The State of the Omaha Restaurant Scene: The Past, Present and Future of Change
So just who do I think I am, anyway?
Well, maybe the luckiest guy around. For a lot of reasons, but for today’s purpose, because I have spent the last thirty years doing something that I love, and making a living at it. “Playing restaurant”, as we like to say at M’s. The older I get, the more I appreciate how special it is to do what you love and to love what you do. Very few of us ever get that opportunity, and count me as a very grateful restaurateur.
My luck changed in 1985 when I met my business partner, Ann Mellen. I joined a family operation, and the Mellens made me feel like family. In the past twenty years, we have also been very lucky to have some of the best staffs in this or any other town, at M’s and Vivace. No bias intended, but truly – the people who have dedicated themselves to the greater good of the community by serving you as graciously as they have must be commended.
Over the years a lot has changed. Good and bad, in the Old Market, and in Omaha as a whole. Heck, change is everywhere in the restaurant world. From gargantuan chains to small independents, things ain’t what they used to be. But as these changes occur I see some consistencies. Mainly that the dining public in Omaha loves good food and continues to view dining out as a serious entertainment option.
From the time I first began doing business in Omaha, I always felt that the community at large was a sophisticated one. Unlike the stereotype promulgated by large media center types, people in this part of the country make enough money to travel and experience broad and diverse cultural options. These adventurous people go out into the world and bring back an appetite for the finer things that used to only be found in larger metropolitan cities around the world.
A lot of the products they crave were at one time unavailable, prohibitively expensive, or very hard to find. The internet changed all of that. The more people began to ask for the wines and culinary products they had experienced in their travels, the more business owners in Omaha used any and every method at their disposal to satisfy the clamor.
Importing fresh or hard to find products from around the world began to get easier and less expensive, and in the end everybody won. The consumer began to have more choices and savvy business owners had products to sell that were heretofore unavailable, creating an entirely new class of consumers to their businesses.
The other paradigm shift came with the advent of culinary educators, locally represented at the Institute for the Culinary Arts at Metropolitan Community College. Suddenly there were outlets for enthusiastic students who were looking for a solid, profitable and fun career to study and grow into. These talented chefs, young and old, have taken the restaurant community both locally and nationally to new heights. Creativity is their mantra and the sky is the limit with owners who are willing to free the old reigns of constriction for the new “young lions” of our industry.
The “purple elephant” in this discussion about change is the proliferation of the chain restaurant in this and most other communities in America. What was once the delightful exception is now the norm, to a lot of peoples’ angst. Large corporate types with huge national advertising budgets have made life much harder for the independent operator.
But lest I sound bitter, there are great benefits for us all.
These operators have a distinct style of management and business practices, some of which are simply unattractive to a certain segment of the working class. Likewise for us “little guys” — not everyone is wired to enjoy the freedom and lack of conformity that comes along with working for a local entrepreneur.
My point is there is a place for all kinds, and the choices are good ones.
As time passes, there will always be casualties of the “Wal-Martization” of America. The discussion of the causes and conditions of such a movement will be tackled at another time, but for now let’s look at a list of some of the bygone era’s favorites.
Anyone remember the Hilltop House? Surely you knew a member at the A Ri Rang Club! There has been much written about the recent closing of Angie’s, Cascio’s, and Caniglias. And the thought of Omaha without Mr. “C” is hard to fathom. Whatever happened to the sign at Ross’ Steakhouse when it closed? There should be a Hall of Fame for artifacts of that ilk!!
Some old favorites have managed to survive location changes, one of the hardest and most daring feats in all of business. The Dundee Dell is now in the heart of Dundee and Sakura Bana has reopened a few blocks east of the location where it was known as Sushi Ichiban. The Greek Islands moved “West” — three blocks on Center Street, and Walter Hecht’s Old Vienna Café is now dba Bistro 121 on West Center Road.
There are still more that have changed hands and continued to thrive under new ownership, including Trovato’s, V. Mertz, Jaipur and Mckenna’s. And some chefs have simply moved their operations with new concepts and names very successfully. See Paul Braunschweiler at Prima 140 or Mark Hoch at Jams for two of the best.
There remains a remarkable list of operations that have managed to keep pace with the changes in clientele and in culinary tastes in our town for decades. Some of the notables include The French Café, Pasta Amore, La Casa Pizzeria, Julio’s, Bohemian Café, Johnny’s Café, and Gorat’s.
Finally, there are some inventive new locally owned spots that are doing great business, such as Blue Sushi, Taste, Darwin’s Bistro, Lucky’s (in the old Angie’s location) and some delightful Thai and Vietnamese choices that have added wonderful value and diversity to the mix.
The point is, as time passes things change. Always. It is every business owner’s quest to keep up with, or stay ahead of the wishes of their clientele.
Omaha has a rich history of fine chefs, restaurants, hotels and educators willing to dare try the impossible – provide their guests with a “big city” experience here in little ol’ Omaha. So get up, get out and try something new – or perhaps something familiar. Your choices are seemingly endless, and you’ll be helping the local economy, too…
Ron Samuelson has co-owned M’s Pub for over twenty years with business partner Ann Mellen. They also own Vivace, which will soon celebrate 20 years of operation in the Old Market. Ron’s 38 year restaurant career has spanned from Dallas and Denver to Omaha, with stints in the kitchen as well as front of house management for both corporate and locally owned concepts. He has served as President of the Omaha Restaurant Association and is a recent inductee to the Omaha Hospitality Hall of Fame.
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