Tag Archives: Howard Street

Homer’s Manager Mike Fratt

August 2, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

I walked into the oldest business in the Old Market looking for Mike Fratt. My search for the general manager of Homer’s Music was blocked by towering racks of vinyl records and CDs.

Then I heard his voice. The voice that hosted a three-hour radio show called “Sunday Morning” for 10 years on 89.7 The River—until he got tired of getting up at 5 a.m. every Sunday. The radio show on the campus of Iowa Western was 16th in the ratings when he began. Several years later, ratings had zoomed to third place.

A bassist, Fratt has played in local bands for 30-plus years, touring to concerts in cities such as San Francisco and New York. (He harbors a special love for western swing and bluegrass.) He also has written about music for various publications.

Fratt has worked in the retail side of the music biz since his high school days in 1975, when he worked at Musicland at Crossroads Mall and the Record Shop at Westroads Mall.

The Omaha native has worked at Homer’s for 38 years. One of the few independent music stores still standing in the nation, Homers once had as many as 11 locations in Omaha and Lincoln. Now all that remains is the glass-front store in the Old Market boasting album covers and local shows.

“The ‘Walmarting’ of music, followed by the digital revolution, pushed independent music stores out of business,” says Fratt.

The recent resurgence of the popularity of vinyl records and their warmer sound have brought buyers back into the store. Record Store Day, a worldwide event held the third Saturday in April that was co-founded by the Coalition of Independent Music Stores (CIMS), also has created enthusiasm.

As a CIMS board member, Fratt helped organize Record Store Day. He is currently CIMS chairman.

It’s an exciting day for vinyl record fans. A line forms down Howard Street and around the corner, with people hoping to get a limited edition item. Some fans arrive at 3 a.m. The store doesn’t open until 10 a.m. This year, an estimated 500 people stood in line.

The scene is duplicated around the world. “In some cities, people start lining up the night before,”
Fratt says.

In 1985, a fire in an adjacent building destroyed the space Homer’s occupied at 1210 Howard Street. Homer’s moved to 1114 Howard after the fire, where the store did business for 25 years.

Homer’s returned to 1210 Howard in 2010, one of five locations the Old Market store has occupied in its 45-year history.

From a small shop in the middle of the country, Mike Fratt has made a nationwide impact. The Wall Street Journal featured him on its cover in November 2014 when he led a battle against moving Record Release Day from Tuesday to Friday.

“People already shop weekends,” says Fratt, who at the time served on the Music Business Association board of directors.

He lost that battle, but won another after organizing retailers to file an amicus brief before the U.S. Supreme Court supporting the right to sell used goods.

“Justice Breyer noted part of our brief in his decision,” he says. “That was a career highlight for me.”

Fratt also served on the board of directors of the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards. He organized the first multi-venue showcase in the Benson area, where he and his wife, Sarah, live.

About three to five percent of Homer’s sales happens online. Tourism is a healthy contributor to the bottom line, he adds.

“From April through October, one-third of our business is from tourists. They don’t have a store like this in their city, whether New York, Kansas City, or Chicago.”  Encounter

Visit homersmusic.com for more information.

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Doug Strain

June 23, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Nestled in the leafy upper levels of the Old Market Passageway, tucked in the conjoining rooms of a former yoga studio, you’ll find the cozy abode of Aether & Epsom, a massage therapy studio and spa just a flight of stairs up from the bustle of Howard Street.

You may also encounter the studio’s founder, Doug Strain, either brewing a cup of tea at the end of the hall or engaged in a session with a client. Strain practices a variety of techniques, from deep-tissue massage to aromatherapy, with self-concocted distillates.

“I work with a large population in migraines,” Strain explains. “They’ve popped every pill and seen 500 neurologists, tried every CT scan, and I’ve been able to get a lot of them off of medication. They’re so frustrated and desperate to find something, anything, that will help them, and being able to be that resource for them—that’s pretty cool.”

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Strain found himself disillusioned with nursing practice after four years of CNA work, and decided to pursue massage therapy where he could still pay homage to his science roots and “work proactively with people’s pain, not just in damage control.” Strain’s practices subscribe chiefly to neuromuscular massage, a deep-tissue technique that focuses on relieving the body’s pressure points to ease physical pain and tension. After adhering to Nebraska’s hefty requirement of 1,000 hours of massage therapy school, Strain’s decision to start his own business seemed like the natural conclusion.

“I have full control of my working environment, practice the way I want to in a way I know is best, and honestly, I can offer a private, quiet setting for someone to receive body work in,” Strain says. “You’re already getting treatment, that puts you in a vulnerable place; the quiet environment is just more comfortable for people.”

Beyond various massage techniques, Strain also self-studies aromatherapy, creating his own scents and detailing them in a therapeutic index. His secondary passion is making craft cocktails, where he uses the hydrosols, or herbal distillates, as additives for the drinks.

Doesn’t it get stressful, managing all those tasks?

“Because it’s just me here, I wear all the hats, which can be stressful,” Strain agrees. “When it comes to customers, it’s really cool because I interact with them on every level. I’m their receptionist when they come in; I’m their therapist; I’m their manager. It actually gives me the opportunity to develop a better customer relationship than the average business might.”

Another service Strain offers is the chance to relax while viewing original art. Right next door to Strain’s studio is the art studio of abstract painter Mary Ann Chaney. Chaney exhibits a collection of barn paintings in the hallway for clients to peruse while waiting for their massage appointments.

The synthesis between massage therapy and artwork is a natural one, it would seem. “You’re almost in a zone when you paint; I like that aspect of it, it’s like therapy,” Chaney says about her work. “I like painting abstract, not tight realism. They have to look kind of relaxed, but also controlled.”

She pauses, smiles, and adds, “Just like massage.” Encounter

Visit aetherandepsom.com for more information

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Britny Cordera Doane

July 10, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article appears in July/August 2015 The Encounter.

You may have seen Britny Cordera Doane sitting with her typewriter on Howard Street in the Old Market. The “Old Market Poet” is a common sight, typing up poems on commission.

“I’ve always been interested in doing something with the community in the Old Market, like the musicians do,” she says. “It’s really fun going out there and meeting different people and running into people I know already.”

“Interested” might be the key word here, because the 21-year-old Cordera certainly has many interests. Cordera has been a street poet for almost three years, since she graduated from high school in 2012. You can count on her being in the Old Market most days, weather permitting; barring days when she has school (she’s a full-time student at UNO, studying creative writing and religious studies).

By no means, though, does her interest in poetry begin and end with her work on Howard Street. Cordera considers poetry to be her calling and published her first book of verse and prose, Wingmakers, this past February with Pinyon Publishing.

“Being able to type at the typewriter and get poems written, even if people aren’t coming up, is also a great gift,” she says. “There are some nights where I write two or three poems that aren’t for other people.”

She writes daily and produces at least a couple of new works a week. (I can tell you from personal experience, dear reader, that’s a demanding output.)

“It’s important to write a lot and to write every day in order to get better, in order to hone your abilities,” she says.

When it comes to that honing process, Cordera has a long list of qualities she would like for her poems to have. In addition to being vivid and free of cliché, she wants her poetry to have musicality.

“I see music and poetry as being one and the same,” she says. “The thing with poetry is that if it doesn’t sound right, I’m not going to use it in my poem.”

Indeed, music was how Cordera became interested in street poetry in the first place. In addition to writing, she plays the violin, and it was her violin teacher who suggested she write poems in the Old Market. Beyond being musical, Cordera believes the poem should be deep and weighty.

“I like a poem that says something, that has deeper undertones to it,” she says. “I’m trying to connect a web of themes and ideals of the world. I’m trying to connect things that seem unconnected already, but are actually thoroughly connected.”

More than anything else, perhaps, the idea of a web tying together a large variety of interests sums up Cordera’s aesthetic. Her other affinities include history and mythology. Wingmakers itself is heavily influenced by ancient mythology, as well as the bird constellations.

As if all that weren’t enough, Cordera plans to pursue a master’s in either religious studies or classics after she graduates. She intends to write more poems and books. She’s also learning Latin and Greek and hopes to work as a translator.

You may be wondering at this point how she gets it all done.

“I just do it,” she says with a smile.

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Fresh Seafood From Stem to Stern

May 23, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Article originally published in May/June 2015 edition of Omaha Magazine.

To say that Omaha is not known as a seafood town would be a huge understatement. In fact I can count the local restaurants that specialize in “fruits de mer” on one hand. It could be because we are so far away from bodies of water that produce good seafood? It could be because so many midwesterners don’t really appreciate good seafood and that could, in turn, be because it is so hard to find good seafood in the Midwest? Regardless of the reason, In the spring of 2013 the quest to find good seafood in Omaha got infinitely easier with the opening of Plank Seafood Provisions in the Old Market.

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The restaurant is operated by the same people who brought us Blue, Roja and Blatt, so you already know it will be good. Located on Howard Street, the restaurant itself has a modern yet comfortable look to it. Bright orange chair cushions, iron fixtures, and distressed wood paneling combine to make this a very attractive but casual restaurant. The bar features a full oyster bar where you watch your fresh fare be hand-shucked before sliding them down your throat. Fresh, live oysters are a big part of what makes Plank so inviting, and many people go there to just have a beer and some fresh oysters. I can’t say as I blame them.

On a recent visit I started off as I usually do with a half-dozen fresh Oysters on the Half Shell ($19.64). Many people think the Gulf Coast is where choice oysters come from, but that’s not really true. The very best come from the cold, clean waters of the Pacific Northwest or the icy East Coast bays of Massachusetts, Virginia, and Connecticut. Plank features top-notch varieties from both coasts. On this night they had six different varieties, and I tried one of each. All of them were extremely fresh and tasty. I like trying them one by one and noting the difference in texture, salinity, and flavor. The raw oysters on the half shell are served as they should be—on ice with cocktail sauce, horseradish, and mignonette. If raw oysters aren’t your thing, they will also cook them grilled BBQ style, baked Rockefeller style, or fried in Anchor Steam beer batter. To me it seems like a shame to cook them, but I have tried all of their prepared oyster dishes and can tell you they are all worth a go.

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There is more to plank than just great oysters. On this night we also tried the Shrimp Cocktail ($11.50). These perfectly cooked, flavorful white shrimp are boiled with creole spices and served with creole mustard and a housemade cocktail sauce. We followed that with a cup of Lobster Bisque ($7.00), which was expertly prepared and very enjoyable. For dinner I had the Diver Scallops ($28.00), which were pan-seared with braised bacon, creamy farro, braised kale, sherry reduction, and a carrot ginger purée. This was a truly stellar dish and the combination of ingredients worked perfectly together. My dining partner had the Shrimp Po Boy Sandwich ($15.00). This was the best example of this classic cajun sandwich that I have sampled in Omaha and, at least for a moment, transported me to the French Quarter. The bread was crisp and perfect, and the fried shrimp, tomatoes, dill pickles, lettuce, and creole mustard sauce were all spot on. I will be sure to have this the next time I come in for lunch. What perhaps most surprised me was the fantastic desserts at Plank. We tried the Bananas Foster Bread Pudding ($8.00) creatively presented in cubes on a banana brulee sauce with homemade brown sugar rum ice cream, and salted caramel sauce. Possibly the best dessert I have had this year. We also tried the Chocolate Torte ($8.00), which was also presented beautifully and featured chocolate ganache with a hazelnut wafer crust, homemade coffee ice cream cardamom, and crème anglaise. Yum!

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If you are getting the impression that I liked Plank, then you’re not far off the mark. I have not yet even mentioned how good the service was or talked up the impressive draft beer list, the creative craft cocktails or the seafood-friendly, curated list of wines. To learn more about those things, you will just have to the dive into the waters of Plank and find out for yourselves. Cheers!

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The Tea Smith

May 13, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Down on Howard Street, in between the many bars and restaurants that pepper the Old Market, the bright-green leaf decorated on the window of The Tea Smith can be easy to miss. But this deceptively simple store hosts the most impressive collection of tea in Omaha, and owner Tim Smith has received national and even international recognition for his treasured tea.

Now if this storefront had existed 20 or so years ago, Smith might have walked past it without batting an eye.  “At that time I thought that tea was not much more than brown water and a bag, so I didn’t pay much attention to it,” says Smith. But a Valentine’s Day business trip changed his mind, after he picked up some loose leaf tea for his wife.

“When I got home, she [my wife] made me try it, and I said “oh this is good, this has got some character to it,’” says Smith. Some internet research led Smith to some a surprising fact about tea: that at the time, tea was the most consumed beverage in the world, but in the United States it was ranked sixth or seventh.

Smith began to see a possibility to expand the specialty tea market.  If more of the high-quality loose leaf teas that he and his wife both loved were more widely available, tea might start to grow in popularity in the United States. While there weren’t many other established tea businesses to model themselves after, Smith decided to take a leap of faith, and opened The Tea Smith in December of 2004.

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Smith’s concept behind The Tea Smith is “comfortable contemporary”—he wants anyone to be able to come into The Tea Smith and spend an hour or two relaxing with a nice cup of tea. This includes making the concept of tea more approachable to the average person, who might not know all about the complexities of tea.

Smith laughs when he recalls the early days of The Tea Smith, when “we’d tell someone we’d opened a tea store and they thought maybe t-shirts or something like that.” Now The Tea Smith plans a variety of educational programs, such as a “Tea 101 class” for beginners. Smith himself says that he is still always learning about tea—with over 10,000 different styles of tea that supposedly come from the same plant, Camellia sinensis, Smith hasn’t even come close to tasting them all.

This learning process has taken Smith to the source of his tea, to China, Japan, and Taiwan, and to tea expos all over the world. One of Smith’s highest recognitions came at the 2012 World Tea Expo in Las Vegas, when he was named “Top Tea Infusionist” after winning the expo’s Tea Infusionist Challenge.  Smith, along with five other tea experts, was given six teas and had to prepare them on stage for a panel of judges. Participants were judged on their skill and handling of the tea, their ability to discuss the tea, and their success in implementing their desired flavors into their cup of tea.

It’s events like these that allow Smith and his staff to hone their teaching skills when it comes to the intricacies of different kinds of tea. The Tea Smith carries over 150 different kinds of tea, and it’s up to Smith and his employees—the “Tea Smithies”—to taste all of them and help customers find ones that will fit their palette.

Say a customer comes in and is completely new to tea. Smith and his employees will ask the customer what types of flavors he or she likes to help them find a tea that has those kinds of flavors in it. Smith will usually direct first-time tea consumers to something that’s not overly sweet or bitter, like a green tea. Looking for something a little bit more daring? Smith might direct you to one of their most popular drinks called South of the Border, a black tea with chocolate and chili pepper.
Nathan Watson was also looking for something a little different when he stumbled upon the Tea Smith a year and a half ago. Born in the South, Watson’s been a tea drinker his whole life. But even he was blown away by all of the seemingly crazy tea concoctions The Tea Smith has.

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“I can get Chai Tea at Scooter’s or I can get tea from Starbucks. They have two or three different kinds. Tea Smith has like 100,” says Watson.

Watson, a chief sales officer for Contemporary Analysis, has now become a regular at The Tea Smith. It’s his go-to place to meet with clients—he recalls with a laugh how he even hosted six or seven meetings back-to-back at The Tea Smith one day. Despite refilling his same teapot a dozen times throughout the day, Watson uncovered new flavors with each sip of tea. The robust flavors that came with the first brewing of his tea disappeared after the first couple of brewings, and were replaced by some of the subtle flavors that were originally unrecognizable.

“Tim taught me that trick. The second brewing,  the third brewing, the fourth brewing all taste different,” says Watson.

It’s this combination of unmatchable knowledge about tea and wacky offerings that have made The Tea Smith such a hit. Out-of-town customers would often make the shop a regular spot on return trips to Omaha, and as many customers would buy bulk orders of a certain tea to take back home, Smith thought that he might be on to something. He decided to alter his original business plan to add a wholesale aspect to the mix. Now the  store ships tea to customers all over the country, and even helps create tea menus for local restaurants such as Blue Sushi, The Grey Plume, Aroma’s, and Scooter’s Coffeehouse.

“As we got popular and we got the experience, we found that we were really able to help people that were starting into teas or help them improve the quality of the products that they’re offering,” says Smith.

It always comes back to this educational experience for Smith. With each new customer that comes into the store comes a new opportunity to expose another person to the beverage that he loves so much, and he hopes to continue to spread loose leaf tea around the country. Smith has plans to open more stores in the future outside of their Old Market and Tower Plaza locations, though he remains coy about them.

For now, Smith just remains excited about continuing to expand his knowledge of tea, pay it forward to his customers, and to expel misconceptions about the drink that he now considers
“more than just a beverage.”

“It [tea] is a part of culture, it’s a part of economics, it’s a part of history, as well as a part of health, so it’s absolutely fascinating,” says Smith, “and there’s always a lot to learn.”