Tag Archives: featured

The Sloans’ Thriving Reef

April 25, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Drive past the Sloan residence in Elkhorn and—if your eyes catch a glimpse of the front window, especially in the evening hours—there is a good chance you’ll slow your vehicle or feel compelled to stop and stare awhile.

Your lingering gaze won’t be because the house itself is impressive (though it is), but because of the massive saltwater aquarium visible through the window. Stewart and Diane Sloan admit they’ve witnessed more than one vehicle parked outside their home while the passengers watch the aquarium.

Situated in the kitchen and viewable from both sides, this 300-gallon aquarium was a collaborative effort between the Sloans, Wood Specialties, homebuilder Curt Hofer & Associates, and Scott Ruff of Ruff Waters Inc. “This was something that has not been done in Omaha to this level,” says Ruff, explaining that a functioning aquarium of this size is extremely rare in residential settings.

Four thousand gallons of saltwater run through the house hourly to keep the aquarium running and the fish healthy. A small mechanical room in the lower level of the home is dedicated to the pumps and filtering system. “A lot of details went into this aquarium,” Ruff says. “The last thing you’d want is for something like this to fail in a home.”Guy from Ruff cleaning saltwater aquarium

Surprisingly, this is the first aquarium for the Sloans. Stewart says that the aquariums at Kona Grill were an inspiration for him. They all laugh when they remember a lunch meeting at Kona to start planning the aquarium. “Do you know what Scott ordered?” asks Diane, laughing. “Sushi!” The irony of an aquarium specialist ordering fish for lunch was not lost on them.

Though Stewart had some ideas for what he wanted the aquarium to be, he and Diane had one important rule: “I did not want to be the one maintaining it,” Stewart says. “We couldn’t maintain this,” Diane says, to which Stewart laughs and adds, “We can’t maintain ourselves!”

All they have to do is feed the fish and enjoy the view. A Ruff Waters technician takes care of the cleaning and maintenance. “The fish don’t like Travis [Bartman],” Diane says. She claims that the fish remember faces, so while they’ll gather at the glass when she approaches, they’ll all hide when Bartman comes around with his cleaning tools.

Diane runs a tight ship with the fish in her aquarium. “Diane taps on the glass when the fish get naughty,” Stewart says. She enjoys giving visitors a tour of the tank, using a flashlight to point out the different fish and the anemones. Each fish has a story—and a name. “They all have different personalities,” Diane says. And while Stewart says the “clownfish are always a favorite,” they both agree that Popeye the shrimp is their very favorite aquarium resident.

The aquarium turned out “better than I envisioned,” Diane says. The people in cars coming to a screeching halt outside their house would probably agree.

Visit ruffwaters.com for more information.

This article was printed in the May 2019 edition of OmahaHome. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

A Transcontinental Journey Through Time on U.S. Route 6

April 19, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Decades before the Interstate Highway System reshaped travel, commerce, and communities, the first intercontinental highway emerged in pre-World War I America. The oldest, longest, and highest of these transcontinental routes is U.S. Route 6.

Midway between the highway’s coastal endpoints in California and Massachusetts, Route 6 defined many of Omaha’s most important traffic corridors. The route—known by different names depending on the era, locale, and new construction—was dedicated to American Civil War veterans, and it carries the title “Grand Army of the Republic Highway.” Today, the highway stretches (sometimes erratically) 3,652 miles from Long Beach to Provincetown across 14 states.

The story of Route 6 in Omaha is part of the story of Omaha itself. And Roger Bratt wants to tell you all about it.

Roger Bratt

Roger Bratt

Bratt, a resident of Lousiville, Nebraska, has turned his passion for history into a passion for telling the story of Route 6. He is vice president of the U.S. Route 6 Tourist Association and interim executive director of the association’s Nebraska operations. The group holds events to rekindle interest in the route’s history and drive tourism and economic development for towns along its path.

“When I traveled all over the country for work, I’d take these old [Route 6] stretches to explore,” the retired Bratt explains. “I have driven on almost every mile of Route 6—not all at once, but in bits and pieces. I found it interesting because I used to ride it. This was a connection back to Nebraska for me.”

As a young boy in the ’50s, Bratt would ride shotgun with his father, Peter, who ran a small trucking business out of Bennett, near Lincoln.

“I was a little kid at the time, so I would get my homework done and ride along with Dad,” Bratt recalls. “I loved that!”

Peter and his drivers would pick up livestock from area farmers and head up Route 6 through Ashland and Gretna, hooking up to Q Street at 84th and then eastward on L Street to the stockyards. After delivering the cattle, drivers would head to the truck washes behind Johnny’s Café, which stayed open until 1 in the morning so drivers and stockyard workers could eat breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

Then it was off to nearby Sutherland Lumber, where Roger would sleep in his father’s cab until lumberyard workers banged on the door, their signal the truck had been loaded with deliveries for customers along Route 6 on their way home.

Today, Omahans think of a highway named 6 as Dodge Street—but that came half a century later. The original Route 6 dates back to 1911.

From east to west, the original path of Route 6 entered the Omaha area from the southwest, going from 144th Street to Millard Avenue to 132nd and then onto Center Street (then known as Lincoln Avenue), passing cultural icons such as Aksarben and Petrow’s Restaurant before wrapping around Hanscom Park along Park Avenue up to Farnam Street past the Colonial and Blackstone hotels. Another jog onto Douglas Street saw Route 6 head into Iowa over the bridge built for the electric railcars that stretched the length of Broadway in Council Bluffs.

In the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration built the Saddle Creek Underpass, and the path of Route 6 shifted onto Saddle Creek Road (named after the former creek buried underneath) before connecting with Farnam Street.

Referring to the historic Route 6 today can be confusing to many Omaha residents because Dodge Street is currently the official Route 6. Bratt says it was rerouted to Dodge Street in the early 1960s after the demolition of the Aksarben Bridge and construction of Interstate 480. Further complicating the naming rights, Dodge Street was also the Lincoln Highway and other numbered highways in its lifetime.

The former path of Route 6 has mostly vanished under modern streets. But a rare brick portion of the old highway remains within Omaha city limits. Bratt says residents south of 96th and Center streets worked with the City of Omaha to preserve a four-block section of the highway’s brick pavers in the mid-20th century.

This vestigial section is called Frontage Road and runs parallel to Center Street from Oakdale Elementary School. “I was scared to death when I saw it all torn up when they were renovating the school,” Bratt says. “But [the remaining road] looks beautiful now.”

In Nebraska, the original dirt highway sprung up in noncontiguous locations—in western Nebraska in 1911, in the Ashland area during the same period, and in Lincoln (today’s Cornhusker Highway) in the ’20s. Route 6 wasn’t known as Route 6 until the 1930s, often referred to as the OLD Highway (Omaha-Lincoln-Denver) in its early days.

Bratt's photos in a collage

In his personal collection of Route 6 photos and maps, Bratt keeps some photographic gems from Ashland. There’s an image of a 1911 or 1912 parade promoting the new route between Omaha and Denver (and promoting automobiles alongside horses and buggies), and another photo of men and their cars outside Ashland on one of the “cruises” that sprouted with the route. Along the highway is a signpost: “OLD—The Best Dirt Road in the U.S.”

Today, the association works to preserve this heritage while promoting tourism and attracting new residents to small towns along the highway. Bratt is fond of his work in Nebraska, where Route 6 continues to course through southern Nebraska from Lincoln into small towns (including Friend, Hastings, Minden, McCook, etc.) and onward into Colorado.

Bratt has traveled to make presentations in these towns and works with association members—many from abroad—who want to drive the route and explore communities and countryside along the way. Some tourists, Bratt says, express interest in moving to their favorite towns.

“They are interested in the old routes because the transcontinental route was what built America,” Bratt says.

Visit route6tour.com for more information.

This article first appeared in the May 2019 edition of 60PLUS in Omaha MagazineTo receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

U.S. Route 6

Station on U.S. Route 6

Step Into Running

Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Illustration by Derek Joy

Bea Sides has been running for more than half her life, but joy is not the word she would use to describe the feeling that running evokes.

“It’s not so much joy, it’s a sense of accomplishment,” Sides says. “I know people who have finished their first ever event and end up crying, and I understand that emotion because it’s something that you didn’t think six months or a year ago that you could accomplish.”

The 67-year-old says her running journey began a little over 35 years ago when her father had a heart attack and was rushed to Omaha by helicopter air ambulance from the Columbus area.

“I had relatives staying with me so I couldn’t get up and do my aerobics inside the house. I started getting up and running, and that’s how my running got started,” Sides says. “I just fell in love with it and have been doing it ever since.”

Sides’ running has led her to compete in marathons and half marathons across the United States, from Nashville to Syracuse. She ran the Boston Marathon—twice.

Her most rewarding running experience isn’t a specific race, however. That honor goes to her involvement with establishing Step into Running, a group training program for women and girls through the Omaha Running Club.

“[Step into Running] was a way of teaching women or showing women the process of running and how to get into it if they were interested,” she says. “It was giving back to the community, and the community gave back to me through my running.”

Step into Running is an 11-week program that begins every spring. Participants meet every Tuesday for a session lasting 45 minutes to an hour.

Sides says she’s seen anywhere from 50 to 75 women and girls start the program, and roughly 20 to 30 percent have finished the program.

“We just want them to enjoy what they’re doing, and meeting other women has also been big,” she says. “There’s been some of the women who have met and started friendships within the Step into Running program, and some of them 15 years later are still friends.”

Sides says the sense of community Step into Running provides is one of the most important factors for both veteran runners and beginners.

“If you have somebody who’s going to be waiting for you, you’re more committed to going and doing something,” Sides says. “Having that other person makes you accountable.”

There are no qualifications to join the Step into Running program. There is a fee of $5 for current Omaha Running Club Members and a cost of $25 for non-members, which includes an Omaha Running Club membership.

The women who join the program are welcome to run in any event they wish to. There is also the Go Girl Run 5K every Labor Day.

“Go Girl Run is kind of the climax to the running program,” Sides says. “Any and all women and girls in Omaha can participate.”

Sides encourages women and girls of all ages to take up running, and she offers this advice to beginners, especially beginners over 60:

“I’d advise them to get a good pair of shoes; they don’t have to be expensive shoes, just good shoes. And to take it easy, find a training plan that works for them. The most important part is finding others that are interested in it as well. It’s the community that gets you out there and keeps you going.”

Visit omaharun.org/step-into-running for more information.

This article first appeared in the May 2019 edition of 60PLUS in Omaha MagazineTo receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Bea Sides at Zorinsky Lake

Good Things are Poppin in North O

April 17, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Orlanda Whitfield, PH.D., was born and raised in Omaha. She graduated from Central High School in 1995 and received a doctorate in both education and educational leadership from College of Saint Mary, where she teaches adjunct classes. She also teaches classes at Doane University. She works full-time at CenturyLink as a communications technician and has for the last 20 years. And a little over two years ago, she opened her own business, Still Poppin Gourmet Popcorn. There are few things Whitfield doesn’t do—she loves being busy.

For Whitfield, owning a business is something she’s always wanted. It’s in her roots. Her dad is an entrepreneur and her grandmother, Thelma, is a professional cook and Whitfield’s early teacher. “I remember waking up to the smell of her cooking,” Whitfield says. “She always made sure we went to school or church fed.” Whitfield says she was a young girl when her grandmother first taught her how to make caramel corn on movie night.

Whitfield also credits her grandmother for encouraging creativity in her culinary attempts. She says it made her feel like she could cook anything. So, it only makes sense that cooking comes naturally to her.

Dr. Orlanda Whitfield Still Poppin Gourmet Popcorn

Dr. Orlanda Whitfield at Still Poppin Gourmet Popcorn

So did the location for her business in North Omaha, where she wants to start building her legacy. She was working on a committee for the Mildred Brown Foundation when she decided to open the Still Poppin Gourmet Popcorn store at The Fair Deal Village MarketPlace on North 24th Street.

The marketplace houses eight businesses in repurposed shipping containers with a café at the center, where the landmark Omaha diner Fair Deal Café once stood. The redevelopment kept the original art deco and tin ceiling from the café intact.

Whitfield kettle-cooks her popcorn from scratch in a commercial kitchen at No More Empty Pots, a local nonprofit that advocates for food security by connecting individuals with locally grown, organic product. The most popular flavor she sells is known as the “Omaha mix.” It’s a sweet, savory mix of caramel corn covered in cheese. Still Poppin Gourmet Popcorn offers between 10 to 20 flavors at a time, and Whitfield says she’s always working on new ideas.

“I love coming up with new flavors and then having people try them to see what their reaction is, good or bad,” she says. Recently her love for Thai food has influenced her creations in the form of movie theater butter and spicy Sriracha popcorn.

Popcorn from Still Poppin Gourmet Popcorn

Different flavors of popcorn from Still Poppin Gourmet Popcorn

She’s most inspired by the women in her life: her grandmother, who turned 90 last year, her granddaughter, NeMiya, and the women business owners in her community. Whitfield says they were incredibly supportive when she started her own business.

Patricia “Big Mama” Barron and Gladys Harrison from Big Mama’s Kitchen previously worked with Whitfield at CenturyLink. She says they gave her encouragement and wanted her to succeed.

Supporting women in her community is very important to Whitfield. She’s always trying to find the best way to use her business to give back. She believes food is a great way to bring people together. That’s why her business partners with local sports teams and youth organizations selling popcorn as fundraisers.

Looking to the future, Whitfield wants to expand into local retail stores and, eventually, she wants to open franchise locations. She wants her legacy to include a scholarship for women in her community who want to start a business or advance their education.

“A lot of times, we as women entrepreneurs are starting businesses because the glass ceiling still exists for us in other industries,” Whitfield says. “I think that’s why you’re seeing women start more businesses than anyone else right now.”

Visit stillpoppin402.com for more information.

This article was printed in the May 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. The printed version of this story identifies her grandmother as Doris (her mother) and states that Whitfield graduated in 1959. Her grandmother’s name is Thelma. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Global Farming

March 14, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Like many restless small-town kids, Steven Zehr set his sights on leaving rural life to explore something new after high school. Staying on the family farm in Fairbury, Illinois, to grow corn and soybeans, and raise beef cattle, was not on Zehr’s agenda.

But there’s no denying that Zehr’s agricultural roots and Midwestern values have served him well, helping him climb the corporate ladder in a nearly 25-year career that’s taken him to India, Paraguay, Switzerland, and farther.

Zehr serves as chief operating officer at Gavilon Group LLC, a commodities brokerage firm headquartered in Omaha with approximately 2,000 employees worldwide. Gavilon deals in grain, food and feed ingredients, and fertilizer, and includes a network of 100 grain locations across the U.S., with dozens of locations near rail lines, rivers, and ports internationally. The company handles a billion bushels of grain annually.

Zehr attended Illinois Wesleyan University and earned an accounting degree; a practical choice because “When you look at it, the root cause of everything is numbers,” he says. After earning an MBA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he landed a job as an auditor at Archer Daniels Midland, a global food processing and commodities trading firm based in Chicago.

“I’d always wanted to work and travel internationally, and ADM provided me that opportunity,” Zehr says. “They asked me to move to Mexico, and I was very excited about it.” Knowing only high-school Spanish, Zehr had to learn the language quickly. “It was sink or swim.”

Zehr later switched hats from the accounting to commercial side of commodities, creating opportunities for him to move to Brazil, Latin America, the U.K., and Germany, all the while being, he says, “mentored by some great people.” (He has become fluent in Spanish and Portuguese along the way.) In all, he spent 18 years with ADM, holding positions in sales and marketing, finance, business development, and general management, becoming chief financial officer in 2008. Zehr’s openness to relocating internationally and to take assignments in multiple divisions of the company allowed him to garner a thorough understanding of the global commodities business, preparing him well for his next step.

When Gavilon’s (now former) CEO Greg Heckman offered him the position as vice president/general manager at the headquarters in Omaha in 2011, the timing was right. Married with two kids, Zehr and his wife decided they wanted a stable, Midwestern upbringing for their children.

“I wanted to allow my kids the same opportunities I had growing up,” says Zehr, who has grown to love Omaha and the Gavilon culture.

Zehr was promoted to COO in December 2017. “Overseeing all the moving parts of a company with the huge international footprint Gavilon has poses some real challenges…transportation issues, HR issues, maximizing the profitability of a company day-to-day. We’re dealing with cents, from a margin perspective,” Zehr says. He’s also charged with charting the long-range plan of the company. “How we grow, how we divest.”

Zehr sits on the national board of directors of the Commodity Markets Council (CMC), which helps execs like himself navigate regulatory changes and resolve issues that often create an uneven
playing field.

Recent agricultural tariffs put in place on the European Union and China pose challenges as well. “While they’re meant to correct problems in the market that may have been kicked down the road by previous administrations, at the same time, trade wars do no one any good,” Zehr says.

Gavilon’s international presence helps mitigate their financial risk.

“Grain trading is one of the oldest businesses in the world. And it’s also a very small marketplace,” Zehr adds. “You have to have good communication up and down the chain and work with end users so that you remain their everyday supplier.”

Robert Jones, chief administrative officer at Gavilon, has this high praise for Zehr: “Steven is an inspiring leader who has the ability to excite, focus, and bring forth sustained performance and excellence in others. He supports a collaborative culture by promoting mutual goals and building trust across Gavilon.”

With three sports-minded kids under age 18, the Zehrs are big Creighton Bluejay fans, attending soccer, baseball, and basketball games often. He and his wife also enjoy supporting the culinary entreprenuers in Omaha. “We like to try all the smaller, independent restaurants. I’m kind of a foodie.”

Visit gavilon.com for more information about Zehr and the company.

This article was printed in the April/May 2019 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Steven Zehr

Steven Zehr


Julie Humphrey

March 8, 2019 by
Photography by Sarah Lemke

Julie Humphrey started her career path at age 14 in South Dakota. “I had to volunteer as an assignment for a class. I figured I loved libraries and I loved reading, so I volunteered at the library.”

Humphrey once thought she might like to be a teacher, and both her parents were educators, but she discovered she does not have the patience required for teaching. And the lure of the library proved too compelling.

She became a library aide while studying at the University of South Dakota-Vermillion, and, by the time she applied to the University of Missouri-Columbia, the choice seemed clear. Humphrey moved to Columbia to earn her master’s degree in library science.

“After that,” she admits, “I just kept going.” Today she is the Youth and Family Services Manager for the Omaha Public Library, and is also the person in charge of putting together the popular Summer Reading Program. With thousands of registered participants (34,154 in 2018), coordinating this annual program is a large task.

“There’s no way we could do all the great things we do if it was just me,” Humphrey says. “It is a whole team effort.” Her team consists of seven other library professionals who assist to “find prizes, find coupon sponsors, and select free books.” Each program at the library’s 12 branches differs based on what the staff thinks will be most appealing and useful to their participants. Humphrey likes to “encourage the team to think outside the box—we’re not the same through the entire city.”

And there’s another part of the team that Humphrey says is involved with this project. “We couldn’t do the program without the wonderful support of the Omaha Public Library Foundation and the Friends of Omaha Public Library.”

Still, Humphrey leads this busy team by example. She loves planning activities and particularly enjoys organizing programming for kids and teens. “I also love supporting my team in different endeavors,” she adds, listing gaming, crafting, and STEM among her favorite activities her team has offered to young library visitors. “It all depends on the interests of the community,” she explains. “Each branch does what they want; we give them free rein.”

The summer reading program awards prizes to both children and adults for time spent reading or listening to audio books. The program is open to everyone, whether they reside within the city limits of Omaha or not. It also includes special events. “Story time, adult gardening programs—there is a little bit of everything,” says Humphrey.

Humphrey believes that anyone who thinks they do not like to read simply has not found a book that hooks them. “We’ll help them find the perfect book,” she promises, adding that just about any book counts for the program. She points out that a book of jokes counts just as much as a thick novel.

The first mention of the Summer Reading Program for the Omaha Public Library was in 1909. The 110-year-old program continues to impact residents in the present day. Alexis Conaway, 6, of La Vista is already wondering when this favorite activity of hers will begin this year, adding, “I can’t wait! I wonder what prizes they will have this year?”

Mom Sarah Conaway reveals that Alexis participates in the summer reading program with her best friend. “They race to see who can read the most books. It’s healthy competition. She looks forward to it each summer.”

Beyond being a healthy competition, the program is valuable to student’s retention of information.

“The Summer Reading Program helps prevent the ‘summer slide,’” Humphrey says. She suggests that 15 minutes a day of reading is possible, even for the busiest people. “How many minutes a day do you spend checking your phone? It’s probably more than 15 minutes.”

The program also helps students learn life skills. Sarah says that the book Have You Filled a Bucket Today? was a summer read that helped Alexis better understand the feelings of others and changed the way Sarah and husband Daniel help Alexis verbalize her feelings.   

The Omaha Public Library Summer Reading Program begins June 1 and goes through July 31. Participants can register online or at a library branch. And when perusing the shelves for the next summer book, patrons may spy Humphrey standing nearby, beaming about another successful year of summer reading. She probably won’t stand there for long, though; she will need to move to another program or project.

Visit omahalibrary.org/browse_program/summer-reading-program for more information.

This article was printed in the 2019 Summer Camp Edition of Family Guide. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Dolphin Pose

August 3, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Dolphin pose strengthens the arms and shoulders, tones the abdomen, stretches the hamstrings, and reverses blood flow.

1. Begin on hands and knees. Place your knees directly below your hips, and your wrists directly under your shoulders.

2. Lower the forearms to the ground.

3. Press all four corners of your hands firmly into the ground, and move the shoulders out of the ears by pressing them down the back.

4. Pull the naval in towards the spine.

5. Curl your toes under and press up.

6. Press the floor away with your forearms, push the hips back, and straighten the legs while reaching the heels towards the ground (you may need to keep a micro bend in the knees if your hamstrings are tight).

7. Let your head hang freely and breathe deeply for 10 breaths.

8. Bring knees to the ground, let the big toes touch together, and press back into child’s pose, with the arms extended in front of the head, palms face down on the ground.

9. Breathe deeply for 10 breaths.

10. Repeat two to three times.


That’s Amore

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Leo Fascianella was a poor Italian teenager from Sicily when he left home in 1972. He arrived in the United States with no English skills, $50 in his pockets, and a love for cooking. He sought a better life with better opportunities, and that’s what he found in Omaha.

After 14 years working in various roles at local restaurants, he opened his own business, Pasta Amore e Fantasia. The popular Rockbrook Village restaurant celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. “I thought it might last 10 years,” Fascianella says. “I never imagined 30 years.”

His culinary passion kicked in when he was about 5 or 6 years old. Every time his mom left the house, he’d hightail it into the kitchen. As a boy, he helped out in his grandparents’ small restaurant in Italy.

“I was always in and out of kitchens,” Fascianella says. And he’s still there, with no plans to leave anytime soon. “I love my job. I love it—the creativity of it.”

The chef and restaurateur takes satisfaction in seeing his guests enjoy the food that comes out of his kitchen, whether it is a plate of eggplant parmigiana, lasagna, cannelloni, tortellini, or another dish. In the restaurant’s early days, pasta and salads made up the bulk of the menu, but the offerings have grown over the years to include daily specials and several beef, chicken, and fish entrees.

LeoFascianella1Seafood dishes are among his favorites to prepare. At Pasta Amore, the seafood options include a lightly breaded calamari steak with a caper-lemon cream sauce, and linguine amore—mussels, clams, white fish, and shrimp over angel hair pasta with an herbed tomato broth, artichoke hearts, and spinach.

Many of the fresh herbs and vegetables that find their way into the restaurant’s menu items are grown by Fascianella and his wife, Pat. They plant basil, rosemary, oregano, sage, thyme, mint, and parsley at their Omaha home and at the restaurant. The couple also tend a vegetable garden at their family farm along the Elkhorn River.

Incorporating fresh, local produce and other ingredients whenever possible is important to Fascianella, whose cuisine combines a seasonal approach with traditional Italian flavors. He also strives to use the finest ingredients, whether it’s high-quality tomatoes, imported olive oil, or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

In addition to cooking and gardening, Fascianella enjoys fishing and spending time with his family. He and Pat married in 1989. They have an adult daughter and two adult sons. Pat helps run the restaurant, and the children have all worked there at one time or another.

Fascianella says he treasures moments such as gathering around the table with his wife and children to share Sunday meals. “My family makes me happy,” he says.

Traveling to his native Sicily at least once a year is another source of joy. The trips take him back to his roots and allow him to reconnect with relatives and immerse himself in the region’s world-famous food and wine. The annual trips also help spark new ideas for dishes to introduce at Pasta Amore.

In 2009, Fascianella was inducted into the Omaha Restaurant Association’s Hospitality Hall of Fame. What he enjoys most about working in the restaurant business is that it changes all the time. “If you want to innovate in business, you have to change.”

Omaha’s culinary scene is a lot different now than it was when Fascianella opened Pasta Amore three decades ago. Attitudes toward food have also changed. “People are more aware of food. There are lots of cooking shows. People are more interested in food and trying new things, not just your average spaghetti-and-meatballs,” he says.

For Fascianella, a willingness to adapt to changing consumer tastes and maintain an active role in the kitchen have been key to his restaurant’s success. “I’m in the kitchen. I cook my lunches and dinners, and the food is good.”

And he’s also proud of the fact that in his 30 years at Pasta Amore, he has never taken a sick day. The secret to staying healthy, he says, is good food and happiness. “You have to be happy in what you do.”

Now that’s amore.

Visit pastaamore.com for more information.

John Hargiss

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Master craftsman and stringed instrument maker John Hargiss learned the luthier skills he plies at his North Omaha shop from his late father, Verl. In the hardscrabble DIY culture coming from their roots in the southern Missouri hills and river bottoms, people made things by hand.

“I think the lower on the food chain you are, the more creative you become. I think you have to,” Hargiss says.

He observed his late father fashion tables and ax handles with ancestral tools and convert station wagons into El Caminos with nothing more than a lawnmower blade and a glue pot. Father and son once forged a guitar from a tree they felled, cut, and shaped together.

These days, the son’s hands are sure and nimble enough to earn him a tidy living at his own business, Hargiss Stringed Instruments. His shop is filled with precision tools—jigs, clamps—many of vintage variety.

JohnHargiss2Some specialized tools are similar to what dentists use. “I do almost the same thing—polish, grind, fill, recreate, redesign, restructure.”

Assorted wood, metal, and found objects are destined for repurposing.

“I have an incredible way of looking at something and going, ‘I can use that.’ Everything you see will be sold or used one way or the other.”

In addition to instrument-making, he’s a silversmith, leather-worker, and welder. A travel guitar he designed, the Minstrel, has sold to renowned artists, yet he still views himself an apprentice indebted to his father.

“He was a craftsman. Everything I know how to create probably came from him. Everything I watched him do, I thought, ‘My hands were designed to do exactly what he’s doing.’ On his tombstone I had put, ‘A man who lived life through his hands.'”

Hargiss also absorbed rich musical influences.

“(I was) constantly around what we don’t see in the Midwest—banjo players, violin players, ukulele players, dulcimer players. There are a lot of musicians in that part of the world down there. Bluegrass. Rockabilly. Folkabilly. That would be our entertainment in the evenings—music, family, friends. Neighbors would show up with instruments and start playing. Growing up, that was our recreation.”

He feels a deep kinship to that music, and his father had a hand in his musical development.

“My daddy was a good musician, and he taught me to play music when I was about 9. By 11, I was already playing in little country and bluegrass bands. I can play a mandolin, a guitar, a banjo, a ukulele, but I’m pretty much a guitar player. And I sing and write music.”

Hargiss once made his livelihood performing. “I like playing music so much. It’s dangerous business because it will completely overpower you. I knew I needed to make a living, raise my children, and have a life, so playing music became my hobby. I worked corporate jobs, but I kept being pulled back. It didn’t matter how hard I tried. I’d no more get the tie and suit off than I’d be out in the garage making something else.”

JohnHargiss1It turned into his business.

Hargiss directly traces what he does to his father.

“I watched him repair a guitar he bought me at a yard sale. The strings were probably three inches off the finger board. I remember my daddy taking a cup of hot coffee and pouring it in the joint of that neck and him wobbling that neck off, and the next I knew he’d restrung that guitar. I think that’s when I knew that’s what I’m going to do.”

The memory of them making a guitar is still clear.

“The first guitar I built, me and my daddy cut a walnut tree, chopped it up, and we carved us a dreadnought—a traditional Martin-style guitar. I gave that to him and he played that up to the day he died.”

Aesthetics hold great appeal for Hargiss.

“I’m fascinated by architectural design in what I create and in what I make. I study it.”

He called on every ounce of his heritage to lovingly restore a vaudeville-house-turned-movie theater. It came attached to the North Omaha buildings off Hamilton and 40th streets that he purchased five years ago. The theater lay dormant and unseen for 65 years, like a time capsule, obscured by walls and ceilings added by property owners, before he and his girlfriend, Mary Thorsteinson, rediscovered it largely intact. The pair, who share an apartment behind the auditorium, restored the
building themselves.

Preservation is nothing new to Hargiss, who reclaimed historic buildings in Benson, where his business was previously located. He was delighted to find the theater at the North O site, but knew it meant major work.

“I’ve always had this passion for old things. When we found the theater, I remember saying, ‘This is going to be a big one.’”

Motivating the by-hand, labor-of-love project was the space’s “potential to be anything you want it to be.” He’s reopened the 40th Street Theatre as a live performance spot.

Hargiss is perpetually busy between instrument repairs and builds—he has a new commission to make a harp guitar—and keeping up his properties. Someone’s always coming in wanting to know how to do something, and he’s eager to pay forward what was passed on to him.

The thought of working for someone else is unthinkable.

“I get one hundred percent control of my creativity. I’m not stuck. I’m not governed by, ‘Well, you can’t do it this way.’ Of course I can because the sound this is going to produce is mine. When you get to control it, then you’re the CEO, the boss, the luthier, the repairman, the refinisher, the construction, the engineer, the architect. You’re all of these things at one time.”

Besides, he can’t help making things. “There’s a drive down in me someplace. Whatever I’m working on, I first of all have to see myself doing it. Then I go through this whole crazy second-guessing. And then the next thing I know it’s been created. Days later I’ll see it and go, ‘When did I do that?’ because it takes over me, and it completely consumes every thought I have. I just let everything else go.” Encounter

Visit hargissstrings.com for more information.

Homer’s Manager Mike Fratt

August 2, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit homersmusic.com for more information.