Good Life, Great Food: Celebrating Omaha Restaurant Week
For some people, spring break is the week they look forward to all year long. For these landlocked travelers, there is nothing quite as exciting as journeying to the beach for a few days in the sun.
For others, there is another multi-day event to look forward to that requires less travel, but just as many exotic flavors. And they are all about the amazing food right here in Omaha.
“We love how Omaha Restaurant Week celebrates the rich and diverse restaurant culture we are so proud to be a part of,” said Megan Longo, Marketing Director for Flagship Restaurant Group. “Our restaurants have participated in ORW since the beginning, and each year we look forward it.”
Omaha Restaurant Week is the (food) baby of Jen Kocher, Executive Producer of Urban Events Inc., a company that creates events that celebrate the food and spirit culture here in our Homaha. “I started Urban Events back in 2009, after attending a wine festival in St. Louis with my husband,” she said. “I was a realtor at the time, and I thought the festival would be a fun hobby in my spare time. But planning became a full time job. Thus, the Urban Events and Riverfront Wine Festival was born.” The success of the festival paved the way for the beloved Omaha Beer Fest in 2011. And that same year, Omaha Restaurant Week was born.
Omaha is known throughout the nation as a place where great food is sourced and prepared, from the dirt up. Recognizing the momentum of the food scene, Kocher began to formulate a plan to get the event started. “Over the years, I enjoyed restaurant weeks in other cities like Denver and Phoenix,” she said. “It was a chance to try restaurants I normally wouldn’t have enjoyed, at a price point I could afford.”
Knowing she would need support behind her, she initially approached the Omaha Restaurant Association, but she was told it may be a while before she would hear a definitive answer. “I was told the idea had been brought up off and on over the years at meetings, but no one had ever pulled the trigger. So I thought to myself, ‘I’ll do it!’”
After contacting a few restaurants and hearing positive responses, Kocher knew the next step was making sure the event gave back to the community. “I decided that the Food Bank for the Heartland had the greatest need, and that they were the best fit for the beneficiary.”
During the pilot year in 2011, Omaha Restaurant Week had just over a few dozen restaurants participating. Now, six years later, she hopes to raise $25,000 for the Food Bank of the Heartland, with the custom menu items of over 60 restaurants fueling the charity spirit.
Kocher engages restaurants to participate by encouraging the creative freedom in their prix fixe, or fixed price menus during the event. “Since they have so much on their plates already, I try to make it as easy for them to participate as possible,” she said. “They are responsible for paying their participating fee, providing their price points, creating and printing their menus, and engaging in social media. I try to do the rest.”
The real excitement for restaurants is in the fine print. Namely, the items on their fixed price menus.
“All restaurants are given some guidelines to follow, but they get as creative as they want for Omaha Restaurant Week,” said Kocher. Over the event period, participating restaurants promote a custom, fixed price menu with special items just for the event. They also donate 5% of these menu sales to the Food Bank of the Heartland. “The Food Bank is a local organization that is committed to helping individuals and families who struggle with hunger,” said Kocher. “I can’t think of a better fit for Omaha Restaurant Week, and I don’t expect that to change.”
Each year, planning for the fall event begins nearly a year in advance, during the chilly months of winter. “The Omaha restaurant scene changes monthly, so I stay on top of openings and closings throughout the year,” said Kocher. “Over the winter, I work with Eleven Twenty-Three in Ralston to create the graphic design for the event, and begin inviting restaurants to participate in early spring.” Summer is when things get literally heated. “I enroll restaurants, line up advertising, collect photos and menus, engage in social media, and update the website and mobile app.”
On the Omaha Restaurant Week website, each restaurant will have their own profile page, featuring their menu, reservation details, and prices. “In August, I have volunteers hanging posters all around town, and by the middle of the month, restaurants are taking reservations.” As the sole staff member at Urban Events, Inc., by September she finally has time to look forward to enjoying the literal fruits of her labor. “I am ready to relax and dine out during the promotion,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll squeeze in two ‘dinners’ in one night!”
The dining process for the week includes a menu centered on dishes that highlight the uniqueness of each establishment. Menus include appetizers, entrees, and desserts, and price points stay between $20, $30, and $40 a person. An additional price point was also made available at The Grey Plume. Participating restaurants also offer their standard menus during Omaha Restaurant Week as well. With no tickets or passes required, patrons are encouraged to dine out often and merrily.
For many, this event is a chance to experience food like they have never had it, prepared in ways they will never forget. “I love how participating restaurants push the envelope,” said Kocher. “One year, 360 Steakhouse served alligator on their restaurant week menu, and it got a LOT of attention. I also get to introduce diners to brand new restaurants.” Modern Love, Heritage Food & Wine, Pig & Finch, among others, participated in Omaha Restaurant Week soon after opening their doors to the public.
The event gives patrons and chefs alike the opportunity for new experiences in the dining world. And this year will be no exception. “Omaha Culinary Tours has planned some restaurant week themed tours that will give diners a sneak peek of this year’s dishes,” said Kocher. “I also look forward to debuting restaurants like Jazz, Riva, Agave Azteca, and Julio’s in the promotion.” 45 restaurants, including Farnam House Brewery, Le Voltaire, and J CoCo’s, have confirmed their participation in this year’s event, with more coming in every month.
With over 7,000 likes on social media, and an overwhelmingly positive public response, Kocher has created an event that gives similar events in larger cities a run for their money. However, her metrics are focused on the plates that aren’t as evident. “I measure success primarily by the dollars raised to Food Bank for the Heartland,” she said. “This year my goal is to raise $25,000. For every one dollar raised, three meals are provided by the Food Bank.” If this year’s event reaches this goal, 75,000 meals will be provided to those in need in the Omaha area. “To me, that would mean Omaha Restaurant Week is an overwhelming success.”
This September, forget the hassle of an overseas flight or complicated fall break. All the excitement you could need is right here on your plate in Omaha.
Omaha Restaurant Week
Jessica Clem is a freelancer writer based in Omaha, Nebraska. A marathon runner and food writer, her favorite way to get motivated to finish a project is the promise of a craft beer. She has a B.A. in English and an M.S. in Urban Studies, and enjoys traveling, finding typos on billboards, and the smell of a real book. She currently works for National Media Brands as an account executive.
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