Tag Archives: Omaha Magazine

Success from Great Heights

August 9, 2018 by
Photography by contributed

Jamie Walker can actually say he takes corporate success to greater heights.

The 44-year-old, who serves as president and CEO of Omaha-based Jet Linx Aviation, often finds himself flying to far-off places. That’s not surprising, because he served as a vital component in growing the Midwest company to a national success. The company has 14 locations in the U.S. that provide private jet services.

Jamie says the company was founded by his father, Denny, in 1999 as a means to slice into the market of private airline services for people who don’t want to deal with the hustle and bustle of more public transportation. 

Jamie joined the company in 2002 with one major goal—bring the company to a national scale. Previously, Walker had worked in sales and marketing, and residential development in New York City.

In 2004, he launched Jet Linx Aviation’s Jet Card and Aircraft Management programs. Then in 2009, he established the company’s base partner program, a major win for fulfilling national expansion efforts.

Walker says the program was, and continues to be, a successful effort to establish Jet Linx Aviation hubs in large metro areas. The requirement includes a base partner, who serves as a local buy-in and owns a small portion of the business. Jet Linx Aviation remains the majority stakeholder and primary decision-maker.

Walker was successful in growing the company this way while mitigating financial risks to the company during the Great Recession. Then in 2014, he created the company’s first member-benefits program, Elevated Lifestyle.

“It’s really a challenge,” Walker says of the private flight market. “The company’s goal is to scale and retain a local effort [in Omaha].”

Since taking over leadership, Walker has grown the company from four aircrafts to a fleet of over 100. The company grew from 12 clients to over 1,300. At its start, Jet Linx Aviation had 20 employees. Now it boasts about 475 hard workers across the country.

When Walker is traveling, he’s usually speaking with clients interested in private jet services. In Omaha, he’s helping develop programs that benefit his everyday employees. Part of this includes the management and retention of a positive work culture. Whenever Walker is in Omaha, he makes sure to communicate with his staff to ensure they arrive to a positive atmostphere every day.

“One of the most important things we need to do is keep that culture in place,” Walker says.

In Omaha, Walker is involved with the Knights of Aksarben and YPO, and remains active on the advisory boards for JetSmarter and Stellar Labs. He previously served on the board for Jet Aviation and the local YPO Chapter.

“Jamie was chapter chair [in 2012],” says Lund Co. President Jason Lund of the YPO board. “He recruited me to be on the board. It was at a pivotal time in the local chapter, and I think he’s a very innovative, forward-thinking leader.”

Walker says the single most important thing he’s learned about nonstop travel is that family is more important than anything else.

“It definitely makes me appreciate Omaha much more when I do travel,” Walker says. “The best thing about traveling is coming home.”

Walker spends the majority of his free time with his wife and children. And that’s something he holds close to him, because then he never loses sight of what home really means.

“I love having Omaha as a home base,” Walker says. “To be in Omaha—to call it home—makes it much easier on the life-work balance.”


Visit jetlinx.com for more information.

This article was printed in the August/September 2018 edition of B2B.

Ugly Yellow and Violet Vividity

August 8, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It all started with a knee injury. In 2006, things for the now-24-year-old Jenna Johnson came to a screeching halt when the soccer enthusiast was subjected to multiple surgeries to repair her ACL. While she healed, the Sioux City, Iowa, native discovered her passion for painting. 

“It was the making of something from nothing that grabbed me,” she explains. 

In 2001, Johnson and her family moved to Elkhorn for a job opportunity. She says that, although she received a quality education and played a multitude of sports, she always felt like something was missing.  

“It was exactly what you’d imagine it to be like,” Johnson says. “I had numerous friends. I felt safe, but in a way I also felt boxed in, possibly due to the lack of diversity.” 

When Johnson graduated from Elkhorn South High School in 2012, the self-taught artist moved east and got a studio at Hot Shops downtown, a goal she’d had since she was a teenager. 

“I participated in a high school show that is held there once a year,” she explains. “During our tour, I’d get lost in the building and imagine what it would be like to be an artist there. Now that I have been a resident for almost six years, Hot Shops has given me much wisdom about the art community. With the knowledge of my fellow artists, I’ve gained the skills necessary to keep my business going.” 

Over the years, those fellow artists have taught her how to build and stretch a canvas, and explain, sell, and critique her work. She’s also learned imperative lessons about success and failure, so it’s not surprising Johnson’s current focus is people, done in an unconventional mustardy yellow and shades of violet.  

She initially chose that shade of yellow because she wanted to make an ugly painting to “get it out of her system.” But once she saw it next to the violet, her imagination exploded. The result was a new experience for her.

“People are my favorite right now,” she says. “I hate painting faces, but I love how the two colors simplify the subject. I am infatuated with these two colored portraits [in particular]. All [of them] are large so it is fun to step up to one and stare into the subject’s soul.”

“Ask me this again in a year, I’m sure it will change,” she adds. 

Although she has other hobbies like traveling, hiking, and yoga, Johnson can’t picture her life without working as an artist. 

“I ask myself this question at least once a week and the answer is always the same—I don’t know,” she says. “Maybe cut hair? It terrifies me to imagine doing anything but painting.”

Johnson’s permanent installations can be found throughout Omaha at businesses such as TD Ameritrade (commissioned while she was still in high school) and LinkedIn. Living paycheck to paycheck, she appreciates each and every time someone buys her work. 

“It feels wonderful,” she says. “Since this is my only job, any sale is a good sale.” 

Down the line, Johnson envisions her art breaking out of the Omaha scene, but she insists, “If I am still happily painting in the future, I have succeeded.” 


Visit jennajart.com for more information about the artist. 

This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Encounter. 

Tallgrass Vernacular

August 7, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The day I met Jim Schalles he was busy with a machete. That spring afternoon, we found ourselves in the far corner of City Sprouts’ half-acre lot on the corner of 40th and Franklin streets in near-north Omaha. Schalles’ goal for the day was to prepare the lumber that, once dry, would frame a small roof sheltering an earthen oven he’d been commissioned to build for the community garden. As we talked, Schalles and the machete stripped long ribbons of bark from the pile of freshly cut eastern red cedar stacked beside him. Cleaning a full trunk down to its smooth blonde core, he would hoist the thing with considerable ease over his head, toss it out of the way, and begin again with a new log. His dog, Adobe, curled asleep in a nest of mulch beside him, was little impressed.

Schalles is an Omaha native who grew up in the oak and cottonwood forests of Ponca Hills north of town. Until recently, though, he’d been passing time in southern Oregon, immersing himself in a rather broad range of disciplines in pursuit of his permaculture design certificate with the Aprovecho Sustainability Education Center. Coursework there included roundwood timber framing, earthen concretes, and clay-based stucco construction. “I left feeling like I could certainly build a house,” Schalles says. 

Permaculture design, at its roots, is guided by the patterns and forms observed in nature. Rather than engineering structures, agriculture systems, and societies in opposition to the natural world, the movement seeks to embody a thoughtful reflection of nonhuman systems and the inherent design wisdom found there.   

While it’s hard to imagine a better environment for a natural builder to cut his teeth than the dewy old-growth forests of Oregon, Schalles found himself drawn back to the hills and scrubby oak forests of his youth.

“I really missed the climate and culture and people back here,” he reflects. “If I’d grown up in the Northwest I probably wouldn’t have left. Clean swimming holes and mountains and redwoods and beaches, all that great stuff. But when I was hiking around the redwoods I never really felt at peace. I was almost on edge with awe. There are these giant trees that you’re astounded and kind of bewildered by, but it’s different from the sense of security and peace that I feel walking around these giant cottonwoods and the oak savannah that I grew up in.”

Reacquainting himself with the rhythms of his native landscape, Schalles recognized an opportunity to provide a service that was currently unavailable in the area. From this, Tallgrass Vernacular was born, a full-service construction and design business which serves to bring the principles, ethos, and aesthetic of natural building back to the Missouri River Valley. 

The name, Tallgrass Vernacular, references the vernacular architecture style, which Schalles describes as “building with things from the locality in which the building is being created. It embodies the nature of the area where you build. If I’m building in the Loess Hills, for example, I like mimicking the geography, the rolling hills with steep edges, so the structure not only is built with the things from the area, but it also embodies the essence and the culture and spirit of the place as well.” 

The community oven at City Sprouts exemplifies this precept down to its foundation: an assemblage of broken sidewalk concrete sourced from only a few hundred feet away. The subsoil clay integrated to the concrete was also pulled right from the neighborhood. 

While such a construction may sound renegade, Schalles is quick to note that his practice is firmly rooted in tradition and techniques that have stood the test of time. “As a builder, safety has to be a priority. If I want to make an argument for the value of these traditional practices, it has to come from within the guidelines of the building code. If we’re just building like hippies in our backyards and keeping it off the main radar, we’re not able to spread the real benefits of these techniques and make them more accessible. In some ways, I want to see the codes progress and be made more inclusive, but in the meantime I’m happy to learn them thoroughly and make sure I’m building things in accordance with the law.”

To watch Schalles at work is to see a person very much in their element. With a casual diligence, he appears fully comfortable with both his material and ability. There is, in fact, little to distinguish Jim Schalles’ professional life from his personal. Which is how he prefers it. 

“I think living in conjunction with the seasons that are around you is really similar to the way that I build things or the way that I live my life in general. It’s all of us being on the rhythm of when’s the best time to plant our seeds—whether that’s the metaphorical seed of your idea or your literal can’t-let-the-frost-kill-your-vegetable seed.”

In fall 2016, a chance meeting in a Ponca Hills bar provided Schalles an opportunity to commit himself to honoring this rhythm of the seasons in a more substantial way.

Still fresh from his time in Oregon, Schalles found himself trading rounds with a retired local farmer in need of a hand. Today, in exchange for a few hours of farm labor each week, Schalles and his partner have been allowed to build a home for themselves on a segment of land nestled against the Loess Hills State Forest. 

Of course, the Schalles home is no conventional affair. The main living quarters are an elevated yurt supported by reclaimed lumber and local cedar. The home is warmed by a wood-burning masonry heater, also designed by Schalles.  

“To have this been the first winter I spent in the yurt, in something I built, in the Midwestern winter, was really cool. To know that we survived, but to look at it in hindsight now that we’re past the worst of the winter and wonder, okay how do we make this more habitable for next winter.”  

It’s in hard-earned conditions like these that the seeds of utopia are sown. A solar shower, a wood-fired bathtub under the stars, a straw bale sauna—Schalles’ plans for the future are as ambitious as they are enviable.

“If you’re committed to keeping your costs low, you can afford to work a full-time job in your garden growing food,” he says. “And what more do you need? When you’ve got your shelter and food taken care of, your mind starts to go wild with these ideas.”

Like many great optimists, though, Schalles’ bright visions of the future are held against a vivid recognition of the dark places we now find ourselves in, culturally, ecologically, and architecturally. 

“We’re in this crisis right now in the way that we build things. The bottom’s going to fall out sooner or later, and hopefully it’s not detrimental when it does. Hopefully we’ve figured out enough ways to mitigate it and to do things better. Rather than just trying to engineer our way out of these problems I think that we can look toward the past to move into the future with sensible solutions.” 

It’s this recognition of the limitations of modern conventional architecture, and a sincere passion for creating structures that are at once functional, economical, and sustainable that propels Tallgrass Vernacular. 

For Schalles, these principles find their clearest expressions in fire appliances like the community oven at City Sprouts. 

“Fire was the origin of a lot of things. Probably the origin of language,” he says. “The act of us coming together around heat and a communal source of cooking our nutrients opened the door to a lot of things culturally. We’ve lost that. And putting fire appliances in central places like parks and community gardens can help bring that back.”


Learn more about Tallgrass Vernacular and its natural building and permaculture services at tallgrassvernacular.com. 

This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of OmahaHome. 

Superintendent Letters

August 6, 2018 by

The greater Omaha metropolitan area is home to some of the state’s best schools, educators, and students. Superintendents at six of the area’s largest school districts share their thoughts and reflections for the fall.

School Districts

Omaha Public
402-557-2222
students: 53,000 | schools: 81

Archdiocese of Omaha
402-558-3100
students: 20,000 | schools: 71

Bellevue Public
402-293-4000
students: 10,000 | schools: 20

Elkhorn Public
402-289-2579
students: 9,500 | schools: 17

Millard Public
402-715-8200
students: 24,000 | schools: 35

Westside Community
402-390-2100
students: 6,000 | schools: 13


Cheryl J. Logan, Ed. D.

Cheryl J. Logan, Ed.D.
Omaha Public
district.ops.org

Welcome back to a new school year. I hope everyone has had an opportunity to recharge and prepare to hit the ground running.

In July, I officially took the reins as superintendent of Omaha Public Schools. I’m honored to have the privilege to serve our students, their families, and the citizens of Omaha. During my visits to schools and with community organizations and city leaders these past seven months, I’ve heard, on more than one occasion, that OPS is an emerging leader in urban education. I’ve seen it up close and personal. OPS is a gem in this community, and the recent show of support in the passing of the Phase 2 bond is inspiring.

I’m honored and humbled to serve as the superintendent of Omaha Public Schools and look forward to working with the Omaha community to ensure that every student is prepared to excel in college, career, and life.

As I learn more about the district’s strengths and opportunities to grow and build upon our shared vision for the future, I’ve also shared my entry plan, which explains the goals, objectives, and activities of my early work here in Omaha. My four primary areas of focus include: 1) building a positive, collaborative, and productive relationship with the board of education; 2) establishing trust and confidence amongst stakeholder groups; 3) reviewing and studying our fiscal and organizational health; and 4) reviewing and studying curriculum and instructional practices.

The insights that are gained during this process will help the district leadership team make informed decisions, building upon the foundation of excellence that already exists while finding strategic ways to ensure our continuous improvement.

Michael W. Ashton, Ed. D.

Michael W. Ashton, Ed.D.
Archdiocese of Omaha
lovemyschool.com

We are blessed in Omaha to have high support and enrollment in the largest by-choice school system in the state. Nearly 20,000 students across 71 schools enjoy a progressive, Christ-centered environment that remains focused on those subjects most important to our families: faith, discipline, service, and community.

Our schools continue to uphold the tradition of high achievement in academic, creative, and athletic pursuits. Our students continue to exceed the Nebraska average in ACT scores, graduation rates, and college acceptances. An even more pronounced difference is seen when comparing Catholic-educated students of Latino backgrounds or from less resourced households to their non-Catholic-educated peers. But these measures are only significant in the way they contribute to each student’s pursuit of God’s plan for their lives. We endeavor to awaken the greatness that is within each child by engaging the whole family in a supportive community that focuses on each person as a valued creation of God.

Catholic education has what we have always valued—morals, high expectations, rigor, and service—but did you know that each year we enroll more students with disabilities and those from non-English speaking households? Our families, parishes, and other benefactors provide additional resources each year in efforts to provide environments that serve every child. You can also find STEM/STEAM/STREAM labs, fine arts programs, vocational preparation partnerships with local colleges, dual enrollment courses, and a new Dual Language Academy, Omaha’s first bi-literate language opportunity for children as young as preschool-age.

Jeff Rippe, Ed. D.

Jeff Rippe, Ed.D.
Bellevue Public
bellevuepublicschools.org

Here at #TeamBPS, we are eager to kick-off the 2018-19 school year.

BPS and our stakeholders began work on a strategic plan last school year; we’re going through a final review before the plan is presented this fall. Once fully implemented, this roadmap will guide and challenge us towards even greater success. 

We continue to renovate, rehabilitate, and improve existing facilities through our bond program—allowing us to provide students with access to cutting-edge technology, educational and recreational resources, and safe and secure environments where they can learn and grow.

In addition to the many happenings this school year, our focus is #BeKind 

We want to bring awareness to all of our stakeholders on issues our students or staff may face while simultaneously initiating a focus on being kind. Our initiative is not limited to students and staff; we hope to have the entire Bellevue/Offutt community join us in spreading the word about our #BeKind message. 

Our accomplishments in BPS are many. We continue to be fortunate to have a community that supports and values education. Above everything we put our students first. It is the promise of the community and the mission of this school district.

Bary Habrock, Ph.D.

Bary Habrock, Ph.D.
Elkhorn Public
elkhornweb.org

With a renewed sense of excitement and promise, we will open our doors to more than 9,500 students this fall.  We look back with pride on the past achievements and successes accomplished by our students, both in academics and extracurricular activities, while looking forward with enthusiasm to the possibilities open to us in the year to come.  

As a prime destination for educational excellence, our focus remains on student achievement, and it’s this priority that drives our actions and decisions. Together with our dedicated students, supportive parents, caring teachers and staff, considerate board members, and a community that partners with us to ensure student success, we set an expectation of excellence as a district that has grown from rural roots into a premier educational environment. Our students continually out-score state and national averages, and our high schools maintain outstanding graduation rates.  Our community understands the value of attending schools where the names and needs of students are known and understood, and it is this partnership that allows us to continue to provide our students with the best educational experience available.  

As we move forward in our 31st consecutive year of significant student population growth, our ability to live out our mission remains the same as we “unite students, families, educators, and the community to ensure a challenging and enriching academic environment that inspires students to develop the knowledge and skills necessary to become responsible citizens and lifelong learners.”

Jim Suftin, Ed. D.

Jim Sutfin, Ed.D.
Millard Public
mpsomaha.org

A new year means a new backpack full of fresh supplies. You can spot the ritual at any of the local stores. The class lists are posted conveniently right as you walk in the door. Along with the required No. 2 yellow pencils, composition notebooks, and folders, we are asking students to tuck one more tool into their backpacks this year. Parents, you’ll like this one. It’s free, it works, and students can keep it for life.

We are asking every student to bring kindness to school this year. You’ve probably already spotted the movement in your community. #BeKind is everywhere. Our neighboring school districts are a part of it. Omaha’s mayor, and the police and fire departments are all part of it. Of all the important lessons our schools can teach, we think this one rises to the top. What you do in this world matters. How you go about it matters even more. Please help us help our students learn how to #BeKind.

Blane McCann, Ph.D.

Blane McCann, Ph.D.
Westside Community
westside66.org

I’ve held many roles in my life: teacher, coach, principal, and now, superintendent. Despite the accolades and awards I’ve been honored to receive throughout my career, nothing will top my most important roles in this world: being a husband and father.

I have devoted my career to public education, yet my proudest moments and fondest memories are those spent with my family. I have been blessed with five wonderful children, several of whom are now adults. I often look back on their younger years and laugh with my wife—how did we do it? How did we survive the sibling rivalry, broken windows, and long car rides on family road trips? The jam-packed schedules. The sleepless nights when they were babies, and the long days when someone was sick.

My wife and I are now empty-nesters. To those who still have little birds at home, I encourage you to enjoy every moment. Soak up the crazy things your children say, and listen when they tell you about their days. Try to remember every day that tomorrow they will be one day closer to adulthood and independence. They need you to listen, to play, to teach them, and to love.

We as educators do our very best to give children all of the tools they need to become happy, productive citizens excelling in their strengths. However, even the best teachers cannot replace your important role as parents and caregivers. And as important as our roles in career and community often seem, nothing can or should compare with family. Your efforts at home make our efforts at school exponentially more powerful and worthwhile.

Here’s to another outstanding school year, and to new summer memories made as a family.


This article was printed in the Fall 2018 edition of Family Guide.

Michael Sanchez’s Inspiration

August 5, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Why would a young, healthy finance graduate of California State University-San Marcos leave a prestigious and lucrative job in the world of Southern California banking to run a restaurant in Ralston?

For Michael Sanchez, a more appropriate question was, “How can I not do this?” 

In 2008, his grandmother Maria Sanchez, the woman he calls “my everything” and the namesake of the legendary Maria’s Mexican Restaurant, needed his help. Michael’s grandfather, Patrick, had died some years before. Maria was determined to carry on and manage a business they had started together in 1976. But when Maria turned 70, she knew the years were catching up with her. 

“Michael is like my husband because he’s really into the business side of the restaurant,” Maria says. Michael’s grandfather grew up in Colorado and was stationed at Offutt Air Force Base when he married Maria in 1959. While the couple lived overseas in Puerto Rico and the Philippines, Patrick set up a Mexican food cart on base during the weekends. The food cart was a hit with fellow service families. It eventually inspired their restaurant. 

Maria practically raised Michael from the time he was a baby. “He’s a creator,” she says, acknowledging the grandson inherited her husband’s financial acumen. “I told him, ‘Come home, Michael. We’d love to have you.’”

“It took a lot of planning, mostly over the phone, to make the arrangements for me to come back [as majority owner and operator],” says Michael, 35. “Because she’s so passionate and wants the best for her business and her employees, I think she wanted to advance the business, but she just didn’t have the wherewithal.” 

Michael knew exactly how to advance the family business when he returned to Ralston. His vision coincided with the same thing customers had been telling his grandmother for years: Maria’s didn’t have enough space. 

A remodel and expansion job began immediately on the Burlington Street restaurant in the heart of Ralston. Michael added a party room and doubled the seating capacity. Ten years later, the growing popularity of Maria’s signature fried puffy tacos taxes the new floor plan. 

“Even now that we’ve expanded, it’s a long wait sometimes,” says Maria, in what may be the understatement of the year. Patrons congregate outside the restaurant before the doors open. 

After unleashing his inner entrepreneur, Michael embarked on a creative and professional tear. 

Over the past decade the Creighton Prep product has added a satellite Maria’s Mexican Restaurant inside the Ralston Arena, created the sensational Mula in Omaha’s hip Blackstone District, developed a new taco eatery in Benson, drawn up plans for a fast-casual dining experience, earned a graduate degree in business from Creighton University (completed in one year), and won a seat on the Ralston City Council. In addition, he helps raise two sons, ages 12 and 9.

Michael grew up at Maria’s (“My crib was in the back office of the restaurant,” he says) and can perform every job within his businesses. Although he prefers working outside the kitchen, his vast knowledge of Mexican food has paid dividends in his business ventures.

“Living in California and traveling often to Mexico opened my eyes to how many varieties of Mexican food there are,” he says. “Omaha-style Mexican is very similar to Maria’s, which has a heavy Texas influence. It’s all about sauces, cheese, and beans.”

The Tex-Mex influence comes naturally to Maria. “My mother was raised in Texas,” she says. “We use her recipes. We’ve used them from the beginning, when Patrick cooked.”

As he conceptualized a culinary creation of his own, Michael strived to bridge the gap between Americanized Mexican food and the traditional fare immigrant families dish up along Omaha’s South 24th Street—fare similar to the street food made-to-order from vendor carts on Mexican street corners.

He chose to establish Mula (Spanish for mule) at 40th and Farnam streets because he felt the community would travel there to sample his contemporary version of Mexican street food. The location struck gold. 

“When we moved here to the Blackstone District in 2014, there was nothing around, I mean nothing,” Michael says with a touch of awe. “Now it’s become the hottest part of the city.”

Relying on social media and word-of-mouth, Mula found its footing within a year and exceeded expectations. 

The décor reflects the Old World, with statues and icons of the Virgin Mary and colorful votive candles with images of saints lined across the back bar. Hundreds of bottles of tequila rest on rustic bookshelves, giving credence to Mula’s billing as a “Mexican Kitchen and Tequileria.”

Diners experience flavors outside the realm of taco seasoning, with fresh red cabbage, chile crema, a splash of citrus, and “a hint of vanilla” integrated into some of the offerings. Unlike many Mexican restaurants, portions at Mula don’t rival the size of houseboats, although the tortas, Mexican sandwiches stuffed with meat, can easily feed two. 

With Mula running smoothly, Michael turned to a simpler concept and a new restaurant debuting this summer: Taco Co. at 61st and Maple streets in Benson, a margarita garden that pays homage to his grandmother. 

“We serve nothing but margaritas and her fried puffy tacos,” he says, referring to the pita bread-like quality of the taco shell. “We also have finger food, salsa, and guac.”

Always one to stay up on trends in the business, Michael and his trusty culinary director, chef Kyle Lamb, have an idea for a line of fast-casual restaurants. “Counter service, not full service, is the largest growing segment,” he says matter-of-factly.

While Michael plans for the future, his beloved grandmother, whose smooth skin and bright smile belie her age, basks in the goodwill bestowed on her at the restaurant. As she welcomes third- and fourth-generation customers to Maria’s, she takes comfort knowing her family’s culinary legacy will continue for years to come. 


Visit mariasralston.com to learn more about Maria’s in Ralston, visit mulaomaha.com for Mula in Blackstone, and find Taco Co. on Facebook at @handmadetacos.

This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Food for Thought

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

A couple months ago I was in Copenhagen.

No, I did not see the “Little Mermaid” statue in the harbor. I know everybody goes to photograph it when they visit the city. But I remember that this Little Mermaid is based on the Hans Christian Andersen version, not Disney’s romantic feature film.

In the original telling, the mermaid does not get to marry the prince of her dreams and live the happily ever after. Instead, the young scion is married off to a genuine princess, the daughter of a neighboring king. Yeah, turns out the fix was in even before she gave up her fins.

Her mer-sisters offer a nice, sharp knife to gut the prince—a chance to void her contractual deal with the sea witch (which had stipulated marriage to the prince or death). But instead of stabbing her beloved, the mermaid dives into the waves, turns into sea foam, and becomes a creature of the air. The prince never realizes how close he came to being assassinated.

Fairytales are often a bit darker than we choose to remember them. I mean, for accuracy’s sake, shouldn’t the poor heartbroken thing have a knife in her hand?

Whatever, I skipped the obligatory visit to the scorned gold digger’s monument. 

I was in Copenhagen for food.

I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to travel here and there around the globe, and my first goal is always food. I believe you get the best idea of what a country is all about by discovering what the natives eat.

In Italy, the Mediterranean diet rules with divine pasta, fresh vegetables, and seafood. I’ve had the best roasted lamb in Trastevere, great liver (yes, liver) on the Via Sistina, and Genoese salami to die for.

Germany is where a Midwesterner can go for comfort food. Schnitzel is basically chicken-fried steak, and potatoes and gravy are everywhere you turn. At a street fair in Cologne, one booth specialized in deep-fried bacon. I felt like I was at the Iowa State Fair.

In Hong Kong, I recommend you try the spicy chicken feet or the hairy crab. Or grab a fish from one of the tanks at the street market and hand it to the woman in the next stall who will kill it, clean it, and turn it into the freshest fish stew you’ve ever eaten.

In Japan, everything is good—everything from street vendor yakisoba to Okinawa-style soba. Everything is good except the natto. Do not eat the natto. Just don’t (unless you enjoy munching chunky booger goo).

I wish I could time travel, because (according to Reddit) archeologists recently discovered the oldest ever recipe on a tomb wall in Egypt. It’s for a soup that includes hippopotamus and sparrow, two delicacies I have never had the opportunity to try.
I suspect the dish represents our primitive ancestor’s first attempt to deal with leftovers.

So anyway, there I was in Copenhagen, skipping the unarmed Little Mermaid statue, looking for good food. And what did I find?

Well, during my short stay, I had great Italian food, some of the best sushi this side of Osaka, along with fish and chips that beat anything in London.

I even found a Neolithic restaurant serving only what our hunter-gatherer forebears might have found while walking from here to there (basically plants and prehistoric roadkill). I skipped that place.

I did try the frikadeller and rugbrød with gherkins. Meatballs and bread. It wasn’t bad.

But here’s the point of the column. If you’re in Copenhagen, try the Danish.

Which, for accuracy’s sake, should be called “Austrian.” The pastry was originally introduced to the country by Austrian bakers when their Danish counterparts went on strike in 1850. After more than a century of acceptance, the pastry has become genuinely Danish. Kind of like an American, Disneyfied version of the Little Mermaid. But more delicious, and you don’t need a knife.


Otis Twelve hosts the radio program Early Morning Classics with Otis Twelve on 90.7 KVNO, weekday mornings from 5-9 a.m. Visit kvno.org for more information.

This column was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. 

Local Farm-to-Table

August 3, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Nick Strawhecker reaches down and opens the oven. There are two whole, cooked chickens resting on the platter within the large industrial appliance. One chicken looks well proportioned, intact, and almost seems to sit rigid as though something was placed inside it to offer structural integrity. It looks delicious, succulent. The other chicken is striking also, but in a very different way. It is of a similar size, but the breast is massive, unnaturally so. The legs are tiny by comparison. Its skin looks like a popped water balloon. This chicken sits in a thick deposit of cloudy, watery juices. It is splayed on the platter, floppy—its spine is broken. This chicken’s liver, compared to the other, looks as though it spent its short life drinking hard liquor in lieu of water. The heavenly, intact chicken was among the living just days ago. It was raised on a cage-free farm near Pawnee City, Nebraska. Where was the other chicken from? Unknown.

Though the difference in quality is obvious on many levels (for example one is pumped with antibiotics and water to add weight and size, while the other is simply a natural chicken) even industry professionals from the free-range, farm-to-table side will admit both types of chicken have their place in the overall food economy. Dean Dvorak, who operates a family poultry business in southeast Nebraska called Plum Creek Farms, says he has never complained about the existence of large companies when it comes to chicken production. 

“The big companies are certainly necessary,” Dvorak says. “People in our country eat a lot of chicken and small producers can’t produce nearly enough to keep up with the demand.”

The price point of some menus just do not fit what small producers can supply, Dvorak says. This adds to the “niche” culture surrounding local, farm-to-table food production. It takes a specific client base willing to invest in high-quality foods.  

“Our efficiency is much poorer than a larger company’s,” Dvorak says of his higher prices. “We lose more chickens to predators, and our pound of feed per pound of gain [the measure of how much chicken a farmer produces per pound of feed] is much poorer because our birds get a lot of exercise by not being kept in a small space.” 

Serving a lower price point is a major faculty of the industrialized farming sector. The USDA reports organic food made up just 4 percent of U.S. food sales in 2012. This means there is a point for consumers where cost simply overrides the level of quality in a more expensive product. Many are not willing to ante up for the good stuff. Additionally, organic food is not yet available on the same scale as the alternative.

Local restaurateur Nick Strawhecker is an advocate of the farm-to-table supply chain. He owns and operates Dante (in West Omaha) and Dante Pizzeria Napoletana (in Blackstone District).

“The way most of the world works is cooking what is around you,” Strawhecker says. “After big agriculture in the United States in the ’50s, all of the sudden strawberries came available in December, or tomatoes came available in January…I think that kind of food is not at all the same, and it does not taste good.”

Strawhecker prefers to cook with food from within 100 miles of his locations and builds his menus on what he calls “hyper-seasonality.” This means an item like asparagus isn’t offered from his kitchen until it is in season, and he compromises this only on things that are absolutely essential as year-round ingredients.

Locally sourced food is healthy for consumers and for the local economy, says Ben Gotschall of Lone Tree Foods (a local food distribution company). He says when you support local food you are essentially supporting local businesses. 

“It puts money back into the local economy,” Gotschall says. “A locally owned business whose suppliers are also local keeps the money from leaving the area.”

Gotschall raises cattle and sells milk to people like Katie Justman, a cheese producer (at Branched Oak Dairy) who works solely with Gotschall’s grass-fed cows for her product. Gotschall also sells milk, cream, butter, and cheese wholesale through Lone Tree and on the site of Branched Oak Farm (located just north of Lincoln) through his company, Davey Road Ranch.

Justman cares very much about the environmental benefits of working with local, farm-raised product, but she says the environmental benefits are not her leading point when talking about why she focuses on farm-to-table food—instead, much like Gotschall, she talks more about the economic benefits.

“A lot of us go with the economics route when describing our philosophy because it is a lot more relatable to talk to people about it in that way,” Justman says. “It is technically less controversial, even though the sustainability aspects are very important to us and we [Branched Oak Farms] are 100 percent grass-fed and organic certified.”

Not everyone using farm-to-table ingredients does it as part of a movement. Jeanne Ohira is the co-owner of Ted and Wally’s Ice Cream. Ohira says when she and her brother, Joe, bought the company in 2000, using local ingredients was just the natural (no pun intended) thing to do.

“That’s just how we were raised,” Ohira says. “My dad was from a farming family. My mom was part of a co-op and we grew up driving way out to pick up different food. As a business, we didn’t really think about it [in terms of participating in a movement] because at the time it wasn’t much of a trend yet.”

The trend has found a welcome reception among Omaha’s high-end culinary scene, with farm-to-table fare on the menus of Kitchen Table, Au Courant, Baela Rose, Le Bouillon, Block 16, Stirnella, Mark’s Bistro, The Boiler Room, The Grey Plume, Society 1854, J. Coco, and Over Easy (among others).

Strawhecker’s Dante and Dante Pizzeria Napoletana demonstrate the local supply chain in practical application. Gotschall raises cows and sells their milk; Justman purchases the milk for her creamery and produces cheeses—including mozzarella—which Strawhecker uses in his gourmet pizzas. Strawhecker is one of Justman’s biggest customers of cheese. He’s also a major buyer of chickens from Plum Creek Farms and a buyer of other local farmers’ products.

But Dante is only one example of this bullish moo-moo-movement. Omaha’s urban place in the heart of Midwestern farm country has helped raise the city’s profile as one of America’s top destinations for farm-to-table cuisine.


This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. 

The Evolution of Omaha Farmers Market

August 1, 2018 by
Photography by provided by Vic Gutman & Associates

It’s 8:30 a.m. and shoppers are standing by the Ed Welchert Produce stall in Aksarben Village on any given Sunday in the summer. The Omaha Farmers Market won’t open for another 30 minutes, giving Donna and Ed Welchert (and their team of employees) precious minutes to finish setting up the stand. At 9 a.m., it’s time to sell. 

The Welcherts have been a staple of the Omaha Farmers Market since it began downtown 25 years ago. The locations and days of the week have changed—and the crowds have grown—as the market gradually evolved into a refined citywide network of markets with corporate sponsors.

Omaha Farmers Market began in 1994 with a small group of vendors in the Old Market. At the time, Ed Welchert had been farming land north of Omaha with his family for decades, selling his produce wholesale direct to stores like Foodway and Baker’s. When the Welcherts heard about the concept of an outdoor bazaar starting in the Old Market, they figured they ought to check it out. 

Not knowing what to expect, they sent one employee with a card table and a couple of wicker baskets full of produce. It fit in one pickup truck.

“It was a slow start,” remembers Donna, recalling how their employee brought almost all of the produce back to the farm that day.

“The people started coming, and kept coming, and kept coming,” Donna says. Her husband estimates it was a good 10 years before things really picked up, and when they did, it just jumped in attendance, he says. 

Kent Cisar, an Omaha native, started shopping at the Omaha Farmers Market around that time. 

“I loved the vibe of the market back then,” he recalls. “I think the early days of the market for me was shopping with friends who were committed to buying local, high-quality items.”

It wasn’t the first time farmers sold their goods in the Old Market. Agrarians originally sold fruits and vegetables wholesale to restaurants and grocery stores at the City Market. It was a bustling trade in the 1880s, but the growth of grocery store warehouses ended the market in 1964. Ed vaguely recalls traveling with his father, Ray Welchert, to the City Market. Ray was a vendor there, as was Ed’s grandfather. 

In time, the third generation of Welcherts saw their stand grow along with the Omaha Farmers Market. The Welcherts eventually needed to bring three trucks for equipment and produce. 

As Ed Welchert Produce brought more crops, the Omaha Farmers Market added more vendors and locations. The downtown farmers market has expanded to more than 90 booths. In 2010, the Omaha Farmers Market added a second location, Aksarben Village, on Sundays. The Sunday market now has more than 115 vendor booths. A third, smaller Omaha Farmers Market runs on Wednesdays in July and August at Charles Drew Health Center.

The old City Market (bottom right) predated the 25-year-old Omaha Farmers Market downtown.

Cisar has his favorite vendors. He first bought bacon from North Star Neighbors. When they stopped vending, he discovered Crooked Creek Farms. When they switched to selling only at Aksarben Village, Cisar sought them out there.

“The Aksarben Market is now the better market. There’s more vendors, a bit more space, and since it’s centrally located, on nice days it’s jammed, which I like,” Cisar says. “But if you want to get [specific] items, you better get there before 10 a.m., otherwise [they] may be gone. The Downtown Market isn’t as busy with patrons or vendors these days, but it’s still home. I love the Aksarben area and what it’s done for our city, but nothing can replicate the vibe of brick, old buildings and fresh food of the downtown market.”

Other local farmers markets not affiliated with the officially branded “Omaha Farmers Market” include the Florence Mill Farmers Market (on Sundays at the Florence Mill), the Benson Farmers Market (normally held on Saturdays, but discontinued in 2018 after the loss of the Benson market location), and the Village Pointe Farmers Market (Saturdays).

The Welcherts tried to sell at both the Old Market and Aksarben Village locations, but “it about killed us,” Donna says. After 21 years in the Old Market, the Welcherts switched to just Sundays in Aksarben.

The Welcherts typically sell green beans and potatoes. In recent years, they began diversifying their offerings as they noticed younger customers’ changing preferences.

“The younger crowd is more health conscious,” Ed says. 

Donna noticed the shift in customers, too. The first year they brought kohlrabi, she says just the older customers knew what to do with it. “Over the next two years, you saw this huge shift when younger people came and asked for it.”

Count Cisar among the crowd of novelty-seeking shoppers. 

“I think my favorite days of shopping at the market are when I go down with an open mind and let the items I see do the talking,” Cisar says. “I’m always attracted to things I haven’t seen before, like a unique eggplant, squash, or [other] vegetable, and I like asking the vendor how to use it, how it tastes—and, if I was successful, I tell them about it
next week.”  


Vic Gutman & Associates manages Omaha Farmers Market, which hosts vendors selling fresh produce at the Old Market (Saturdays), Aksarben Village (Sundays), and Charles Drew Health Center (Wednesdays) in the summer, in addition to other specialty markets throughout the year. Visit omahafarmersmarket.com for more information.

This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of 60Plus in Omaha.

Downtown’s old City Market

The Scent of a Neighborhood

July 31, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann and Provided

Since 1989, the corner of 108th and Harrison streets has featured an aroma that permeates the air and reminds every passerby that Rotella’s Italian Bakery makes their magic there. 

The bakery originally began in 1850 in Calabria, Italy, with Dominico Rotella selling loaves baked from a small wood-fired oven. His son, Alessandro, immigrated to America in 1909 and eventually settled in Omaha. In 1921, after a strike left him unemployed, he negotiated to buy a small bakery for $25 a month from a local businessman.

Nowadays, the bakery spans four large buildings that occupy most of the block.
It’s no wonder this busy bakery emits the scent of fresh-baked bread to everyone in the vicinity, including the cars driving by.

Paul Schoomaker lives in one of the surrounding neighborhoods and has not yet grown nose-blind to Rotella’s scent. “We’ve lived in the Applewood neighborhood for over 25 years and have greatly enjoyed the wonderful aromas from Rotella’s Bakery over the many years. When there is a soft breeze from the south-southwest early in the morning, the rich smell of fresh-baked bread wafts through the air,” he says. “On many occasions when I would walk the neighborhood in the early morning, the smell of fresh bread was a major motivational factor to be outside. There are few smells like that which create such a comforting feeling.”

Fellow Applewood Heights resident Amy Youngclaus agrees. “Being near Rotella’s is an added perk to our already homey neighborhood. Walking out of the house to the warm scent of bread swirling in the air is like getting a hug from a doting grandma. I feel as though the whiffs of bakery scent add a warm and cozy vibe to our locale.”

Residents of Cimmaron Woods West have similar sentiments about the Rotella’s aroma in the air. “The best smell is when the air is quiet and they are baking garlic or onion bread,” says resident Tom Perkins. “The aroma gets really intense sometimes and is great to smell when you walk outside. The other time I notice it is in the mornings when it just smells like baking bread my grandma used to make.”

Another resident of Cimmaron Woods West, Tom Demory, says the scent from Rotella’s often compels his wife and children to make a trip to the retail store. When asked if the strength of the scent on a particular day has any effect on their desire to go buy bread, he replies, “Without question.” And while he is generally aware of the scent, he says, “I haven’t given it a lot of thought, but I’ve never considered it a negative thing. It’s a pleasant odor.”  

For some residents living near the bakery, the scent of Rotella’s means so much more than merely the baking of bread. Oak Brook Apartments resident Sara Locke explains: “When my longtime partner was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder that resulted in a gluten-free lifestyle, I didn’t think twice about swearing off bread myself. For years, I forwent my favorite foods—pastas, pizza, and my strange addiction to buttered toast. The day I left and moved into my new place, I spent the first long sleepless night sitting on my deck, torturing myself over the decision I had made. As the night gave way to the still-dark early morning hours, the smell was so subtle at first. Just a thought really, like a weird flashback that hasn’t yet taken hold. Then the unmistakable aroma grabbed me and reminded me of seven years’ worth of mornings without toast at breakfast. I sat there until the sun was up and walked over to the store for a loaf of bread. That was when I learned that they have gluten-free offerings, but it’s too late now. I may have ended a long relationship, but I’ve returned to my first love… and I still spend my mornings on that deck, but now I do it with toast and coffee in hand.”

Louis Rotella III isn’t surprised by everyone’s reaction to the Rotella’s scent—he still gets excited when he smells cinnamon raisin bread baking. “Sometimes I get hit with a smell that brings back my childhood,” he says. Occasionally he’ll encounter people who remember the 24th Street bakery Rotella’s occupied from 1965 until they moved to the current location in 1989. “They’ll say, ‘We miss the smell!’” he says, adding that they also miss the bread, but the smell is what’s most often brought up. 

Often, people will stop in at the retail shop to load up on bread to take to their out-of-state relatives. While Rotella’s is indeed a national brand, it can be difficult to find in a store outside of Nebraska and the immediate surrounding states. “Sometimes we’ll get people visiting who were instructed by their families to stop at the retail store and ‘load up’ to bring bread home,” Rotella says. 

Rotella’s Italian Bakery isn’t just a place that pumps out pleasant smells for the surrounding neighborhoods—it’s an Omaha mainstay, active in the local community. “We try hard to maintain the family values that brought us to where we are today,” Rotella says. “We recognize and appreciate the community that supports our business.” In that sense, the pleasant scents blanketing the neighborhoods can be seen as a far-reaching thank-you from Rotella’s to the community.  


Visit rotellasbakery.com for more information about the local Omaha bakery. Residential neighborhoods adjacent to the bakery complex include Applewood Heights, Cimarron Woods, and Brookhaven. 

This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of OmahaHome. 

Balloon and Wine Festival Lifts More than Spirits

Watch out for the 12th Annual Nebraska Balloon & Wine Festival on Aug. 10-11 at the festival’s new homeLeo Royal Memorial Park. The festival will host hot air balloons, helicopters, paragliders, skydivers, food, wine, beer, musical entertainment, and more.

Nebraska Balloon & Wine Festival hours run from 5-11 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 10, and 3-11 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 11. The venue (Leo Royal Memorial Park) is located on 204th Street just south of Cornhusker Road.

Tickets include five tastes of wine or your choice of beers ($15 per person in advance, $19 per person day of show). A souvenir wine glass is included while supplies last.

The festival is a showcase for tasting great wines. The Local Wine Showcase will include experts and wines from vineyards and wineries including Soaring Wings, James Arthur, Deer Springs, Glacial Till, Miletta Vista, SchillingBridge, Whiskey Run Creek, Niobrara Valley, Little Swan Lake, Feather River, Nissen, and Prairie Creek, as well as this year’s sponsoring winery, Dark Horse. The festival also offers the opportunity to taste craft beers at the Miller Lite Beer Garden.

Festival attendees can enjoy performances by local bands. High Heel will perform on Friday. This Omaha band covers a wide variety of genres, including classic rock, country, and pop. On Saturday, the opening entertainment is Front Ro, followed by The Personics.

At the Food and Wine Experience, people can taste a vast selection of wine paired with hors d’oeuvres and other foods prepared by area chefs at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. each evening. 

Festival Director Mike Mancuso says, “Whether you are a wine connoisseur, wine lover, or simply interested in trying something new, the Food and Wine Experience will offer a special interaction with wine tastings by chefs from Carrabba’s Italian Grill on Friday, Aug. 10, and from 801 Grill on Saturday, Aug. 11.”

The event offers plenty of opportunities to eat, listen to live entertainment, and even shop for one-of-a-kind arts and crafts and unique items in the Marketplace Village. For those with kids, don’t forget to check out the Family Fare KidZone.

New this year, the festival will feature the RE/MAX Skydiving Team. Area Paragliders will return to entertain crowds at the 2018 festival both Friday and Saturday evening.

One of the most popular activities is watching the hot air balloons, which launch at 7 p.m. nightly, and will glow when illuminated at 9 p.m. (weather permitting). Organizer Mark Enholm is excited to announce that members of the Nebraska Balloon Club will bring balloons from Omaha, and other hot air balloons will be featured from around the Midwest. 

This event offers balloon and helicopter rides. Call 402-346-8003 for reservations/availability of hot air balloon rides and Husker Helicopter Excursions.

To order tickets and group sales, call 402-346-8003 or visit https://localstubs.com/events/nebraska-balloon-2018. Local Stubs is Omaha Magazine’s ticketing hub.

For more information about the Balloon and Wine Festival, visit showofficeonline.com.