Tag Archives: downtown

True Colors

March 15, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Art has long-served as an outlet to help humans heal. With America amidst an ever-building tumultuous political and social climate, choose to make art with your wardrobe. This spring, find solace in wild hues and bold patterns. Let your wardrobe be your armor; arm yourself with optimism and happiness.




















Makeup by Chevy

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Encounter.

A Family Masterpiece

February 24, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Some childhood memories stick with you. Dave Carroll, a retired Union Pacific manager, holds onto the memory of one fateful childhood leap that dented his grandfather’s prized 1950 Mercury.

“I’ve got so much of my life in this car,” Carroll says. When he was about 6 or 7, Carroll was playing with cousins at a tree house on his grandparents’ farm in Fullerton, Nebraska. His grandfather John Carroll’s out-of-commission vehicle sat under the tree house.

“I remember it like it was yesterday. Instead of going down the rope ladder, I jumped out of the tree house onto the car and I caved the roof in.”

Carroll remembered his grandpa’s large hands. “He got in the car and he took his hand and popped it out, and I thought, wow.” Some wrinkles remained in the car’s roof and would stay there for many decades. “The funny story is, years later, I paid to fix that roof,” he says.

His grandmother, Etta Carroll, bestowed him the car after his grandfather passed away. Then she accidentally sold the car for $50 to a neighbor kid, while Dave was serving in the military during the Vietnam War. Dave and his father, Jack, travelled to Fullerton to get the car back after Dave returned from overseas. The duo were quickly chased off of the property by shotgun.

“We went downtown and we found the local constable. He was having coffee at the coffee shop. My dad knew him. We told him the story and he said ‘come on, we’ll go back.’” The story ended well for Dave, who was still in possession of the car’s original title. And the car has been with him since then.

Over the years, the Mercury was transported across the United States on a flatbed trailer while Carroll worked his way up at Union Pacific, from a position on the track gang to one in management at the company’s headquarters. His career led him to places such as Sydney (Nebraska), Denver, and Cheyenne. At every new location, Carroll brought along his beloved Merc’. “My intention was to build it, but being a railroader, I didn’t have the time or the funds.”

Carroll returned to Omaha in the ’80s. He met and wed Dianne Cascio Carroll, owner of Anything Goes Salon. Soon after, he began his odyssey of fixing the Mercury. Having the roof repaired is just one of the many changes Carroll has made to his car.

“There’s so many things that have been done to this car,” he says. Over more than 30 years, Carroll says he has spent thousands of hours refurbishing the car. Some projects were finished, only to be torn up again and redone so that he could try the ever-evolving products in the industry that worked better. “That’s my problem,” he says. “I redo things.”

He has often lost track of time while working in his garage in the Huntington Park neighborhood in Omaha. “I’ve had my wife open the door and say, ‘you know what time it is?’ I look at the clock and it’s 10 after 1 in the morning and I’ve got to be to work at 6 in the morning.”

“It’s not about me. It’s about my parents, and honoring the memory of my grandfather. I kept this car because it was in the family and it’s never been out of the family.”

Carroll’s imagination has affected every aspect of the car, from the striking Candy Purple body color, to the custom purple snakeskin roof interior. The air-conditioning vents were salvaged from a 2002 FordTempo. He ordered the custom-made steering wheel from California, and the windshield from Oregon. Thanks to Carroll’s insatiable creativity, the car has a digital dash, an electrical door opener, a late-model motor with custom aluminum valve covers, four-wheel disk brakes, rounded hood corners, a smooth dash and Frenched-in (curved) headlights.

The restoration has also been helped by Ron Moore of Moore Auto Body, Rick White of Redline Upholstery, and Rod Grasmick, an antique auto restorer. Using qualified professionals means that Carroll knows his car is taken care of, but he also finds them to be knowledgable friends.

“I have a couple of friends that are helping me with this car, that’s how our [automotive] community is—everybody helps everybody,” he says.

Will the car ever be finished? “My dad is always telling that he hopes to get to ride it in when it is done, and him being 92 years old puts a lot of pressure on me,” he says.

“My wife says, ‘you’re taking forever.’ Well, look at it this way, there’s better and newer stuff coming out all the time,” Carroll says. And so the journey continues.

This article was printed in the Spring 2017 edition of B2B.

Pacific Life

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The site of Omaha’s old Knights of Aksarben complex—acres of once-busy thoroughbred horse racing and concert space turned albatross—has blossomed anew as the live-work-play destination spot known as Aksarben Village.

The booming mixed-use development is home to popular eateries, a movie theater, health club, and two colleges. This is part of why Pacific Life Insurance Company moved its regional business operations office from downtown to a new five-story building there in late 2015. The company’s Omaha office has grown from 250 to 450 workers since the blue-gray motif structure’s 2014 groundbreaking.

The gleaming, glass-fronted Holland Basham Architects design offers many creature comforts and inhabits prime real estate at 6750 Mercy Road.

The new digs provide a branded presence after a low-key profile at downtown’s Landmark Center.

Angela Greisen, Pacific Life assistant vice president for human resources, says, “We couldn’t have our name on the previous building in any big, visible way. We’d been in Omaha 12-plus years and people still didn’t know we were here.” That’s changed, she says, as events “bring thousands of people to the village and our new building with our big branding and signage is right there in the middle of everything.”

“That’s been huge for us. It’s also given us higher applicant flow because people now know we’re here and here to stay and we’re growing.”

Where many employees had to use off-site parking downtown, they now have an 850-stall covered garage. A heated, enclosed skybridge connects the building to the garage.

Greisen was part of a project team drawn from each Pacific Life business unit that polled employees about their likes and dislikes.

“The three most important things employees said they wanted were parking, amenities, and a nearby location with easy access,” she says.

Aksarben was the clear site choice. Pacific Life partnered with Magnum Development on the $33 million new build. The company occupies the second through fifth floors. Eateries and shops fill the ground floor.

“Staff response has been great,” Greisen says. “They love the parking, the amenities, the bright, airy feel of the building with the wide-open layout, natural lighting, and clean, modern finishes. Though we added only about 10,000 square feet, it’s organized much more efficiently.”

Each floor plan incorporates cutting-edge work spaces to enhance communication, team-building, workflow, and group projects via huddle spaces, conference rooms, and commons areas. She says, “Staff can seamlessly interface in real time with colleagues at other locations through videoconferencing, teleconferencing, and webinar technology.”

There’s a Wall Street trading-room floor look to the third floor internal wholesaling area. Flat-screen panels stream motivational performance messages and live market conditions to the sales desk floor.

In multiple areas, adjustable, stand-up work stations are available. Employees can indulge their freshly brewed beverage cravings at several Keurig stations.

The in-house Park View Cafe is a grab-your-own, pay-with-your-phone Company Kitchen model. The spacious room converts into a meeting-reception space with audio-video connectivity. A covered balcony offers a panoramic overlook of Stinson Park.

Though not green certified, the structure integrates many conservation features, including energy efficient windows, LED lighting, HVAC that is programmed to shut off when areas are unoccupied, low water usage restroom fixtures, and motion-sensor lighting.

Greisen says employees appreciate Aksarben Village’s warm welcome and plethora of things to do. Proximity is a big plus, too, as Pacific Life is an employer partner of the University of Nebraska at Omaha, whose south campus is in the village. As an employer partner, company representatives promote their job opportunites and participate in career fairs; staffers also speak to classes and conduct mock interviews when asked. Greisen hopes this partnership will grow.

“We expect an increase because we have a partnership with UNO, and now we are literally on the edge of their campus,” she says. “It’s very convenient. Increased visibility.  It gives us even more opportunities to partner with the university.”

This visibility, along with the popular amenities, could mean an increase in sought-after employees at Pacific Life in the near future.  And that can help secure Pacific Life’s future.

Visit  aksarbenvillage.com for more information.

This article was printed in the Spring 2017 edition of B2B.

Living Small to Live Large

March 3, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Sometimes to live large, you’ve got to live small—very small.

This, at least, is the working mantra of Kevin and Amanda Kohler, who occupy a 620 square-foot condo off of 16th and Farnam streets.

The Kohlers happily insist they have all the room they need.

“With a smaller space, you invest in the quality rather than the quantity of things,” Amanda says. “Everything in here, I like.”


When questioned why they downsized from a living place originally twice as large, the Kohlers explain their two main incentives—running a business and traveling comfortably. They own and operate the technology company KOVUS.

The couple traveled to 16 countries during the last five years, journeying throughout Africa, Europe, Asia, and South America. The logic is simple—
by spending less on a mortgage, the Kohlers save their income for a budget to travel at will.

Although the two admit they first thought downsizing would be temporary and challenging, they wound up hooked on traveling, which easily balanced out the predicaments of living on a small scale.

“I would rather live here and travel the world than live in a big city and be hamstrung,” Kevin says.

Despite travels to such exotic locales as India, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic, Omaha remains the Kohlers’ consistent home base, especially since they enjoy owning a business here.


“There are so many people I can connect with here that have been beyond helpful in building our business,” Amanda says. “Every single person I reach out to or ask for advice is willing to help—it’s a very collaborative environment.”

Living in the heart of downtown, according to Kevin and Amanda, can be both inexpensive and accessible. The two share a car, but walk to dozens of restaurants or stores. Their building even offers an in-house coffee shop called Culprit.

The small space they inhabit is more than just a footnote to this convenience, however.

“[Living small] forces you into a more minimalistic lifestyle,” Amanda says. “Now that we have a 2-by-2 closet to store stuff, it forces you to be disciplined about the things you need. You have to be creative about how you purpose things.”

The cabinet in their living room doubles as a covert litterbox for Archie, their 20-pound cat, while the couple joke that an old clothes stool now dually serves as the communal scratching-post. The small closets divide into basins to stow shoes, clothes, camera equipment, and other items. The couple purchase good food, good wine, and experiences as opposed to mere “stuff.” Amanda enjoys buying books, but has forsaken paper in favor of eReader files.

The condo, despite the confined space, still manages to feel roomy and open. Using lots of natural light from big windows and keeping an abundance of home-grown plants creates an earthy ambiance against an urban backdrop. Small tokens from their travels, including “several wine bottles,” they joke, decorate surfaces. The condo’s main space includes a cedar chest that belonged to Amanda’s grandmother as well as a custom-made coffee table that easily seats four. The Kohlers give interior decorating credit to Jessica McKay at Birdhouse Interiors, although the pictures that adorn the walls are due to Amanda’s love of photographing their travels. In India, Amanda’s personal favorite travel-spot, she even took photographs from a hot-air balloon.

“I feel like you get better at traveling as you go, and we were able to really immerse ourselves in the culture,” Amanda says. “The people there couldn’t be more hospitable and generous.”

So what’s next on the Kohlers’ agenda? For starters, the couple plan to travel to Tanzania, Rwanda, and Uganda for three weeks during the holidays. Since a close friend who often traveled with them recently passed away, Kevin and Amanda explain they want to experience all they can while they’re young.

This means their home, for now, remains a small downtown condo.


Making the Old New Again

November 5, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Sherri and John Obermiller decided their new downtown condo reminded them too much of the suburbs.

They should know. The couple moved in 2011 from their five-bedroom, five-bathroom home in the white-picket-fence-lined neighborhoods off 180th St. and West Center Road to the eclectic, artsy downtown for a reason, and it wasn’t perfection and modernity.

Obermiller2“It was time to downsize and just get rid of stuff,” Sherri says. “Plus, this gave me an excuse not to do yard work anymore.”

The pair looked at five or six buildings before deciding the 902 Dodge Street condos were a natural fit for them. The building is located close enough to walk to yoga classes or sushi restaurants, but far enough from the bustle of the Old Market. “We don’t always like to be in the crowd, but we like to be near it,” Sherri says. “We enjoy being anonymous in a sea of people.”

An available condo on the fifth floor was too small and in need of a facelift, but the Obermillers saw its potential. Their first act as new owners? Asking their neighbor what amount of money it would take for him to move. Their new home instantly doubled in size.

To further construct their vision for the space, they enlisted the help of Stephanie Basham, principal designer and owner of Group One Interiors, and Don Stormberg, owner of Stormberg Construction. The couple rented and lived in a unit on the second floor of the building as Basham and Stormberg’s teams worked to renovate the condo to the Obermillers’ standards.

Obermiller3“It’s always challenging to work in a space that people are inhabiting during construction,” Basham says. “The Obermillers have a finely tuned sense of contemporary style and an appreciation for urban modernism. And to top that, John and Sherri value attention to detail, which is a dream for a designer.”

From using lime green as an accent color to matching the gray of the exposed concrete ceiling to the condo’s columns, the detailed design was inspired from the Obermillers’ travels to metropolises like New York City.


To make the home feel larger, Basham took advantage of the high ceilings and crafted a floating translucent cloud above the kitchen island. The focal point of the home, the cloud creates a sense of separation between the kitchen and adjacent rooms without impeding the view. Local fabricators and installers used frosted acrylic to have the effect of tinted glass without the weight. This fixture is a personal favorite of the Obermillers.

“The cloud above and countertop below have the same steel lines, so they mirror one another,” Sherri says. “We strived for symmetry throughout our home.”

Following nearly a year of renovations, only the cherrywood cabinets in the kitchen remain in the now-2,400-square-foot condo.  An entire patio was removed; new floors and appliances were installed; iron-welded, artisan-crafted barn doors were mounted; and rooms were ornamented in furniture from as far away as Sweden. The result is a simple, contemporary design that’s entirely unique to the Obermillers.


The Obermillers saw not only the potential of their condo but the value of the downtown area as well. While the CenturyLink Center was the major draw north of Dodge Street when the Obermillers first moved downtown, the area will soon be home to HDR’s high-rise headquarters and a collection of newly developed apartments, offices, and entertainment space.

“We are incredibly excited about this development and what’s next,” John says.

Obermiller6Embracing an urban lifestyle is a hot trend, yet the Obermillers aren’t concerned with following or setting trends. Instead, their new home serves as a space for them to reinvigorate their story together.

“We can walk to the trails by the pedestrian bridge or quickly go to the restaurants in the Old Market. It’s fun and incredible,” Sherri says. “It feels like we live in a much bigger city than what Omaha really is.”

When the Obermillers aren’t watching Nebraska sunsets melt behind the Woodman and First National from their building’s rooftop terrace, they enjoy a different view from their living room window. They look down onto the interstates weaving under and over themselves, roads looping and stretching in different directions. An image the Obermillers agree is beautiful. Just below the roads and between the urban sprawl of Omaha and Council Bluffs lies the river.

“We always thought at this point in our life we’d have a condo overlooking Lake Michigan,” John says. “Living happily next to the Missouri River in downtown Omaha? Well, that’s just the next
best thing.”


The Bike Union

August 19, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Miah Sommer hopes his Bike Union venture will turn the tide for many Omaha-area youth.

The Bike Union opens this summer as a full-service bike shop in a flying saucer-looking former bank building near 19th and Dodge streets. Sommer is renovating the space with the help of multiple foundations and private donors.

Under the themes of “Sales…Service…Social Change,” the Bike Union will sell refurbished bikes and also offer bicycle repair. Its most important function, however, will be employing at-risk youth and recalibrating their direction in life.

“I hear the term ‘disadvantaged youth,’ but we don’t see it that way,” Sommer says. “Central to our philosophy, these kids are just as capable as the next person. They are not disadvantaged in their abilities, just in the opportunities they’ve had to succeed.”

Sommer understands the struggle. He was determined not to become a statistic—one of those kids who couldn’t overcome a tough upbringing to avoid poverty, homelessness, or jail. He made it to college and got heavily involved in the music and bicycling industries, where he discovered a talent for managing and mentoring others. The Bike Union, he says, is the perfect bridge between his past and his passion for helping at-risk youth.

“We want to give them the tools they need to achieve a vision of success.”

Sommer plans to deliver those tools by hiring youth who are aging out of the foster care system. Too many of those kids, he says, don’t graduate from high school. Too many can’t find a job. Too many are…headed nowhere.

Working 20-hour weeks in a 12-month program, Sommer envisions his workforce being trained in position-specific skills and general core competencies that make them attractive to potential employers.

“There are so many ways we can benefit youth and the community through this shop,” says Sommer, who previously launched another youth bike mentoring program at a local Trek dealership. “We want to be self-sustaining as soon as we can so we can serve as many youth as possible.”

Sommer is banking on the fact that a growing bicycle culture in Omaha will fuel the service side of the shop, and he counts on the giving nature of the city to keep the shop stocked with donated bikes that can be refurbished and then sold to further fund the program.

“If you get your bike serviced here, get a flat changed here, you’re helping fund a non-profit and change the community,” Sommer says. “By donating or purchasing a bike, you will be turning your compassion into money to help fund a nonprofit and change the community.

“Donating bikes, time, and money will be the lifeblood of what we do for these kids.”

For Sommer, it’s a chance to create opportunities he had to find himself when he grew up in south Omaha. Sommer says he decided on his own that he didn’t like his educational path, “so I started reading books and haven’t stopped since.

“The toughest part of growing up for me was people being content with you becoming a statistic,” Sommer says. “Rather than let that happen and feel pity for these kids, I want to show them a better path.”

Bike Union 1

Holly Barrett

April 9, 2015 by
Photography by Keith Binder

Originally published in March/April 2015 Encounter.

Holly Barrett knows how to shovel horse manure. According to her father, this set Barrett up perfectly for politics. Once a professional horse trainer and dressage rider, Barrett brings a unique and upbeat attitude to her job as the director of the Omaha Downtown Improvement District (DID).

And she isn’t afraid to get dirty. Barrett may push down a filthy lever on a trash compactor during the day, and then put on a floor-length gown at night to rub elbows with the donors of the city. She is a basic black dress kind of girl. “It hides the dirt or dresses up,” Barrett says with a boisterous laugh. She is animated and refreshingly candid.

If you watch Parks and Recreation, you’ll see a little bit of Leslie Knope in Holly Barrett.

Barrett brings 17 years of experience in relationship-based professions, including fundraising, politics, and public relations. Her latest stint was serving as the executive director of Denver’s LoDo area, its image growing considerably under her watchful eyes. “She (Barrett) is just what Omaha needs to make downtown the premier spot to visit, work, live and be entertained,” says Bill Owen, the board chair of the DID.

Barrett is excited to be part of a city at its tipping point—the sky’s the limit and Omaha is a wonderful canvas, she says. Transportation alternatives, improvement of parking, and activation of public spaces are ideas in the hopper. “We have to get Omahans to think of themselves as a big city,” Barrett says.

In order for this to happen, Barrett says the perspective and mentality of people here first has to change. If someone wants to stop by for a frosty mug of beer down in The Old Market on a hot day, he or she will drive around and around to find a parking meter. Meters are less expensive than an $8 parking lot.

Barrett says $8 for parking is probably the cheapest in the country, but understands it is important to work with parking lot vendors to lower rates to make them more reasonable. She has worked with one city lot, on 10th and Jackson Streets, to lower it to $1 an hour. Almost instantly, it was easier to find a meter because the lots were full. Plus, Omahans are still very much in love with their cars. “I have seen people drive four blocks to go from a meeting in The Old Market to come up to a meeting here,” Barrett says laughing until her face turns red. “And, in my mind, that is absolutely hilarious.”

She wants people to move easier and more efficiently downtown, but realizes the harsh Midwest weather permits this from happening. She walks pretty much everywhere, even on the coldest of days, bundled up in a coat. Barrett drives only for basic amenities or to see her horse, Poppy, in Papillion.


In the Land of Make Believe

March 24, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Somewhere on the fringes of Downtown Omaha, behind a retractable gate that only evokes dystopian fantasies, in an industrial complex turned swanky domicile turned half-built musical fortress, sits Rick Carson, deliberately strumming a Telecaster through a low-humming Marshall JCM800 amplifier.

The studio engineer and brain behind Make Believe Studios looks on through a psychotropic haze as an assembly of bustling bodies prepares the surrounding space for its spring launch.

With each nail they hammer, the realm that Carson, 26, says he dreamt up over a decade ago, when he first became fascinated with recording, becomes more apparent and more available to do his bidding.


“Anything you’ve ever thought of or wanted as far as being a musician, it’s here,” Carson says matter-of-factly. “Whether it’s direction or some stomp box you saw Jimi Hendrix use in a video in the ‘60s—any of those little things that you think can take your music and art to the next level, we’re going to help you with that.”

Though slightly unproven, save for within the ranks of an esoteric guild of gearheads and sonic wizards, Carson has been getting noticed as of late for his broad catalogue of work and polished curation of musical machinery. In fact, his soon-to-be world-class studio recently became the newest entrant into the Miloco group, an international conglomeration of studios that has a client list including U2, Kanye West, and Coldplay.

“Ever see this before?” studio manager Justin Valentine cuts in while exhibiting the faceplate of some PWM compressor. “We think they sent it to us by accident.”

“Since it’s here, let’s build one,” replies Carson decisively. “Tell him to buy the circuit board and parts—I would like one.”

Carson says he came to Omaha six years ago on sheer market research. Before then, he worked in studios in Prague and Chicago. And even further back, the Michigan native says he was, at the time, the youngest student ever to attend Full Sail University, an audio-engineering school located in Orange County, Fla.


“If anybody wants to know the sad truth about Rick Carson,” he reflects dryly, “I left high school my sophomore year and got into college on nothing but a GED for Dummies book, and I didn’t even take the GED or read the book.”

In fact, Carson says he earned his bachelor’s degree before his high school diploma on a technicality. But that’s just where his unconventional nature begins. For instance, Carson doesn’t drive. Instead, he has a former taxi driver, Dan the Cabman, on retainer. Carson doesn’t believe in money, either. He says it changes too dramatically and therefore he refuses to save it.

“I have less than one thousand dollars in the bank and a lot of gear,” he says.

The educated and outspoken Carson, who also isn’t shy about criticizing the local music community for what he calls its nepotistic tendencies, says he hopes Make Believe Studios will foster a culture of musicians who’ll put their product, or music, first.

“Our hope is that Omaha becomes more enriched,” he says. “That more people will get to hear Omaha music.”


Invasion of the Hudlies!

January 19, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Hudl, the Lincoln-based sports video editing company, is now making its presence felt in Omaha and shows no signs of slowing down.

In September, Hudl opened a new location in the Old Market at 1013 Jones St., in the space that used to be the Nomad Lounge. The expansion to Omaha has proved a popular move for both Hudl employees and potential employees. So now, company spokesperson Alli Pane said, the company already has plans to employ more people at the Omaha site.

“It’s been great, we actually have people who work at our Lincoln office but love this new Omaha office so much they come up and spend a day there,” she said.

Hudl has been generating plenty of buzz recently. The company was recently named by Inc. Magazine as Nebraska’s fastest-growing company for a second straight year. Hudl was created by three classmates from UNL’s Jeffrey S. Raikes School of Computer Science and Management and has two Lincoln locations in addition to the new Omaha office.

Hudl began when Omaha native and Millard North graduate David Graff started working with the Nebraska football team in 2003 to improve their use of video. The company now boasts more than 20 professional teams, including the New York Jets, Detroit Lions, Boston Celtics, and Washington Capitals, as well as more than 80 percent of college football teams, as clients.

The Omaha office has more than 20 employees. Pane said that while the company has hit their hiring goal for the year, they hope to double their hiring next year. She said the company has planned to have 75 to 80 “Hudlies”—Hudl employees—to fill the new Omaha office.

Pane said the company’s hiring goal for 2015 calls for 80 to 90 new members for their product team alone. The product team is made up of designers, developers, and engineers.

Company officials saw the need for the Omaha presence after finding there were potential new hires who didn’t want to make the commute to Lincoln. Pane says the company also recognizes there is a rich talent base in Omaha and great universities to draw from. Employees love the Old Market location because it’s new and flashy, Pane said, and is “wide open.“

“It looks great, we have the brick walls, large wooden posts throughout the space, and have taken out and opened up the ceilings,” Pane said. The company has installed a new Wi-Fi system, meeting rooms, and numerous tech updates throughout the 8,000 square feet of space.

Employees also enjoy having access to all the funky amenities the Old Market is known for, Pane said. The Omaha site hosts software developers, sales team members, designers, and other employees. Pane said company officials are excited that the new space has plenty of room for their plans to continue to grow the company, which bodes well for both the company and city. Omaha, Pane said, should get ready for a major influx of  “Hudlies.”


Tokyo Sushi

January 15, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Family is at the heart of everything that Randy Gao does.

It was the reason he moved to the Midwest in the early ‘90s, after first emigrating from China to New York City. It compelled him to enter the restaurant business, following in the footsteps of his older sister. And it has been the driving force behind his latest venture, all-you-can-eat Tokyo Sushi.

For the Gaos, going into the restaurant business seemed an obvious choice—
a way for them to make a living, together.

Sitting at the bar of his modern but cozy restaurant in the heart of the Old Market at 1215 Howard St., Gao told me the story about how he first came to the United States in 1993 after leaving his home in China’s Fujian province. He attended high school in New York City and, after graduation, moved to Fort Madison, Iowa, where his older sister had recently opened a restaurant.

Today, over 20 years later, the Gao family remains in the Midwest and now operates three restaurants in the Omaha/Council Bluffs area. Randy, his brother, and two sister-in-laws operate Tokyo Sushi. Other members of the family own and operate two Chinese restaurants in Council Bluffs—Taste of China and China Wok.

Opened in 2013, Tokyo Sushi is Randy’s second all-you-can-eat sushi restaurant. The first, Wasabi, was located in West Omaha and closed in early 2013. He says the move downtown has been good for business and their all-you-can-eat business model, unique for a sushi restaurant, lures customers from outside Omaha.

“I love the downtown area,” Gao said. “We have a lot of regulars here and we even have some customers that come all the way from Lincoln.”

Tokyo Sushi’s all-you-can-eat menu is perfect for the indecisive among us. For $19.99 Sunday through Thursday ($22.99 on weekends) you can choose from an expansive menu—including soups and salads, a host of appetizers, traditional nigiri (a piece of raw fish placed atop a pillow of rice), maki (traditional sushi rolls), and many specialty rolls. The weekend menu also includes your choice of five varieties of sashimi (thinly sliced raw fish). During lunch you can enjoy a slightly abbreviated menu for $12.99 per adult.

Although Tokyo Sushi is all-you-can-eat, this isn’t your typical buffet. Every item on the menu is made fresh to order by four sushi chefs. Gao told me how important it is to him to use the freshest fish possible. For that reason, they receive several shipments of fresh fish each week.

True to form, Gao had families in mind when designing the interior of Tokyo Sushi. He wasn’t going for a super trendy atmosphere. Rather, he wanted to create a comfortable space for families to come together and enjoy a meal. The dining area accommodates around 100 diners and is filled with mainly four-top tables. “We didn’t want it to feel like a bar,” he said. “We really wanted the design to be family friendly.”

Although it doesn’t have a bar atmosphere, Tokyo Sushi does offer a happy hour special every weekday from 3-5 p.m. and a late-night happy hour from 9 p.m. to close (9:30 p.m. to close on weekends). Happy hour is still all-you-can-eat, but the price tag is only $12.99 and, like the lunch menu, is smaller than the dinner menu.

When visiting Tokyo Sushi for the first time, it can be a bit overwhelming. It’s hard to know where to start when you have the entire menu to choose from. Randy said some customer favorites include the Super Dynamite roll; tempura fried with eel, white tuna, crab, cucumber and cream cheese, with eel sauce and spicy mayo on top. Another favorite is the Hoppin Jalapeno Roll, which is crab, cucumber, and crunchy bits of fried tempura batter inside and spicy tuna and jalapeno chips on the outside. The roll is then drizzled with eel sauce and spicy mayo.

“I think a lot of our customers like the idea of all you can eat sushi,” Gao said. “It’s a good way to try a lot of things—without breaking the wallet.”