Tag Archives: Time Out Foods

Where’s Johnny’s?

December 28, 2016 by
Photography by Contributed

Johnny Carson was the definitive talk show host of the 20th century, hosting The Tonight Show for three decades at a time when it was the undisputed king of late night television. Carson started his career as a professional broadcaster in Omaha, a fact that is fondly remembered.

Carson started at WOW-TV in Omaha in the 1950s, and he remained friendly with many of his coworkers there long after he became a national celebrity. Carson was also an amateur magician and performed locally, a fact that appears now and then in local stories about the man.
A now-defunct local business was associated with Carson’s name, too. But this endeavor has received less attention, as it didn’t go all that well.

johnny_carson_1970The idea was not Carson’s. It was that of Gilbert “Gibby” Swanson Jr., one of the scions of the Swanson company that introduced TV dinners to the American public. Gibby was the third generation of Swansons to run the company, despite his background, which had mostly been in various elements of security and law enforcement (which supposedly remained an obsession of his).
Swanson approached Carson with the idea of a restaurant chain bearing Johnny Carson’s name. It would serve typical American food with a Johnny Carson touch, such as the “Carnac Burger,” a sandwich named after one of Carson’s signature characters, an all-seeing seer in a feathered turban.
Carson lent his name to the project, but, he later claimed, little else—he was neither the owner of the business nor a stakeholder. He was, instead, board chairman, a job that was “mostly for publicity purposes,” according to the World-Herald. This would prove important later.

There was initially much excitement about the opening of the chain, which debuted in Omaha on 72nd Street in 1969. Carson himself came out to promote the opening, taking a tour of his old haunts and charming the press. A second restaurant opened on Saddle Creek, but only lasted a few years.
Meanwhile, Here’s Johnny’s restaurants began to spring up across America—a reported 302 franchises were purchased in the U.S. and Canada. Of those that opened, most were short-lived, and in 1979 the company went bankrupt. The World-Herald reported that the Swanson family took a bath on the enterprise, with Gibby losing $1.77 million of his own money; Gibby owed another $1.2 million to other Swanson companies and his brother, Jay.

Several franchise owners filed lawsuits against the company, claiming disastrous rollout, including kitchen equipment that “disintegrated,” as well as claims that franchisees were told Carson himself had invested in the company, only to later learn that this wasn’t true. In September 1976, the first Here’s Johnny’s restaurant on 72nd closed, bringing an end to the business.

This wasn’t Gibby’s only failed franchise, but there is a happier ending to another story: Gibby hoped to start a franchise of fried chicken restaurants targeted at inner-city business owners, and partnered with sports stars Bob Gibson and Bob Boozer to achieve this goal. While the business never developed into a true franchise, it did manage to open one restaurant: Time Out Foods, which is still a beloved institution in North Omaha.

Visit timeoutfoods.com for more information.

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Time Out

December 18, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The official name of this long-lived north Omaha business is Time Out Foods. “But Time Out Chicken is what everybody tags us as,” says owner Steve Mercer. He’s even bought that Google domain.

With a sign proclaiming “Omaha’s Best Fried Chicken,” it’s no surprise what the signature dish is at this north 30th Street landmark.

Credit for this grassroots branding, he says, goes to the restaurant’s fans.

“We didn’t just create this ourselves,” Mercer says. “It’s the people that buy it all the time that make it our signature. That’s the name the people gave us.”

He says business keeps growing and he’s considering expanding and adding new locations.

“I feel like this is just the beginning of something else to happen,” he says. “This is a good ride.” With many north O revitalization efforts underway after years of stagnation, his timing seems good. “There’s so much more [positive] going on in north Omaha than ever before.”

Though chicken is clearly what keeps folks coming back, it was not the house staple when his parents bought the place in 1972. The Swanson Corp., the TV dinner pioneer, opened Time Out in 1969 to develop a model for black-owned fast food franchises. Local sports legends Bob Boozer and Bob Gibson lent celebrity status. But north Omaha struggled, and so did the restaurant. Mercer’s parents saw opportunity and secured a loan to buy it. Mercer, who had worked there since age 12, bought the business in 1982 when he was only 22.

That’s when he devised the chicken recipe that has made Time Out a hit.

He won’t share the savory spicy recipe for his lip-smacking, mouth-watering chicken, but does reveal the battered bird is deep-fried in peanut oil. Whatever the secret ingredients, he notes “all the customers say it makes them have a craving for it.” Regulars dining there one recent morning raved about the moist, tender meat and crispy, never-greasy crust. They all admitted to a hankering that keeps them coming back for more.

Living in Atlanta, Georgia, hasn’t dulled Omaha native Cheryl Berry-Neal’s passion for poultry. “Time Out is a must-stop when we come to town,” she says. She and other ex-pats in town for Native Omaha Days flood the joint for its familiar comfort food. Lines form year-round every Sunday as the after-church crowd dressed in their finest patiently wait for a down-home fix.

Chicken is the star, but cheeseburgers and other hot sandwiches are plenty popular, too. The classic crinkle-style fries also have many devotees. So do the pies supplied by an outside vendor.

Three generations of family work there, including Steve’s mother, Jean.

“That’s what makes it work,” says Mercer. “We’ve been doing this for over 40 years and we enjoy doing it,” as a family. “I’m here because I love being here. It’s my second home.”

More and more, Mercer views Time Out as a community anchor.

“I can’t let the community or anybody else down. We have to do whatever it takes to keep it going because anything else would just not be right. Failure is not an option.”

Visit timeoutfoods.com to learn more.

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