by Dan Crowell | April 1, 2009 3:21 pm
The Dundee Dell, a true Omaha institution, is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. I sat down recently with Monique Huston, general manager of The Dell, for a peek behind the curtain of this legendary pub.
FSM: Describe the restaurant. What is its history?
MH: We’ve been around since 1934. Pat (Gobel) is just the fourth owner of The Dell in the 75 years it’s been around. We’ve basically done a lot of the same things. We’ve done the same fish and chips. The recipe hasn’t changed. The batter is the thing people always want the recipe for, and that’s the thing we’re not going to let go. We always use North Atlantic cod. That’s what we’ve always done. We’re the only restaurant in the United States that continues to use North Atlantic cod because we signed a contract two years ago for ten years out, but other than that it’s all been fished out. So most other places that do fish and chips use haddock or other white fish, but that’s just not what we do. We will always find a way to continue to do what we’ve been doing.
FSM: The Dell has the largest single-malt Scotch whisky list of any bar in the world. How did the Scotch thing get started?
MH: All I know is that when I started here in 2000, we had 60 scotches and now we have 720 scotches. Now, that’s my baby. That’s what I took on. Pat loves it and he’s very supportive of everything that I do. My mother is an antique dealer, so if I find something unique, if I know something is rare, if I know that something is really special, I want it. I want to have it and I want to be able to expose other people to it. That’s what happened with the Scotch collection. It’s weird. We’re better known nationally than we are locally as the best whisky bar in the country. I can go to Chicago and meet people who know The Dell better than someone in west Omaha knows The Dell. We’ve had people make pilgrimages from Ireland just to try a particular Scotch that we have. Many people in Omaha don’t really know or they just don’t believe it.
FSM: What is your philosophy in terms of the overall bar and cocktail profile?
MH: If there’s a new vodka or if there’s a new flavored rum that comes out, we’ll take one, try it out on some people, have it in a tasting and figure out if we like it and want to continue to stock it. But we’re not going to serve some random kind of schnapps or these Pucker things or blah, blah, blah. We’re not doing any of that. We’re not going to compromise quality to make a sale. We don’t serve malt beverages either. Yeah, Smirnoff Ice might taste great, but we’ve got trained bartenders here with years of experience behind them. Why don’t you let them do their job? Tell them what you want something to taste like and they’ll create something based on what you like. Fresh juices, good ingredients and some things you’ve never heard of.
You can go anywhere and get a Bud Light, but you’re going to come here and get something that’s got some thought behind it, some energy behind it and some passion behind it. We like to try to be a center for people to come and be educated on good cocktails, old-school cocktails. People call me all the time and they’re like, “What’s in a gimlet?” And I think, “Really?” We actually still serve those all the time. We have manhattans and sidecars go out across the bar all the time. I understand those things are having a bit of a renaissance, but Pat is very old-school. He remembers the time when a martini was a martini and had two ingredients; either vodka or gin and vermouth. That’s a martini. A cosmo is not a martini just because it’s in a martini glass. A lot of people just don’t get that.
FSM: How do you approach staffing?
MH: Pat is wonderful at recognizing, maintaining and growing talented people throughout the staff. We have no turnover. We’ve had no kitchen turnover in the last ten months. Not a dishwasher, no one. We’ve had no wait staff turnover in over a year. You come in here and you know the wait staff every time you come in. Pat’s very generous, but what he really does is that he allows input from everyone. If a chef has a great idea for a tasting, done! We’re going to make it happen. If a dishwasher has a great idea for a new appetizer, done! He’s willing to sit down and listen to everyone. Give them a lot of space. Give them wings. I always say it’s definitely a sign of how happy people are where they work when they’re all sitting at the bar after they get off, just hanging out. That’s very common. To see people come in on their off days and eat and drink and bring their families in, and long after they’ve left here, to come in and still feel very welcome.
FSM: Describe the response you’ve received from customers.
MH: In this economy, people are going to stay at home because they don’t want to spend a bunch of money. When you come out, come out and drink a good cocktail, come out to a tasting and try eight different rums. Find out what you really like and really get excited about it. We’re seeing a lot of that here. We’ve been really blessed by an amazing amount of support. Local people, people who want to support neighborhoods, people who want to support independent businesses. Here in Omaha we’re very fortunate that people consciously will do that. We live in a city where a Chili’s and a Macaroni Grill closed. That just doesn’t happen. And independents are thriving. Everywhere I go, I just feel so grateful. I don’t like to go to another town and have somebody say to me that their neighborhood bar is an Applebee’s. Really? Because that’s how they bill themselves. They told you that. Did you decide that? Do you know these people? You can’t just call yourself that. You have to develop that kind of reputation, and it’s really worked for us. We’re very blessed.
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