie Hardy (Pet Shop Gallery) are proving popular.
“I feel like that’s a good example of what Benson is all about,” says Johnson. “That was started by these two artists who wanted to do it and it’s been a huge success. I think a lot of Benson is like that. It’s filled with people who have good ideas and are very community-based. Most of the buildings and businesses are owned by private individuals. There’s no big development group.”
“It’s all done independently, it’s all locally owned businesses,” notes Larkin. “It really creates that sense of pride.”
“For me it’s very much full-circle,” says Ryan. “Benson’s history is based on entrepreneurship. Mom and Pop shops. That’s what it’s always been.”
Today, Benson’s an eclectic community of self-made men and women growing their ventures organically on dreams and sweat equity. Owners like Ryan, Larkin and Johnson have invested so much there they intend staying.
“It’s been exponential growth. We’ve certainly crossed the threshold of making it and I only see this getting bigger and better,” says Larkin.
The various interests representing Benson are collaborative. Benson Neighborhood Association president Liz Muldenhauer says, “Even though we have some distinct personalties these individuals and groups are working together to make positive changes to make our community better.”
Owners say they throw everything they make back into their businesses for restoration and expansion. Several storefronts sport new facades.
Hargiss, who’s reluctantly leaving Benson for a bigger space, feels good about the new blood doing business there: “They put back here as much as they can.”
“It’s really wonderful to see these entrepreneurs coming in and getting behind this community,” Ryan says. “What Benson has going for it is an incredible grassroots spirit. People are so eager to assist each other.”
Marr agrees, saying, “Everybody is very supportive of one another.”
Ryan, who comes from a community development background, opens the PS Collective to meetings, art exhibits and live music concerts.
Being in a self-sustainable neighborhood appeals to Lonowski.
“The first thing I do when I need a service in my building is look for somebody in Benson. I want to support the people around me that support me,” she says.
She’s eager for others to discover all it has to offer. “We want people who maybe haven’t taken a second look at Benson in awhile to come down to see what a diamond-in-the-rough it is,” says Lonowski, who touts its “creative vibe.”
Muldenhauer embraces the creatives community but the “small town atmosphere, character and great value” are what sold her on moving there. “I love it,” she says. “There’s so many good things going on.”
- Documentary Considers Omaha’s Changing Face Since World War II (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- From My Series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, A Brief History of Omaha’s Black, Urban, Inner-City Hoops Scene (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- A Synergy in North Omaha Harkens a New Arts-Culture District for the City (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Omaha’s Northwest Radial Highway’s Small Box Businesses Fight the Good Fight By Being Themselves (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Berkshire Hathaway Annual Shareholders Meeting Turns Omaha into Buffettville Destination (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
As many of you know the filmmaker Alexander Payne is a Greek American with a fairly unpronouncable given name and he regards his heritage as much more than an aside. It’s a core aspect of his life. Hisv ery Greek family ran a popular, long gone eatery in downtown Omaha and some years ago I sat down with his father George to recall the life and times of their Virginia Cafe. Alexander, who has some fairly distinct childhood memories of the place, lent a few tidbits as well. Perhaps Payne’s most public display or acknoweldgment of his family and heritage came when he accepted the Oscar for Beast Adapted Screenplay last February and used the occasion to thank his date, who happend to be his mother Peggy, for enabling his early cinephile stirrings, even saying “I love you” in Greek before the worldwide audience. If you happen to be a Payne fan then this blog is for you. I’ve covered him for 15 years and counting and you’ll find the fruit of that work here.
Remembering the Virginia Cafe and the Restauranter Family Legacy of Filmmaker Alexander Payne
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
It’s nearly 40 years since Alexander Payne‘s family owned and operated the Virginia Cafe, a restaurant that for generations held a niche in the city’s downtown dining market. Recently, the filmmaker’s father, George Payne, shared some history and memories of the place and the family with The Reader.
George’s immigrant father, Nicholas (Papadopoulos) Payne, was founder and proprietor of the Virginia. Nick, as the patriarch was called, came to America in 1910, learning the confectionery trade from an uncle, John Birbilis, who helped Nick and brother Peter open the Palace of Sweets in Council Bluffs. In 1920 Nick, with cousin Fred Schizas and two other partners, bought the Calumet, a large, busy, around-the-clock food joint at 1413 Douglas Street that dated back to 1893. They remodeled it, renamed it the Virginia and kept it one of Omaha’s few 24-7 operations, George said. The other partners eventually dropped out.
According to George the Virginia served strictly American fare — steaks, chops, sandwiches, salads, a full breakfast line, daily lunch and dinner specials and traditional holiday favorites. The cafe housed its own bakery, had its own butcher and stocked a freezer with eight kinds of ice cream.
At its peak, he said, the popular cafe kept a payroll of 85 employees on three different shifts and served up to 3,000 diners a day.
George joined his father in the family business in the early ’50s. An Omaha Central High, Dartmouth and Northwestern University grad, George is a World War II vet who worked on the war production board in Washington D.C., where he met his wife, Peggy. He and Peggy settled in Omaha, where the youngest of their three sons, Alexander, fell in love with movies.
The future filmmaker was only 9 when a fire destroyed the Virginia but he has fond memories of the cafe.
“People loved that place,” Alexander Payne said by phone. “There was no key to the front door. They didn’t need one — they never closed. I used to like to go back to the kitchen and watch the chefs work. I remember all the wait staff and cashiers were so nice to me because, of course, I was the owner’s son. Our family ritual was dinner there every Thursday night.”
The Paynes ordered right off the menu.
While no Greek food was on the menu, the restaurant embodied Nick Payne’s classic immigrant made-good success story. Like many newcomers he went out of his way to be a super patriot. He sold millions of dollars worth of government Liberty Bonds during the Second World War, said George Payne, who added his father landed “quite a coup” when he inked a contract to feed all area military enlistees. From WWII through Vietnam, the Virginia served “last meals” to wide-eyed recruits en route to basic training.
“Those are the kinds of things that are a little unique from the Virginia,” the dapper George Payne said. There’s more. The cafe played a part in a tense chapter of Omaha history when a 1935 streetcar strike erupted in violence. George was 20 then and working part-time in the restaurant. Martial law was declared and more than 1,000 National Guard troops sent in to restore order. “That was serious stuff,” George recalled. The Virginia, located right on the streetcar line, was near the conflict between strikers and strikebreakers. The soldiers’ presence quelled the rioting. The cafe was commandeered into serving three meals a day to the troops.
“They came in and took over our business,” said George, who remembers the first guardsmen tromping in with their boots and packs and hanging their rifles on coat hooks attached to the fine mahogany wainscoting, which sent his father into a fit. From that point on the soldiers stacked their weapons safely out of harm’s way.
The Virginia was justly proud of its decor. Its glorious neon signage, plate glass windows, decorative tile-fronted exterior and rich mahogany interior with white table cloth covered tables and booths were straight out of an Edward Hopper painting. Distinctive murals of the American landscape and fine renderings of all 50 state seals adorned the lounge and dining room and the massive cross-section of a redwood tree was mounted in the party room.
“There wasn’t a restaurant in town that had that kind of atmosphere at all,” George said. “It was very well done. My dad had vision.”
This eclectic design reflected the diverse customers the Virginia catered to – professionals, office workers, politicos, housewives, clerks, stock boys, cabbies, crack-of-dawn delivery men, night owls and bar crawlers.
Up front, right at the door greeting customers, was Nick, trademark cigar in hand, dressed impeccably in a suit and tie and kibitzing with the line of people that formed at lunchtime. If anyone tired of the wait and started to leave George said Nick would coax them to stay with, “‘Don’t go. You know you’ll be back in five minutes. Where you going to go?’ He had a way with people.”
The cafe enjoyed a brisk trade before it went up in flames in 1969. Neither Nick nor George were there when the fire broke out on a Sunday night. They were awakened with the news and came down to see a burned out shell. After two full days of being hosed down, George said, the building collapsed in on itself. It was a total loss. George salvaged a few mementos and artifacts. There was talk of reopening at another spot but the family opted to walk away. The site of the Virginia was sold to the city, which built the W. Dale Clark Library there.
“I really didn’t quite know what I was going to do…” George said. He wound up with the Sheraton Hotels group and then the U.S. Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration – posts that took him around the world.
Nick Payne left a rich legacy that George has carried on. The elder Payne helped found the Omaha Restaurant Association, which his son presided over as president, as he did the Nebraska Restaurant Association. In 1956 American Restaurant Association Magazine inducted Nick into its Hall of Fame. The father was heavily involved with St. John Greek Orthodox Church. Nick Payne died in 1989. George Payne, now 92, has continued, with Peggy, his father’s support. The family, who’s made periodic trips to their ancestral homeland, retains close ties to Greece, where Alexander Payne intends to one day shoot a film.
- Alexander Payne to Talk Cinema with Kindred Spirit Jane Fonda at Film Streams Feature Event in Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Some Nebraska food brands have loyal followings no matter where their devoted customers live or visit. If you’re from here and you grew up with Runza meat-cabbage pockets and burgers or Valentino’s pizza or Dorothy Lynch salad dressing or Lithuanian Bakery tortes or Bohemian Cafe kolaches or Omaha Steaks, and you find yourself far away from here but craving that taste of Omaha, well then nothing is going to satisfy you except an overnight fix or order of that very product. The same goes for Vic’s popcorn. This is a short profile from a few years ago of the couple that created the brand and the demand for this scrumptious gourmet snacking staple.
Vic’s Corn Popper Owners Do More Than Make Snacks, They Mentor Young People
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in B2B Magazine
Once a teacher always a teacher. The axiom applies to Vic Larson and wife Ruth, retired educators whose Mom and Pop retail food company, Vic’s Corn Popper, integrates lessons from their lives and teaching careers.
Since Vic’s 1980 start the nurturing couple, who raised three children of their own, has employed scores of youths. For many, it’s their first job. The Larsons expect much from their teen brigade, whom they regard as ”our kids,” and get loyal high achievers in return.
“They’re the neatest kids,” said Larson. “Our philosophy, like in teaching, is that people will produce at the level you accept. If you accept mediocrity, that’s what you’ll usually get. But if you have high standards people will produce at that level. We have a high standard and we expect them to work to that. That’s why we give them the keys to the stores. They’re in charge.”
Larson said it’s not unusual for someone to start at 16 and stay until graduation. Even after moving onto college, he said, many Vic’s veterans come back to work summers or holidays. Some continue even after starting careers and families. He and Ruth are adamant high school students in their employ enjoy being kids.
“They’re kids, we want ‘em to have fun. We want ‘em to participate in school activities, go to games on Friday nights, go to prom, go to homecoming, and so we really push that. Instead of working 20-30 hours a week, they work 12 to 15 hours.”
The bonds run deep. “We get invited to their graduations, their weddings,” Ruth said. “We look at them as individuals not just as our Friday night crew or whatever,” she said. “They have their own needs, their own problems, their own families. You take each of those kids separately and think, ‘What does he need for guidance compared to this one, who maybe doesn’t need that.’ As a teacher you do that.” It’s the same with customers. “We make connections,” she said.
“We really work with our employees about treating people with dignity and respect,” added Vic. “You treat them as valuable people. You look ‘em in the eye and you get to know who they are, what they like, especially repeat customers. You want to make them feel like they are somebody special.”
Vic and Ruth say they’ve created a work culture based on “integrity and initiative.” The managers they hire instill a culture of “doing what’s right,” as Larson puts it. These principles were modeled by the couple’s own hard-working parents. His were educators. Hers, farmers. Like any good teachers, the Larsons view the youth in their charge as human resources they must prepare for the future.
“They have to deal with money, they have to make and package a quality product, they have to scrub the floors. I mean, they have to do it all,” he said. “We want to create a positive work environment so that they feel good about their job and they’ll go out and hopefully have good work experience in whatever they do. We want our kids to become good workers for others. That’s our goal.”
The Larsons communicate their business values and entrepreneurial guidelines not only with employees but with students at area elementary schools, high schools and colleges.
He said he tells students, “If you ever want to start a business it better be something you like. I also get into what we look for in hiring — we want good citizens because good citizens become good workers. With older students I get into budgeting and what it really costs to run a business.”
What began as a way for the couple to earn extra income became a passion.
Larson worked in the OPS vocational ed office at the time. The ex-industrial arts teacher supplemented his sparse teaching pay working summers for engineers and home builders. Having a business of his own was his real desire.
Ruth, who’d left teaching to focus on the kids, wanted to work again but not in the classroom. Taking a cue from the Korn Popper store he frequented growing up in his native Lincoln, Neb. he conceived a niche gourmet popcorn store featuring hybrid white corn. The brand long ago expanded into flavored varieties.
Korn Popper helped the Larsons launch the first Vic’s store in mid-town Omaha. Vic’s soon caught on. More sites followed, including the downtown Brandeis food court. In ‘84 the couple sold most of it to investors, remaining part-owners. Vic’s went national. The couple got out in ‘85. But the hunger to guide the business bearing his name compelled Larson to buy the Harvey Oaks store in ‘91. He’s since added the Oak View Mall store and reacquired the Brandeis site. A new addition is a production-distribution center set-up to handle Vic’s growing Internet orders.
What began as a moonlighting venture is a well-established family enterprise and mentoring outlet for the couple. It shows what’s possible with hard work and imagination, a message Larson tries conveying to kids. “I want to really engage them in that, to spark some interest in them. I always ask, ‘What do you really like to do? You’ll never get anywhere if you don’t have any plans or goals.’ We try to get ‘em thinking about what they want to do when they get out of school.”
The couple’s children have all worked at Vic’s. The grandkids are too young to work there just yet but Ruth said they’re already “staking out” which stores they want to run one day. The kernel doesn’t pop far from the kettle.
The name Omaha obviously doesn’t pop up in national media stories, online blogs, movies and television shows or songs the way, say, Chicago or L.A. or New York does, though it appears more often than you’d think. But it’s appearance is still rare enough that it’s a cause, if not for celebration exactly, than consideration. Aside from Warren Buffett and Alexander Payne, you’d be hard-pressed to immediately identify any contemporary figure from Omaha unless of course you’re from here yourself. Other than the College World Series and perhaps the Henry Doorly Zoo you’d likely come up empty thinking of events or placces that Omaha is known for unless again you’re a native or a resident or a frequent visitor. For better or worse the city’s image, if it has one at all in the minds of the general public, is forever fixed as a vaguely Western, agricultural, meatpacking center, which is to say it’s associated with corn and beef. One locally-based company with a national and international reach has rather perfectly combined product with perception – Omaha Steaks. It’s a brand that gives people what they expect, sort of the way the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers brand does. The following piece I wrote four years ago or so for B2B Magazine profiles the two men, first cousins Bruce and Todd Simon, who now run the multi-generational family business that’s grown to meet customers where they are, whether through physical stores, mail order catalogues, or electronic social media.
Cousins Bruce and Todd Simon Continue the Omaha Steaks Tradition
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in B2B Magazine
First cousins Bruce and Todd Simon are the fifth generation in family-owned Omaha Steaks. Their knack for brokering deals, managing people and anticipating the next big thing has the company’s annual sales nearing a half-billion dollars.
Each apprenticed under his dad and after working together 20 years each holds fast to cherished lessons passed down from above.
For 91 years the company’s found innovative ways to market fine meat and other foods to residential and commercial customers around the nation and the world. Along the way the Omaha Steaks name has become such an icon synonymous with quality beef that its hometown enjoys crossover brand recognition.
Bruce is president/COO and Todd is senior vice president, but their bond supersedes titles or labels. They’re family. Two in a long line to lead the business.
“You know what we have? We have an entire company of people who we trust — that we feel like we’re family with,” Bruce said. “That blood bond is really a family bond and it traverses not only the Simon family, it includes our executive committee, all the way down. There are guys I know in the plant that were there the day I started and I feel the same bond with them as I do to my cousin Todd. We all feel a responsibility to each other to make this place successful.”
“Well, I think it starts with the fact we’re a family business that allows us to really take those kind of family values into the whole business,” Todd said. “And it shows in the benefits we provide for our team in terms of family leave benefits or vacation benefits or day care. Scholarships.”
Legacy is never far removed from the Simons’ thoughts, as their fathers still take an active part in the company. Bruce’s father, Alan Simon, is chairman of the board/CEO. Todd’s dad, Fred Simon, is executive vice president. The cousins’ late uncle, Steve Simon, served as senior VP and GM.
“My dad was and is pretty much the operational guy. He’s the guy who ran the meatpacking plant and who was the bean counter,” Bruce said. “And Todd’s dad was the real marketing guy and Steve (Simon) was the sales guy.”
The three brothers — Alan, Fred and Steve — learned the business from their father Lester Simon, who in turn learned it from his father B.A. Simon. It all began when B.A. and his father J.J. Simon, both butchers, left Latvia for America in 1898 to escape religious persecution. With the meat business in their blood, J.J. and B.A. settled in Omaha, a meatpacking center, and worked in several area markets. In 1917 father and son opened their own meat shop, Table Supply Meat Company, downtown. Their niche was to process and sell beef to restaurants and grocers.
Table Supply responded to the growing food service sector by supplying meat to Union Pacific Railroad for its large dining car services as well as restaurants. Cruise lines, airlines, hotels and resorts became major customers. Lester Simon first took Table Supply retail via mail order ads. Then came a mail order catalog. Shipping-packaging advances improved efficiency, helping widen the company’s reach.
By 1966 all this growth warranted an expansion in the form of a new plant and headquarters on South 96th Street. With the new facilities came a new name, Omaha Steaks International.
The 1970s saw Omaha Steaks take new steps in customer convenience by adding inbound and outbound call centers and a mail order industry-first toll-free customer service line. An automated order entry system was installed in 1987.
The first of its retail stores opened in 1976. Visioning the online explosion to follow, Omaha Steaks helped pioneer electronic marketing back in 1990.Omahasteaks.com became the banner web site for the company’s fastest growing business segment. A new web site, alazing.com. promotes the company’s convenience meals brand, A La Zing, which offers a line of complete frozen prepared meals.
Omaha Steaks underwent another expansion phase in the ‘80 and ‘90s, consolidating administration and marketing in two new multi-story glass and steel buildings whose sleek interiors abound with examples from the Simons’ extensive art collections. Todd’s an elected member of the Board of United States Artists and board president of the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts.
Todd and Bruce help oversee a company with two million-plus customers and 2,000 employees. Guiding the pair in family-business dealings are the principles they picked up from their elders. By living those principles they fulfill their obligation.
“Our parents taught us to do the right thing. That’s really the only responsibility we have — just do the right thing. Do it all the time. Try to produce every single box of product perfectly. Try to satisfy every single customer perfectly,” Bruce said. “It’s all about being honest. Everybody in our family has been impeccably honest. We don’t take advantage of people. We sleep good.
“I mean, if you’ve got building blocks and you set them up properly you’re going to have a very strong building. And that’s what we have and it’s because of every single block…and the values that J.J., B.A., Lester, Alan, Fred, Steve and now Todd and I hold dear. It’s our whole corporate culture.”
Todd said, “I think in a lot of ways we’ve both sort of followed in our fathers’ footsteps. Bruce is very strong operationally, purchasing, finance…All the sort of back-office stuff is his forte. And mine is the out-front stuff — the marketing, sales. Managing the customer service aspect of that, motivating the front-line people to be people-people. I think Bruce and I really complement each other well. When we both come up with ideas I’ll see one side of the picture and he’ll see the other side. And since we’re both open too each other’s perspective on it, it really helps us balance it out.”
With two father-son teams comprising the ownership-executive ranks, the potential exists for family disputes that upset the company’s inner workings. The Simons diffuse those bombs with open dialogue and transparent dealings.
“For as long as I can remember the way we operate as a family is we get our ideas out,” Todd said. “We don’t bulldoze over each other. We’re all forceful about our ideas and our opinions, and we’ll raise our voices and we’ll do whatever we need to do to get our point across. But we basically come to consensus and we don’t leave the room unless everyone’s comfortable with the direction we’re moving in.”
“Right,” Bruce said. “We don’t fight about things. If there’s a reason to do something we discuss it and we figure it out. Because, hell, we’re all on the same page. What’s good for one is good for all.”
Vision is important in any organization and each year Omaha Steaks holds an off-site brainstorm session with its top managers. Ideas and initiatives fly. “A lot of times those come not from me or Bruce but from the people out there in the trenches dealing with our customers every day,” Todd said. In the end, Bruce said, “Todd and I decide with our fathers where we’re going” as a company.
- Here’s What Omaha Steaks Is Doing For Meat Lovers Who Care About Their Belts And Wallets (businessinsider.com)
- Omaha Steaks Buys Into Facebook Commerce (adweek.com)
- Omaha Steaks Go All In With Facebook Store (socialfresh.com)