An Interview with Restauranteur Terry Alexander
In my world (as someone who works for a magazine covering the food and spirits industry), if you mention that you’re going to Chicago and you’re looking for places to go and things to do, there are a few givens. Of course, most of them involve eating and drinking – get a hot dog and a big pizza, go see a Cubs game, eat at The Publican and drink at The Violet Hour.
In the early days of the magazine, being the super-informed publisher that I was, I would say things like, “The Violet Hour? What’s that?” or, “What’s a Publican?”
Typical reactions usually started with, “Are you serious?” but after the scorn my ignorance inspired faded, I learned that The Violet Hour is one of the nation’s premier craft cocktail bars; it’s cool and inspired with a speakeasy-ish vibe. The Publican, I found out, is considered one of the premier gastropubs in the country and a must-do for any food publisher-in-training. A version of this conversation was always followed by one additional fact.
“Oh yeah, one of the owners is from Omaha, too.”
In the perfect story this would be the part where I tell you that, upon hearing this, I was then inspired to set off on a journalistic fact-finding mission to discover the true identity of this formerly-local mystery man owner.
The reality is less inspired but simpler to explain.
His mom called me.
Well, actually, his sister emailed me, but after I was not able to connect with her, his mom called me.
She’s a lovely woman, in that way that all proud mothers are when they talk about their children. She’s also very smart: she had me at ‘hello’ when she told me that she was a huge fan of Food & Spirits Magazine and had a story idea for me. That’s when she mentioned that her son, Terry Alexander, is involved with The Publican and The Violet Hour and that he is from Omaha.
I, being the shrewd journalist that I am not, immediately didn’t put any of the pieces together. In other words, I instantly didn’t recognize that the rumored ‘one of the owners of The Violet Hour and The Publican’ and this Terry could be one and the same. In fact, although it was clear that she loved him deeply and was very proud of him, I came away from the conversation thinking that Terry sounded like one hell of bartender or line cook. Considering the types of establishments those places are, that’s still saying something and is a fine compliment.
So a couple of weeks later, I was running out of mindless things to do to avoid work and remembered my conversation with that nice lady, Jan, about her son Terry. So, acting in the interest of my finely-honed investigative reporting instincts, I broke out the ‘ole Googleizer and looked him up to see if I could find anything. My intensive labor of typing his name into Google and the minutes of pouring over the results led me quickly to a conclusion.
Turns out, Terry is the guy that is from Omaha and is one of the owners of The Violet Hour and The Publican (and a variety of other places). Journalism!
Although it took me a while, and Jan’s encouragement, it was clear to me that this, indeed, was a great story idea. If the simple fact of the rumor, and no one in Omaha knowing who he was, wasn’t enough, the fact that The Publican and The Violet Hour are such esteemed establishments certainly was. In fact, he seemed like kind of a big deal.
Suitably intimated by what I was able to gather from online research, I called Terry, who was, naturally, in Chicago, and left a message to arrange an interview, either through email or on the phone. My plan was to arrange an interview for far enough in advance that I could do more research and go into the interview completely prepared (and not as intimidated). To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure someone with his accomplishments would bother to call back a humble publisher writing for a magazine he probably had never heard of.
He called back within a few days (gasp) and said he would be in Omaha to visit his parents soon and we could meet in two days, Friday, and talk then. We met at Aroma’s in Benson with Terry looking like a rock star (imagine the cool musicians that play The Waiting Room), and me, nervous, sweaty and, initially, stumbling over my words.
I shouldn’t have worried. Like his mom told me, he’s from Omaha. He’s one of us.
After the initial greetings, I was put at ease by the first question he asked, “What happened to Louies?”
“We would go there in high school, and I’ve been coming back to Benson and seeing it when I visit my parents and that sign, it’s so iconic,” he explained. “It’s got to be saved.”
That’s right, one of the nation’s top restaurant and bar founders broke the ice by showing concern for a Benson institution. I liked him immediately.
Terry was born in Omaha and graduated from Omaha Prep High School in 1981. He then attended the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, where he received a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism, and then Northwestern where he received a Master’s Degree in the same in 1986.
“I tried advertising first but advertising was at an all-time low,” he explained. “I couldn’t get an advertising job to save my life.”
After a (thankfully) unproductive stint in pursuit of an advertising job, he landed a job in a bar, met some people and worked a variety of other jobs in the industry.
“I was actually saving my money to start a coffee shop in Omaha,” Terry said. “I was working six shifts at a college bar during the day, three shifts at a gay night club, and then Friday and Saturday at a rock club.”
After a manager at one of the bars he was working at told Terry about a bar he knew of that was for sale, he, in 1989, became an owner of his first bar, Danny’s Tavern, still open and now an institution. And, of course, he didn’t stop there. Terry opened Mia Francesca, next, in 1991, and has continued opening a wide variety of restaurants and bars (see side bar) at a frantic pace. His latest venture, Nico Osteria, opened earlier this year and was recently named one of the 10 best restaurants to open in 2014 by Esquire Magazine. Dove’s Luncheonette, offering up Mexican-inspired soul food, alongside a tequila and mezcal-focused bar program, while not open at the time of this writing, will be open by the time you read this.
Despite enjoying the success that he has, Terry comes across as a very humble and down-to-earth guy (remember, he’s an Omahan). He’s quick to give credit to his business partners, coworkers, employees, friends and family (Michael Noone, Donnie Madia, chef Paul Kahan, Carol Watson, Kristin Alexander, among many, many others).
“It’s really a team effort in everything we do and my partners deserve all the credit,” Terry explained. “I’ve been fortunate to meet a lot of great people and I’m a firm believer in getting the right people around you and letting them do what they are great at. That’s important and that’s how we want to build things.”
As you might imagine, he keeps very busy all day with work-related things but he gets his best moments at the beginning of every day with his family.
“My favorite part of every day is spent in the morning with my daughter and wife,” Terry said. “I wake up every morning and feed my daughter, Audrey, and we all have breakfast together.”
Where once he wanted to keep founding restaurants and bars, his goals are starting to change.
“In some ways I feel like our focus is starting to change in that we really want to concentrate on investing in the community and our people, instead of doing more projects,” Terry explained. “Along with keeping our current places on point.”
His Omaha connections abound with the people he works with, the people he hires and the people he’s still in touch with. Although he spends most of his time in Chicago, Terry still has a number of Omaha favorites.
“When my wife and I come to Omaha we go to Dundee. We like Pageturners, and the Old Market, and of course Benson,” Terry explained. “A lot of my friends send us La Casa Pizza – we love it.”
“I’m so impressed with what has happened in Omaha the last several years. We had a meal at The Grey Plume and it was impressive. We love Dante, it was great. Krug Park is good and so is Side Door Lounge,” Terry added. “I’m really proud of what Omaha is doing.”
Sometimes, when you interview someone for an article, you may not like the person or enjoy the company, but you do it because it’s your job and you need to fill space – it may not be fun or feel particularly good, but daddy has to pay the rent. But sometimes, although it’s rare, you do it because it feels good. This time was one of the latter and, as it turned out, I met someone that I genuinely like and felt like I truly got to know, if just for a minute.
So, the moms win this round. To Terry’s mom, Jan, thank you for giving me, despite my initial indifference, such a fine story to write. You and Ray have raised a fine man. We’ll claim him, too.
BUSINESS NEIGHBORHOOD/ADDRESS TIME PERIOD
Danny’s Tavern Bucktown, 1951 West Dickens opened 1989, currently operating
Mia Francesca Lakeview, 3311 North Clark opened 1991, currently operating
La Sorella di Francesca Downtown Naperville, 18 West Jefferson opened 1993, currently operating
Soul Kitchen Wicker Park, 1576 North Milwaukee opened 1995, sold interest in 2003
OKNO Restaurant Wicker Park, 1332 North Milwaukee opened 1997, sold business in 2000
Tizi Melloul River North, 531 North Wells opened 1999, sold interest in 2003
MOD Restaurant 1520 North Damen opened 2000, reconcepted in 2005
Francesca’s Bryn Mawr Uptown, 1039 West Bryn Mawr opened 2002, currently operating
Sonotheque Lounge West Village, 1444 West Chicago opened 2003, sold interest in 2009
Francesca’s Forno Wicker Park, 1576 North Milwaukee opened 2005, currently operating
Del Toro Wicker Park, 1520 North Damen opened 2005, reconcepted in 2007
The Violet Hour Wicker Park, 1520 North Damen opened 2007, currently operating
The Publican Fulton Market, 837 W. Fulton opened 2008, currently operating
Big Star Wicker Park, 1531 North Damen opened 2009, currently operating
Publican Quality Meats Fulton Market, 835 W. Fulton opened 2012, currently operating
Nico Osteria Gold Coast, 1015 North Rush opened 2013, currently operating
Dove’s Luncheonette Wicker Park, 1545 North Damen opened 2014, currently operating
Publican Quality Bakery Fulton Market, 808 West Lake scheduled to open in October 2014
Erik Totten is the founder and publisher of Food & Spirits Magazine in Omaha, Nebraska. He's worked in publications for the last 21 years at all levels. As well as serving as a writer, designer, photographer and editor, he's also founded two publications which have allowed him to grow into being a publisher, which he would describe as his 'true calling'.
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