Issue 30

Omaha’s Thunderbird Salad

The Thunderbird Salad date’s back to the 1960’s when Executive Chef Luis Villamonte at the Happy Hollow country club served the salad to his patrons. Peruvian-born chef Luis Villamonte created the recipe to be what fans of the salad know today. The salad obviously does not hold the same mystic powers as the great Indian folklore, but for many it holds the distinction of being upper crust. Because of this status the salad made its way to most of the Omaha area’s private clubs through working associates of Villamonte.

Chef Luis Villamonte left his Thunderbird footprint at several clubs throughout the Midwest. When he moved to a new club as the executive chef, he would rewrite the menu to include his Thunderbird Salad as the new house salad. This would normally be a difficult task since most clubs have house salads that are ingrained into the tradition of the club. To change the house salad to something no one had ever heard of should have been almost impossible. Once the member tasted the salad the change was not just accepted it was welcomed.

When I recently Googled the salad, I was reminded of my time growing up working for my father at the different clubs where it remains on the menus to day. I have fond early childhood memories of wearing the old style plastic pantry glove, while assembling the salad for orders, at Happy Hollow Country Club. Like other fine foods traditionally served only in country clubs, the Thunderbird Salad is now making its way to the mainstream restaurant.

It was my first large party that gave me the idea to trademark my father’s salad. A bride hired me for a large wedding of 600, because she said I had the Thunderbird Salad. That night I could not wait to get the process started for the trademark. At that time, I would have been very discouraged, if I had known it would be almost five years later before I had the trademark approved. Once trademarked, I had a regional manufacturer produce and bottle the dressing for retail and commercial sales. I decided I wanted more control by making the dressing myself so I purchased a $10,000.00 bottler, and a commercial building to do the manufacturing. Along with the Thunderbird dressing, I also manufacture a Blackstone Rueben dressing (for use on the Reuben sandwich), and Nebraska Cobb salad dressing. The Reuben sandwich also has Omaha roots, as it was invented at the Blackstone Hotel many years ago. Originally I delivered and stocked the shelves myself and found it was really a time consuming chore. Brenmar, a large retail food service product distributor, recently took over the distribution of all three products. Because of this, the dressing has made across the state and to some Kansas City HyVee stores. I frequently receive calls from around the country and Canada from Thunderbird Salad fans, wishing to get the product mailed to them, especially during the holidays. On the commercial side Pegler Sysco sells the product in two-gallon cases to Nebraska restaurants. A recent audit of the account revealed about 30 accounts that purchase the dressing. Considering the makeup of the salad I was surprised to see a good portion of the accounts were healthcare.

When someone has the idea they are going to take a family recipe and make millions, they quickly learn the process is lengthy, tedious and not realistic. I have been on this project for almost ten years and still feel at times, like I am in the infant stage.

What is the Thunderbird Salad?

People who have not had a Thunderbird Salad always ask the same question. What other salad would you compare it to? It is not just the dressing but the composition of the ingredients (tomato, chives, bacon, mozzarella and bleu cheese), along with the dressing that make it the hearty concoction. I always say there is nothing similar and you just have to try it. I have incorporated that same concept into a Thunderbird burger, Thunderbird wrap, Thunderbird potato, and Thunderbird soup. I have visions of opening a quick casual franchise called Thunderbird café that will focus on the Thunderbird concept with oversized salads, sandwiches and more.
Perhaps the Indian folklore name referring to its great size is fitting for Omaha’s favorite’s salad. Lunch at the Omaha Press Club is a busy setting. The most popular item on the menu is the Thunderbird Salad as the entrée. Many diners order it topped with garlic sautéed shrimp, scallops, grilled salmon, or chicken breast. The composition of all the ingredients together creates a complete meal.

The Original Thunderbird Salad:

Serving directions to make 4 servings:

  • 4 cups packed iceberg & romaine lettuce
  • 2 tablespoons chives
  • 2 tablespoons real chopped bacon
  • 1/2 cup shredded mozzarella
  • 1 tablespoon blue cheese crumble
  • 1/2 medium diced tomato
  • (Optional) Top with diced avocado
  • home style croutons
  • Toss all ingredients together with 3 oz. of Thunderbird Salad dressing

The Thunderbird Salad is a trademarked product and all rights of trademark are protected. Restaurants serving the Thunderbird Salad must purchase the Thunderbird Salad dressing from a Villamonte’s Cuisine approved vendor.

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