Tag Archives: Omaha

Food for the Heart

August 16, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Marie Losole still laughs when telling what she calls “the story of our escapade,” a 1967 elopement by train to Idaho, one of two states where 18-year-olds could get married at that time without parental permission.

Fifty years after running away together, Don and Marie Losole are still running—running a restaurant together. Its name, Lo Sole Mio, is a play on words, combining their last name and the famous Italian love song “O Sole Mio.”

Like their love, the restaurant has endured. August marks 25 years for the venture that embodies their passion and lifelong dream.

The couple, who met at Central High School, both come from restaurant families and began their restaurant careers at age 14. Don was head chef at a large country club by the time he was only 21.

In 1975, the couple opened their first restaurant, Losole’s Landmark, a favorite with the downtown lunch crowd. A job opportunity briefly took the family to California a few years later, but they soon realized the West Coast was not a good fit for them.

After their return to Omaha, Don worked on the supply side of the restaurant industry while Marie began creating dishes for delivery, a side business that “pretty soon got so big that we knew we couldn’t keep doing this from home,” she says.

In 1992, the family took a leap of faith that became Lo Sole Mio. Villa Losole, an event venue, followed in 1997.

Both facilities are located near the Hanscom Park area, tucked away in a quaint neighborhood, exactly the sort of location that the Losoles were seeking—a destination. The charming ambiance is a perfect backdrop for the Italian cuisine and family atmosphere.

“We are a family supporting other families…We are very blessed to have some good employees who’ve been here a long time and some loyal customers who have become friends,” Marie says. “I like to walk around and visit with my customers and see what brings them in, just thank them for coming here…I love being a part of people’s memories.”

Lo Sole Mio has employed all six of their children over the years and now some of their older grandchildren (they have 17).

“My mother always used to say to me, ‘as you get older, time goes by faster.’  Well, my summation of that is that time doesn’t go any faster, it’s just taking us longer to do what we used to do,” Marie says.

Sure, the couple boasts some artificial joints between them, and Marie says “my feet ache a little more, my back aches a little more,” but the Losoles are proud to continue maintaining their “old-school” work ethic and hands-on management approach.

“We make sure it’s something we’d want to eat; quality is very important for us,” Marie says. “We are now at the point where we can enjoy life a little bit more without having to be here 80 hours a week or more. But this is still our first priority. We will probably be here until we pass away, I would imagine.”

In fact, she says, “My husband says to me, ‘This is what’s keeping us young.’”

Visit losolemio.com for more information.

This article was printed in the July/August 2017 Edition of 60Plus.

Sunshine Under Cloudy Skies

Photography by contributed

Chasin’ a Rainbow. That’s what it felt like at SumTur Amphitheater on Tuesday night, as the clouds covered the sky, and that’s why newgrass band Railroad Earth’s opening song to the opening performance of their August tour seemed appropriate.

Newgrass is a form of bluegrass that incorporates rock and jazz. Railroad Earth band took the stage following an hour-long performance by Vermont-based Twiddle. This opening act was a change from the originally announced Moe, who went on hiatus following the announcement that their bassist was diagnosed with cancer earlier this month. Moe itself was expected to bring a crowd to Papillion, but the venue still sold over 600 tickets.

Twiddle, led by Mihali Savoulidis, brought a distinctively reggae sound to many of the songs in their set, which blared deafeningly from the sound system during much of it.  Then there were songs that sounded fishy…actually, make that Phish-y. The crowd appreciated hearing instrumentals from the popular jam band mixed in with Twiddle’s original music.

But they really appreciated the main act, who brought sunshine to an overcast evening with many of their songs, such as “When the Sun Gets in Your Blood” and “Came Up Smilin’.” The jam band really proved their name with the combination of the songs “The Jupiter and the 119,” “Warhead Boogie,” and “Captain Nowhere.”

Performances lasted an average of 16 minutes each, offering dancers ample time to find the beat. Also of note was young Sophia, age 10, who joyfully hula-hooped throughout the show.

The band was missing Andy Goessling, who plays a variety of string instruments, flute, pennywhistle, and saxophones, as well as sings.

Learn more about Railroad Earth here: railroad.earth. Railroad Earth’s official video for their opening song is below:

A Glamorous, Functional Basement Remodel

August 14, 2017 by
Photography by Tom Grady

Seeking a grand basement remodel, a client came to me with hopes of creating a unified space with smaller intimate areas instead of an open floor plan. The original space felt very disconnected with no visual interest.

My solution focused on two separate spaces of the floor plan. Both sections of the basement would feature multiple functions: one area revolved around a sunken kitchenette/bar, and the other was an empty space transformed into a theater/display area.

The first part of the challenge was to create a properly lit display while providing storage within the bar area. We needed to add a dynamic visual element without altering the integrity of the existing brick veneer.

Our solution was to add horizontal reclaimed wood panels that pull the whole space together while providing a pub-like entertaining area. The resulting contemporary space makes use of layers of depth and dimension to provide a central focal point for social gatherings.

The asymmetrical design of the sunken bar area is enhanced with LED lighting, which further enhances the sophisticated environment. Bespoke finishes infuse rustic charm into the modern basement, forming the perfect union of domestic utility and alluring elegance. Displayed sentimental objects stand in harmonious contrast with time-worn salvaged materials and the interplay of light and shadow.

A large circle on the bar wall offers a crucial design element unifying the space. The scale of the circle balances the weightiness of the massive bar. Radiant light offsets and enhances the circle, giving the illusion that it is floating in air. The circle’s LED under-lit shelves provides plenty of space for the liquor bottles, and the offset shelving allows for additional personal items to be displayed.

By adding the walnut shell and lights to the existing metallic wood console table, it became repurposed and connected to the bar area.

Two guitars on an adjacent wall, mounted on a wooden circle, became a piece of art grounding the empty space leading to the guest bathroom.

To satisfy the clients, who are avid sports fans, the most challenging part of the basement’s theater space was to showcase their collection of jerseys while allowing the ability to watch multiple televisions at once. At the center of this design, I strived to cultivate a sensory experience that transcends the utilitarian functionality of the theater setting. Contemporary aesthetics find a careful balance of personal whims and fancies in the second of the basement’s main spaces. Relaxing here, the homeowners feel like they are in a high-end Las Vegas casino private suite while watching their favorite teams play.

The design conceptualization for the theater and display area stems from a faithful adherence to well-defined boundaries. JaDecor wall covering offers remarkable appearance with excellent acoustical properties. The round custom fiber optics and the dark-oak Melinga panels in the ceiling add spectacular visual interest to the space that once was a rectangle tray.

I really wanted the sports theater walls to properly light their jersey collection—which changes annually—while not interfering with the theater environment. Back-lighting the twelve individual panels with LED strip lights cleverly works into the overall aesthetic. The picture lights illuminate the symmetry of the jerseys and provide a side drop for the TV wall.

The purposeful ornamentation of the jerseys provides a dramatic display satisfying even the most discerning homeowner.

The experience of the finished project is such an amazing space to entertain and enjoy life with family and friends.

From the bar to the theater, and across the entire basement, the overall design embodies simplicity and modern functionality, leaving a lasting impression that makes you want to enjoy the space in good company.

The end result achieves the client’s goal of balancing personal expression and functional glamour with youthful exuberance. It is a welcoming space for any time of the day—and any season—for many years to come.

Visit artisticodesign.net to see more of the designer’s work.

This article was printed in the July/August 2017 Edition of Omaha Home.

Lunch With Buffett

August 13, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

With food-inspired songs such as “Charleston’s,” “Medium Rare,” and the album’s title track, the duo displays a penchant for sweet-sounding beats and aspirations to dine with Omaha’s most affluent resident, Warren Buffett.

They speculate that arranging lunch with the local billionaire would be easier than getting airplay on local radio stations.

“We want to be heard,” Big Tate says. “The radio DJ abides by guidelines that [forbid] touching the streets. They are afraid to challenge the norm.”

“Radio is stagnant,” Absolut-P adds. “It isn’t as influential as it once was. If we want to make an impact, we’d be better off putting together a lunch with Warren Buffett and creating a buzz from that.”

Or maybe just make up a song about having lunch with Buffett.

Big Tate

That sort of creative thinking would be the driving force behind Absolut-P (aka Stevin Taylor) and Big Tate (aka James Buckley) collaborating on the album.

The idea came from another friend’s fateful encounter with Buffett at a now-closed Omaha steakhouse known to be one of Buffett’s favorite local restaurants.

“A friend of mine happened to be eating at Piccolo Pete’s when she called to tell me that Warren Buffett and Bill Gates were sitting across from her,” Big Tate recalls. “I told her that I needed her to get a picture of them by any means. I’m always thinking of ways to promote our music with imagery and catchy choruses. I was sure that I could come up with a song for that image.”

Big Tate was familiar with Buffett’s history of auctioning off a “power lunch” for charity. In 2016, an anonymous bidder paid $3,456,789 for the experience, with the money going to benefit the Glide Foundation, a San Francisco nonprofit dedicated to helping homeless and underprivileged residents.

For months, Big Tate continued to stew over his idea. Later in 2016, he partnered with local producer Absolut-P (the P stands for “Perfection”), and they were able to create an infectious melody.

The song’s music video even featured a faux cameo by Buffett (thanks to a cut-out photograph of the billionaire’s face pasted over one of their friends).

They consider it an homage to the wealthy hometown hero.

“We’re from the north side of Omaha, and you don’t see those types of people on the north side,” Big Tate explains. “Other than Bud Crawford, it’s hard to relate to anyone on such a big stage. It’s good to look up to self-made men.”

Absolut-P

“As independent artists, Warren Buffett’s entrepreneurial spirit gives us a sense of self-pride,” Absolut-P says. “He shows us that by investing in ourselves we can reap big rewards.” 

One such investment involved professional mastering for the album by Rick Carson at Make Believe Studios. Absolut-P and Big Tate hope the song resonates with fans of hip-hop, Omaha, and Buffett alike. They released the album Dec. 31, 2016 (with a parental advisory warning for explicit content).

“The album-making process was so organic,” says Big Tate, explaining that hip-hop works best when pursued in a natural, fun way. “We just made songs about what we like; everyone likes to eat at a nice restaurant and order a good prime rib. That made us think of Charleston’s; they have some of the best steaks in Omaha. I like my steak well-done, but I’ve heard that they are very good medium-rare.”

When asked where they would like to take Buffett for lunch, both agree that Time Out Foods or The Taste’s of Soul Cafe would be a good place to accommodate them.

“I’m sure Warren Buffett is used to eating at the finest establishments,” Absolut-P says. “I’d want to give him a taste of our roots with some good food for the soul.”

Find Big Tate on Twitter at @BigTate402 and Absolut-P at @IAmAbsolutP. Both musicians frequently release new songs on social media. Their respective Soundcloud accounts are soundcloud.com/big-tate and soundcloud.com/absolut-p. Lunch with Buffett is available on iTunes, Spotify, Tidal, Spinrilla, Google Play, and YouTube. Copies are sold at Homer’s in downtown Omaha.

This article appears in the July/August 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

*Editor’s note: The printed edition misspelled Taylor’s first name as Steven.

Bringing Meaningful Design Conversations to Omaha

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Architecture as an intellectual endeavor extends far beyond brick-and-mortar structures. For designer Andrew Conzett, architecture is a form of problem-solving and way to rewrite immediate questions about the built environment through a culturally sensitive lens. Early in his career, he positioned his curiosity at one of Omaha’s most creatively focused firms, developed numerous discipline-blurring projects, and helped curate a robust series of lectures with the Omaha chapter of the American Institute of Architects. This fusion of localized projects and international discourse is one that not only pushes his own practice forward, but also challenges existing norms and perceptions of regional architecture.

Conzett grew up in Omaha. Since a young age, he was inspired by his father, a civil engineer at a large international firm, and his mother, who was consistently involved with social service and nonprofit organizations. As a soon-to-be licensed architect, Conzett is a cocktail of both. He has always been keenly interested in art and landscape, both of which were influential in his childhood years and helped to inform his atypical response to the “I-always-wanted-to-be-an-architect” story ubiquitous amongst peers (many say it was from building with LEGO bricks as a child). During high school, a design competition piqued his interest. This community-focused extracurricular project, which combined multi-disciplinary teamwork and a design-based approach, prompted him to apply to the College of Design at Iowa State University.

While at Iowa State, his intense studio assignments were mixed with conversations and projects with artists and creative thinkers. Working alongside a diversity of artistic studies pushed him to see the multiplicity of architecture. During his final year in the architecture program, one of Conzett’s classmates responded to his non-binary projects by asking, “Do you want to be an installation artist or architect?” Conzett did not know how to respond; however, this prompt of either/or has now become a defining feature of his practice.

While studying, Conzett diversified his architectural coursework with internships at the Omaha Public Library and the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, where he interned with artist Sean Ward and curator Hesse McGraw. After graduating in 2010, he moved to Omaha and was soon commissioned to design an office pod installation at the headquarters of Bozell. The project resulted in a spatial intervention that was recognized by the AIA Central States Region’s Excellence in Design Awards for “Detail Honor and the Interior Design Best of Year Award for Budget Interiors.”

His interests in a diverse range of project types brought him to his current position at Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture in 2011. At the collaborative open studio in north downtown where architects work alongside interior designers, graphic designers, artists, and engineers, Conzett is staying busy outside the office as well.

His CV for research-based and experimental projects is dense. Stepping one foot outside the firm, Conzett has worked collaboratively on award-winning projects with Emerging Terrain, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Council Bluffs Park System, including River’s Edge Park. Each project allows him to intensely research form, material, and site. They also provide an instant design-to-built-project process that allows ideas to come to fruition faster than with traditional design-bid-build projects, which often take years to complete. These research-based projects also speak to his interest in architecture as built form that has the ability to blur lines between disciplines and methodologies.

For Conzett, “contemporary architecture practice requires thinking about new methods and materials, and thus inspires me to seek out unique project types as a way to expand my knowledge of design and the built environment.”

His most recent endeavor, the AIA Omaha lecture series, conflates his efforts in community activities and intellectual pursuits. Organized in collaboration with Ross Miller and other AIA Omaha members, the 2017 lecture series is a thought-provoking forum for design thinking. Bringing in award-winning international and national architects, such as Mike Nesbit of Morphosis in Los Angeles and Kai-Uwe Bergmann of Bjarke Ingles Group in Copenhagen, the role of these lectures are two-fold. First, they are an opportunity for professional architects and the general public to participate in architectural discourse. Secondly, the lectures provide a voice for a range of architectural practices that are advancing disciplinary boundaries.

While the series may seem hyper-niche, the visiting lecturers produce a diverse range of project types. These architects discuss the scholarly and tactile impact of design beyond simply making buildings. As award-winning content creators, the lecturers stimulate the public and challenge architects to aim their work to an elevated level of design excellence.

“It is always good to hear professionals talk about their design process and work,” says Emily Andersen, owner of DeOld Andersen Architecture. “But it is even more important to have lecturers come to Omaha that are truly challenging assumptions. The lectures bring the potential of a meaningful conversation that allows us to see into the creative process of other design professionals. And so I really appreciate the work that AIA does, as well as Design Alliance Omaha to help bring that discourse here.”

In all of his work, Conzett is running against the boundaries of the discipline with a keen understanding that traditional definitions of architecture and the built environment deserve to be challenged and pushed forward. “Opportunities such as professional work with [Alley Poyner], design-build exhibition and installation commissions, and the AIA Omaha lecture series are all ways for me to continue to experiment with and better understand the practice of architecture,” he says.

Visit aiaomaha.org/lecture-series for more information.

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

From Famine to the Good Life

August 10, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Aisha Al Ramadan first noticed the subtle shift of the checkpoint guard’s face. She knew whatever happened next would change the lives of her family—possibly forever.

“What? You don’t want to be Syrian?” The guard shouted.

Shaken, scared, and silent, Aisha stared at the broken ID in the guard’s rough hand.

“If that was my intention, why would I drive through a checkpoint?” her husband Hamed asked. “That’d be stupid.”

The guard pulled the family from the car. Hamed explained his ID shattered when he put it in the pocket of his pants. Ignoring him, two of the guards pointed machine guns at them while another inspected and searched the car.

Aisha worried they’d take him, her husband, like so many of her missing loved ones and friends.

The Assad regime never needed a reason, she says. Blindfolded with hands tied behind their backs, people often disappeared at checkpoints, never to be seen again. Just like her brothers and uncles.

“I don’t know if they are alive or dead,” she says, sobbing. “The ones who are gone, are gone.”

Disappearances, usually fighting-age men, became common after the Syrian uprising in 2011. It spreads panic and hopelessness among the opposition. Roughly 85,000 people have been held, tortured, or possibly killed by the regime or ISIS according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.

In her mind, Aisha was down on her knees, begging and hoping her husband wouldn’t be next.

Although still early in the war, Aisha lived in constant fear. Each explosion crushed the city she loved, stone by stone. The fighting intensified. The flickering and booming at night drew closer to her village where her family lived, outside the city of Homs. Food became scarce. Flour to bake bread became a luxury.

No gas. No electricity. No water.

The family collected wood to cook on a homemade fire pit. When wood wasn’t readily available, old clothes and shoes burned instead to keep them all warm and fed. The family watched the flames eat the city at night as they gathered together around the pit for a meal of bulgur, the only available grain.

“We’d tease ourselves. If we get hit, we will die all together at least,” Aisha says.

Even these constant threats were not enough to drive the family away.

But at the checkpoint—on the road for the festive occasion of her daughter’s marriage—the horror of seeing machine guns pointed at her children was too much. It was “the end of it,” Aisha says.

“Oh, leave the old man alone. Show mercy,” one guard said. Hamed appeared 20 years older than his age of 46, a lucky occurrence on this fateful trip. The guard ordered Hamed to get a new ID and sent them on their way.

“Pack everything and go,” Hamed said when they returned home. Aisha left behind her friends, family, and the life she had known for 33 years. The United Nations reported more than 5 million have fled their Syrian homeland, and the Al Ramadan family was no exception.

“They are homesick for a year or two years. Most move out of necessity,” says translator* Afra Albassam, a student at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

The Al Ramadans moved to Jordan in November 2011, but the hardships continued. Simple freedoms, unfair discrimination, and abuse of workers made life difficult for the migrant family. The decision to move to America was never an easy one, but during June 2016, the family arrived in Omaha.

Nebraska is known as a welcoming state for those fleeing war-torn countries, taking in a reported 1,441 refugees between October 2015 and September 2016 according to Pew Research from the United States Department’s Refugee Processing Center.

Scott Larsen, formerly with Lutheran Family Services and the Refugee Empowerment Center, noticed the Al Ramadan apartment was not up to standards. He, along with girlfriend Paige Reitz, invited the family to stay temporarily in the basement of their house until something more suitable became available.

Since it was during Ramadan, Aisha made amazing family meals and included Larsen and Reitz. They would all sit on pillows, drinking lots and lots of coffee and eating. Communication via Google Translate consisted of iPhones passed back and forth.

Aisha, a mother of seven children, finds pleasure in cooking.

“But what I really enjoy is making meals I really like to eat,” she says, laughing.

Aisha’s hope is to open a restaurant called the Syrian Dish someday, so she could share her culture’s food with others. Reitz started a dinner series called Second Story to turn her dreams into a reality.

Although the family stayed with Larsen and Reitz for only 10 days, all of them feel like family now. The kids leap into Reitz’s lap and hugs are swapped.

Second Story welcomes guests to sample Aisha’s specialties for $25. All proceeds not only help Aisha, but also her sisters who still live in Syria. The men in the family have been captured or killed, so the women struggle with no support.

Aisha, dressed in a blue flowery hijab, is thoughtful about the upcoming meal. She is making maqluba, a moist and sweet chicken. Eggplant, tomato, rice, spices, chicken stock, and chicken are placed on the bottom of a huge pot. After cooking, it is flipped using a plate on top. Maqluba means “upside down” and appears as one large mold, almost looking like a cake, with the rice on bottom and chicken on top. She plans to pair that with a Middle Eastern potato pie. The real star is her baklava.

“It’s the best ever. It is so good,” Albassam says.

She explains it is sweet, but not too sweet. Aisha’s secret is lots of butter, pistachios, cinnamon, and rose water.

While guests enjoy one of Aisha’s dinners for Second Story in late April, each learns about culture and connections. Reitz says initiatives like these and others around Omaha are how barriers get broken.

It wasn’t always easy when the Al Ramadans first came to Omaha. Roukaya, 11, felt isolated at school. The other students feared she was a terrorist. The teacher noticed and brought in the ESL teacher who explained the culture, even playing the song “Rock my Hijab.” Roukaya cried when she talked about her experience, so the other students wrote her letters.

“I’m sorry I was scared of you. I’m sorry about your country,” one wrote.

“I now hang out with everyone,” Roukaya explains. Unlike the adults, the children all speak fluent English now.

Roukaya has aspirations to be a doctor someday to help others, something that would have been unattainable back home since it is hard for the poor to send their kids to school.

Aisha still hears horrifying stories from neighbors and family back home, as conditions rapidly deteriorate in Syria. Cooking here is something Aisha can do to make life better.

“A lot of people don’t realize the simple things matter the most,” Reitz says.

A cup of spicy Turkish coffee and a delicious meal may not seem like much, but the pot stirs together a community.

*Interview translated by Afra Albassam.

Visit secondstoryomaha.com for more information.

This article appears in the July/August edition of Omaha Magazine.

DLR Group

This sponsored content appears in the Summer 2017 edition of B2B. To view, click here: https://issuu.com/omahapublications/docs/b2b_0817_125/1?e=1413765/50121072

The most productive employees are those who are happy and who enjoy their work environment. As modern, open offices remain popular, an agile approach to workplace design provides flexibility for workers that contributes to productivity
and happiness.

DLR Group is an employee-owned, integrated design firm with 26 offices and more than 1,000 design professionals worldwide. The firm’s dedicated Workplace Studio researches, evaluates, and executes designs for the modern workplace— using the agile methodology regularly.

“Agile design is an effective tool for making workplaces functional for the generational demographics that make up our workforce,” says Melissa Spearman, LEED AP BD+C, Senior Associate and Workplace Leader at DLR Group’s Omaha office.

The once-largest generation in the workplace, baby boomers, are retiring or working primarily in management positions. Spearman says these workers are accustomed to structured environments and formally designed spaces.

“Meanwhile, millennials have claimed their stake as the largest group in today’s workforce,” Spearman says. “Millennials have ridden atop the wave of technological advancement and learned to adapt quickly as new systems emerge. They are already agile and expect the latest technologies to be available in their workplace.”

Sitting in-between are Gen X workers. These employees are excited about the flexibility new workplace methodologies can provide, as long as it contributes to a healthy work-life balance.

The eldest members of Gen Z are finishing college and entering the workforce now. Spearman says her team is still learning about the work style of Gen Z, but it is clear they are agile self-motivators. Personal development is a constant in their lives, and they need space for it in their
future workplaces.

The question Spearman’s team aims to solve for each workplace client is: How can one workplace support, encourage, grow and—most importantly–appeal to all of the generations in the current workforce? Spearman says an agile workplace design methodology encompasses six key principles:

1. Focus Zones—Heads down workspace where employees can focus without interruptions. 

2. Smart and Connected Spaces—Areas with integrated technology for teams and individuals to gather. Spaces can include a huddle room, nook, or any designated areas within the office that allow for use of digital tools and power.

3. Flexibility—Utilizing furniture from a kit of parts to create optimal flexibility and interchangeability.

4. Collaboration Spaces—Areas for employees to engage in quick chats and impromptu collaboration.

5. Teaming Areas—With today’s multifaceted workplace environment, these spaces allow employees to work in teams to solve problems and strategize.

6. Community Space—Expanding the breakroom into a multi-function space for many different uses allows it to be a gathering space for all-office meetings, a place to hold an afterhours event, or a gathering place for others in the
community to enjoy.

“To accommodate today’s varied workforce, DLR Group’s Workplace Studio focuses on designing spaces around motivated individuals,” Spearman says. “Providing an agile environment with a variety of workspace areas to support various generational needs helps employees get
their jobs done.”

DLR Group
6457 Frances Street, Suite 200
Omaha, NE 68106
402.393.4100
dlrgroup.com

 

La Famiglia di Firma

August 8, 2017 by
Photography by Contributed

Like a good book title, the names of the Firmature brothers’ bars and restaurants could almost paint a picture of what awaited customers.

At The Gas Lamp, you could savor a prime rib and listen to a live ragtime band from your marble-top table (provided you wore a suit or a nice dress during its early years of operation). A Sidewalk Cafe offered diners a chance to people-watch at Regency while they ate a crab salad. The Ticker Tape Lounge gave downtowners a brief respite from work and prominently featured an antique stock market ticker tape. And if you really had a rough day, you could always drop by Brothers Lounge, get a cocktail, and flop down on a couch or a rocking chair.

With the exception of Brothers Lounge at 38th and Farnam streets, none of these places exist anymore. When Robert Firmature turned Brothers Lounge over to current owners Trey and Lallaya Lalley in 1998, it ended nearly 70 years where the Firmature family had a major presence in the Omaha restaurant community.

In the early 1930s, Helen and Sam Firmature opened Trentino’s, an Italian restaurant, at 10th and Pacific streets (which would later become Angie’s Restaurant). The restaurateur family also consisted of Sam’s brother, Joseph, and his wife, Barbara, along with their three sons: Robert “Bob,” Jay, and Ernest “Ernie.”

Ernie cut his teeth bartending at Trentino’s and at a motor inn (The Prom Town House, which was destroyed in the 1975 tornado) before he opened The Gas Lamp in 1961. He also briefly managed a club called the 64 Club in Council Bluffs.

Located in the predominantly middle-class neighborhood of 30th and Leavenworth streets, The Gas Lamp was a destination spot for anniversaries, promotions, and proposals. Flocked wallpaper, antique lamps, and Victorian velvet furniture was the décor. Live ragtime was the music. Prime rib and duck à l’orange were the specialties. In an era where female roles in restaurants were still primarily as waitresses and hostesses, The Gas Lamp had two women with head chef-style status. Katie Gamble oversaw the kitchen. And Ernie and Betty’s son, Steve Firmature, and daughter, Jaye, were routinely corralled to help with clean-up—the cost of living in a restaurant family.

The Italian family name was originally “Firmaturi.” A popular account of the spelling change involves a bygone relative trying to make their name more “Americanized.” After researching family history, Steve suspects the name changed as a result of a documentation error—a mistaken “e” in place of the final vowel. Steve says those style of errors were common back then (due to errors in ship manifests or as depicted in a scene from the movie The Godfather: Part II).

Before she was even a teenager, Jaye Firmature McCoy was tasked with cleaning the chandeliers and booths. While cleaning, she would occasionally dig inside booths for any money that may have accidentally been left by a customer. At 10, she was promoted to hat check girl. At 14, she was the hostess. Steve did everything from bus tables to help in the kitchen.

“Back in those days, we didn’t have titles for people that cooked. Today, I think we’d call them a sous chef and a chef. We had two cooks,” Steve says with a laugh.

In the early ’60s, Ernie enforced a dress code for customers.

“When we first started, a gentleman couldn’t come in without a coat and tie. A woman couldn’t come in wearing pants [dresses only],” Jaye says.

The dress code (which eased in the late ’60s) may have been formal, but the restaurant retained a friendly atmosphere where some patrons returned weekly.

William and Martha Ellis were regulars. Speaking with Omaha Magazine over the phone from their home in Scottsdale, Arizona, they recalled going to The Gas Lamp almost every weekend. They became good friends with Ernie, to the point where all three of their children eventually worked for the Firmature brothers (mainly at A Sidewalk Cafe).

“Ernie wanted you to think he was this sort of tough Italian mobster, but he was really sort of amusing,” Martha says.

The Gas Lamp came to an abrupt end in 1980 when a fire destroyed the restaurant. It was ruled as arson, but a suspect was never caught. Instead of rebuilding, the family decided to “transfer” some of the signature dishes of The Gas Lamp to A Sidewalk Cafe. The Firmature brothers had purchased the restaurant from Willy Theisen in 1977.

Along with the three brothers, another Firmature, Jim (Helen and Sam’s son), was also a partner in owning A Sidewalk Cafe. Bob spent much of his time managing Brothers Lounge. Ernie managed A Sidewalk Cafe until he retired. Jim and Jay also helped manage the place. Jay (who is the only surviving member of the three) primarily worked in the business area. He was brought in by Ernie from Mutual of Omaha.

“He always said, ‘I should have stayed at Mutual,’” Steve says with a laugh.

Though not as formal as The Gas Lamp, A Sidewalk Cafe was still a destination spot. Located in the heart of the Regency neighborhood, the cafe aimed to pull in people who may have assumed Regency was out of their price range. Still, the cafe maintained an upper-end dining experience. DJ Dave Wingert, who now hosts a morning show on Boomer Radio, would routinely take radio guests to the Sidewalk Cafe in the ’80s. One guest was comedian and co-host of the NBC pre-reality show hit Real People—the late Skip Stephenson.

“I remember the booth we were sitting in, and telling him about being shot at Club 89,” Wingert says.

Since A Sidewalk Cafe closed its doors in the late ’90s, Omaha’s food scene has only grown in regard to available dining options and national recognition. Wingert says A Sidewalk Cafe would fit with today’s culinary landscape. Jaye agrees.

“It was probably the one [restaurant] that was the most survivable, I think,” she says.

Jaye has left the restaurant business. She is now owner and president of FirstLight Home Care, an in-home health care business. Though the industries are vastly different, Jaye says much of her experience with the restaurants has carried over to health care.

“Restaurants and bars are something that get into your blood,” she says. “It’s about the people and taking care of people.”

Find the last remnant of the Firmature family bar and restaurant empire at @brothersloungeomaha on Facebook.

From left: Ernie, Robert “Bobby”, and Jay Firmature

This article was printed in the July/August 2017 Edition of 60Plus.

100 Years Strong

August 7, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The Bryant-Fisher family reunion celebrates an important milestone in 2017—its 100th anniversary. The three-day reunion event will conclude with a final day of festivities in Elmwood Park.

The “Dozens of Cousins,” named for the 12 branches of the prodigious African-American family, will gather in Omaha on Sunday, Aug. 13, to eat, converse, and renew bonds of kinship while reinvigorating ties to local neighborhood roots.

The first reunion was a picnic in 1917 held at Mandan Park in South Omaha, where family roots run deep. Mandan hosted the picnic for 74 years. Its trails, gardens, and river views offered scenic backdrops. The park is also near the family’s homestead at 15th Street and Berry Avenue, and Graceland Park Cemetery (where many relatives are buried).

The picnic, which goes on rain or shine, relocated to Carter Lake in the 1990s and has since gone to various locales. It is coming to Elmwood Park for the first time this year.

Hours before the picnic, a dawn fish fry kicks things off. With bellies full of fried food, the descendants of Emma Early head for a family worship service followed by the picnic.

Always present is a star-studded menu of from-scratch American comfort and soul food staples: ribs, fried chicken, lasagna, collard greens, black-eyed peas, mac and cheese, potato salad, and more.

The family’s different branches provide tents under which they set up their family feasts. Monique Henry belongs to the Gray tent and says everyone waits for her first cousin Danielle Nauden’s peach cobbler to arrive on the table.

The meals may be the highlight, but the day also includes games, foot races, a dance contest, and a pie/cake baking contest, which Henry says is mainly for the teenagers. The baking contest garners between 20 and 50 entries, depending on the size of the reunion.

Competitions are an intense part of the picnic gathering.

Film-television actress Gabrielle Union, the star of hit BET drama Being Mary Jane, is a descendant who grew up with the reunions. She understands what’s at stake.

“Having a chance to compete against your cousins in front of your family is huge,” Union says. “Some top athletes are in our family, so the races are like the Olympics. Each section of the family is like a country sending their best athletes. You trained for it.”

Union vividly recalls her most memorable race: “I wore my hair in braids but tucked under a cap. I won the race, and then somebody shouted, ‘That’s a boy,” thinking this fast little dynamo couldn’t possibly have been a girl, and I whipped off my cap like, ‘I’m a girl!’”

Although the large family has expanded and dispersed across Omaha and nationwide—and descendants of Emma Early Bryant-Fisher now number in the thousands—the picnic has remained in Omaha the second Sunday of August as a perennial ties-that-bind feast.

Union returns as her schedule allows. The actress grew up in northeast Omaha, attending St. Benedict the Moor. She often visited relatives in South O, where the home of matriarch Emma (a street is named after her) remained in the family.

Union introduced NBA superstar husband Dwyane Wade to the reunion last year. “It was important for me for Dwyane to come experience it,” she says. “No one I know has a family reunion of the scale, scope, and length we have. It’s pretty incredible. It says a lot about the endurance and strength of our family. It’s a testament to the importance of family, sticking together, and the strength that comes out of a family that recognizes its rich history and celebrates it.”

A tradition of this duration is rare for African-Americans given the historic struggles that disrupted many families. Bryant-Fisher descendant Susan Prater James says, “The reason for celebrating the 100th is that we’re still able to be together after everything our ancestors went through.”

“There’s nothing I can complain about [in terms of facing] adversity [that] someone in my family has not only experienced but fought through, and not just survived but thrived,” Union says. “I come from a long line of incredibly strong, powerful, and resilient strivers, and I pull from that daily.

We recognize our uniqueness and specialness, and we never take that for granted. I think with each passing year it just gets stronger and stronger.”

The family tree gets updated with a new history book every five years. “Dozens of Cousins” social media sites keep the grapevine buzzing. The family migrated from South Omaha to North Omaha many years ago, and also once had its own North O clubhouse at 21st and Wirt streets. The Dozens of Cousins, Inc. became a 501c3 in 2016.

A century of gatherings doesn’t just happen.

“We get together all the time, and anytime we get together it’s a celebration,” says Bryant-Fisher descendant Sherri Wright-Harris. “We love on one another. Family has always been instilled as the most important thing you have in this life. This is a part of the fabric that makes us who we are.”

“We don’t know anything different,” says Henry, another Bryant-
Fisher descendant.

“That’s ingrained from the time you’re born into the legacy,” family historian Arlett Brooks says. “My mother committed to her mother, and I committed to her to carry this tradition on. This is my love, my passion. I just think it’s important to share your history, and I want our youth to know the importance of this and to treasure what we have because this is not a common thing.”

The reunion has evolved from a one-day picnic to include: a river boat cruise, skate party, memorial ride (on a trolley or bus) to visit important family sites, banquet dinner-dance, and a talent showcase. Milestone years such as this one include a Saturday parade. Headquarters for the 2017 reunion will be situated at the Old Market Embassy Suites.

The reunion’s Friday night formal banquet means new outfits and hair-dos. But renewing blood bonds is what counts. “It’s a way for young and old to reconnect with their roots and find a sense of belonging,” Prater James says.

Representing the various branches of the Bryant-Fisher family takes on added meaning over time.

“No matter how old you are, no matter how down you get, on that day everything seems to be looking better,” Marc Nichols says.

Cheryl Bowles says she “felt sick” the one reunion she skipped.

Arlett Brooks says she has never missed a reunion, and she’s not about to miss the 100th. “You only get the centennial one time,” Brooks says.

New this year will be a family history cookbook complete with recipes, stories, and photos. Catfish, spaghetti, greens, and cornbread are faves. The history cookbook is expected to be printed and ready for sale at the reunion.

Union says fun and food aside, the real attraction is “hearing the stories—the important stories, the silly stories—and learning the history before people are gone.”

Visit bryantfisherreunion.com for more information.

Monique Henry

This article was printed in the July/August 2017 Edition of Omaha Home.

The Land of Pharaohs and Omaha Beef Liver

August 6, 2017 by
Illustration by Derek Joy

CAIRO, Egypt—Sometime around 2012, I started going to a sausage and liver cart in the middle-class neighborhood of Dokki where I then lived. I was still new to Egypt, having recently moved from the U.S.

The cart, however, was a longstanding neighborhood fixture. Since 1976, from dusk until dawn, Ezz al-Monofy has been serving spicy sausage and liver meats in vino bread (which is like a less-airy hotdog bun).

On any given night, there are 30 to 40 men of all ages, standing and downing sandwiches for late-night snacks. Steam rises from three frying basins, illuminated by bright fluorescent lights. On the otherwise dark street, the glowing cart becomes a beacon for the nocturnal community of Giza, on the western bank of the Nile opposite Downtown Cairo.

For my friends and I, a visit to Ezz al-Monofy is part of our healing process. The spicy and greasy meat, washed down with some of the saltiest pickles in the Cairo metro, enables our bodies to retain more water. Consequently, the food cart helps our minds to function properly the next day. A long night of drinking Stella—the Egyptian beer, not to be confused with the Belgian brand of the same name—can result in an incapacitating hangover.

I didn’t realize the significance of these late-night food runs until Abou Malak, the cart’s mustachioed cook, who I came to know, asked me where I was from.

“Omaha,” I said.

He stared at me for a second, as if deciding whether I was being honest, or if he should be.

“By the way, this liver is from Omaha,” he replied.

I thought it was some sort of joke.

“Swear on it,” I said.

A bigger man at the cart, with a bigger mustache, gestured at me as if to say, “one second.”

I was afraid I had offended the two men, since I used a more Muslim religious phrase to exclaim my disbelief. For all I knew, they could be Christians, who have had a second-class status in Egypt, and whose security has been threatened (especially recently). He came back with a cardboard box with some blood smudges on it.

The box read:

“GREATER OMAHA

PROVIDING THE HIGHEST

QUALITY BEEF

Produced for Hanzada Company-Cairo, Egypt”

In general, Egyptians love beef liver, and Americans don’t. So by the osmosis of the world economy, Americans tend to sell Egypt liver, and a lot of it.

Egypt is the world’s biggest importer of liver. In fact, Egyptians eat so much American beef liver that there’s a market for American liver near Ramses Square in central Cairo. Meanwhile, American beef producers are actually afraid that they are too dependent on Egypt buying livers, and they have been looking to new markets. But I doubt South Africa, a rising consumer, is up to the challenge. In 2016, 76 percent of all U.S. beef liver exports (68,474 tons) ended up in Egypt.

I’ve been a journalist in Cairo for six years, and it makes sense that the first time I’ve come across a story that really resonates with my American family history—or one that could be written for a hometown publication—has to do with beef.

My grandmother, Frances “Jean” Wheeler, has never seen the mountains or the ocean. My maternal family’s story is one of migration across the Great Plains for various slaughter and meatpacking jobs.

Her grandfather, my great-great-grandfather Emil Peklo from Prague, loaded the family onto a boat and took them to the U.S. According to Grandma, most of the boat’s passengers were sent back, but Emil’s wife gave birth to a son in the harbor, so they were allowed to stay.

When an immigration officer found out Emil was a butcher, he connected him with his brother, who had a meatpacking house in Chicago. The family went west to work there. With the savings from that job, he moved to Lynch, Nebraska, to open a butcher shop.

“Peklo in English is hell. H-E-L-L,” she said. “And he had on his window, “Go to hell for your meat.’”

“Uncle Vic could put on a Sunday dress shirt, roll up his sleeves, put on an apron, and take apart a whole cow without getting a drop of blood on his suit,” Grandma said.

I love my grandmother very much, but she has a tendency toward hyperbole, and the anatomy of a cow makes me doubt this claim. A cow liver can be between 10 and 15 pounds, and anybody who has cut one up knows they’re more slippery than muscle meat.

In the prep area of Ezz al-Monofy, the sous chefs do not have the mind, nor the time, to worry about getting blood on their shirts with a bunch of hangry men around. They cut the liver into pencil thin pieces, which are thrown into 2-gallon pots before being mixed with fried garlic.

After tossing the liver around with a spatula in the oil, Abou Malak adds coriander, cumin, salt, pepper, chili pepper, nutmeg, and more garlic. Another cook slices the vino bread with a box-cutter, slathers them with sesame paste that’s thinned out with lemon juice, and sprinkles that with fresh parsley before passing them to Abou Malak to fill with a serving of liver.

If liver is not for you, the cart also sells home-style sausage and Alexandrian sausage. I’m not aware of the beef sausages’ country—or anatomical region—of origin.

Liver sandwiches are the Egyptian equivalent of the hot dog. They are cheap and probably the nation’s most famous street food. But prices are going up. Recently, a food-ordering service, Otlob, released an infographic warning that the price of a liver sandwich had quadrupled since 2013, and was expected to keep rising.

Rising food prices are a major concern for the Egyptian public. In fall 2016, the government floated the exchange rate, which meant that the price of the Egyptian pound plummeted in comparison to the U.S. dollar. Although Egyptian food prices may seem extraordinarily cheap to American readers back home, the pound’s declining value means it’s increasingly expensive for regular Egyptians to buy anything.

The changing currency dynamics also means American beef has become more expensive to purchase. As a result, the share of liver exports to Egypt from America went down from 82 percent to 76 percent between 2015 and 2016. In 2014, the North African country was the largest importer of liver in the entire world.

The American beef industry uses the term “variety meat” for liver, kidneys, brains, stomach, and such. It’s a beautiful example of an American industrial euphemism. The phrasing implies “choice,” a cornerstone principle in American free-market philosophy. Egyptians use a term that translates to “sweets,” or “fruits of meat,” which sounds more poetic and folksy.

Liver, though, is ultimately a category unto itself, a comfort food of both the rich and poor. When I first encountered liver in Nebraska, I viewed it as leftovers cooked for/by those who couldn’t afford “regular” meat. But a look back into history shows its place in American fine dining, too.

In the heyday of Omaha’s stockyards, liver sometimes enjoyed luxury status. In 1946, Caniglia’s steakhouse had liver and spaghetti on the menu for $3.25. In 2017 dollars, that’s about $42. Macarona Reda in Downtown Cairo’s Bab al-Louq neighborhood has “macarona bil kebda” (spaghetti and liver) for 7 Egyptian pounds (less than 42 cents).

I assumed my grandmother would have eaten liver growing up, being the daughter and granddaughter of butchers and growing up poor.

“Are you kidding? I didn’t like liver,” she said. “When I was pregnant with your uncle John, I had iron deficiency. I had to eat liver three times a week. I fixed liver one time for your grandpa, mom, and uncle Monte. And he said, ‘What’s this? I won’t eat it, and my kids won’t eat it!’”

My grandparents met each other, in part, because of the meat industry. When my great-great-grandfather Emil’s son, Emil Jr. (my great-grandfather), attempted to borrow money to continue his studies at the seminary, his mother said no, according to Grandma.

So, great-grandpa Emil Jr. moved across the state line to Winner, South Dakota, to work at a different butcher. Then, he moved to a meatpacking house in Pampa, Texas, during World War II. Finally, he moved to South Omaha after the Pampa factory burnt down.

My grandmother was a child during the family relocations. Her roots would take hold in Omaha.  She was working at a hide processing company in South Omaha when she met my grandfather. He was working at a truck wash that also serviced the stockyards.

In 1947, when the Peklos moved to Omaha, 2,016,768 cows moved through the Omaha stockyards. By 1955 the stockyards were the biggest meat producer in the world. That superlative lingered over my hometown until 1971.

My mother grew up in Papillion. My father came from Lebanon; he was studying engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln when my parents met.

By the time I was born, peak beef production had passed in Omaha. Even so, the remaining Omaha-area meatpacking plants still process huge amounts of cattle today, with slaughter and butchering having become heavily industrialized.

The Nebraska business responsible for supplying my favorite beef liver cart in Egypt—Greater Omaha Packing Co.—processes 14,000 head of cattle a week, almost 728,000 a year, at its South Omaha factory off 32nd and L streets.

When it comes to eating red meat, my time living overseas has brought one major epiphany: Growing up in Nebraska has spoiled me.

I’ve tried hard to replicate some of my favorite Omaha dishes in Egypt—for example, Big Fred’s prime rib sandwich. But I can’t do it.

Cuts of meat just aren’t really the same in Egypt, and the pricing is much closer than one might expect. It’s a double-edged sword: You can get a filet for 80 Egyptian pounds (equal to $4.41 in U.S. dollars) per pound in Cairo, but stew meat can cost 60 Egyptian pounds (or $3.25) per pound. 

The lack of common vocabulary once meant I went home from an Egyptian market feeling pretty excited about an extremely cheap rib-eye, but when I unwrapped it, that feeling turned into confusion. It turned out to be spleen, and I failed miserably at cooking it.

On return trips to Omaha, I relish the city’s renown for beef.

For days leading up to my homecoming, my father and I will message back and forth on the topic of meat cuts that I’d like to eat. He then purchases the beef in bulk from the meat market down the street from our house and freezes the rest.

My first meal after arriving at home is usually a steak, if it’s warm enough to fire up the grill. In the wintertime, it’s usually corned beef (on a Reuben sandwich), since I have yet to come across high-quality deli meat in Cairo.

The absence or presence of food in a particular place can tell you a lot about how local people are connected (or disconnected) to other parts of the world.

Recently, China reopened its country to American beef products, which might be a good plan-B for Nebraskan liver merchants in the event that Egypt becomes a less lucrative market. 

On the face of the global beef trade, the tradespeople (the butchers) are increasingly mobile globally. In fact, many butchers in the United States have come from the Arab world, and they are exporting Nebraska meat back to their countries of origin.

The trend is evident even on the rural outskirts of Omaha. In Lexington, Nebraska, the meatpacking industry employs hundreds of resettled Sudanese and Somalian refugees. The immigrants take apart thousands of cows every day.

With Cairo, Egypt, as a major transit point for refugees, it’s possible that tomorrow’s Sudanese-American butcher is right now eating a liver sandwich from a Nebraskan plant where he might work in the next year.

Then again, with mounting anti-immigration rhetoric in American politics, maybe not.

Visit greateromaha.com for more information about the Omaha-based company that supplied the author’s favorite beef liver cart in Egypt.

Egyptian Beef Liver Recipe

Ingredients:

1 quarter pound beef liver, cut into inch long, pencil thin strips

2 tablespoons cooking oil

4 tablespoons freshly minced garlic, divided

1 teaspoon cumin

½ teaspoon nutmeg

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon pepper

1 tablespoon white vinegar

3 spicy green peppers, chopped

¼ cup tahina (sesame paste)

2 tablespoons lemon juice

Chopped parsley for garnish

Hot dog buns, for serving

Instructions:

Heat the cooking oil, then fry 2 tablespoons garlic until just
beginning to brown.

Add the sliced beef liver, and toss until cooked through. The meat should turn a grayish-brown.

Add the remaining seasoning, vinegar, and peppers. Toss.

Taste and adjust seasoning and salt.

Mix the tahina and lemon juice in a bowl, then spread on the hot dog buns, and sprinkle with parsley.

Fill each bun with the liver mix.

Serve with pickled carrots, turnips, peppers, onions, and/or pickled tomatoes.

This article appears in the July/August edition of Omaha Magazine.