When Jennifer Coco and business partner Tom Simmons started thinking about opening a new restaurant somewhere in town, they considered a historic building in Dundee.
After all, the local celebrity chef’s namesake, J. Coco (at 5203 Leavenworth St.), has flourished in the charming ambiance of a location rich with local history—for 74 years, the space housed Omaha’s oldest grocery store, Wohlner’s.
“Everybody’s got stories about this building,” Coco says, adding that many customers will reminisce about how they used to get candy on grocery store visits with parents or grandparents in the structure that J. Coco currently occupies alongside Legends Comics.
The concept of the new restaurant was to be quite different from J. Coco, with a more casual, grab-and-go feel. “The loose concept was a late-night lounge with food during bar hours,” Coco explains.
But buildings appearing on the National Register of Historic Places require special consideration as far as what changes can be made to the structure, and the limitations can be daunting to would-be business owners at these locations.
Coco says that she and Simmons were aware of what they were getting themselves into with a historic building. They did their due diligence with research and went through all the proper channels.
“The plans were drawn and submitted, and the state had approved them,” she says. “It was federal where it got hung up.”
Before receiving final approval for renovations, she heard back from the state that city codes had changed again. So, if she wanted to move forward, she was essentially back at stage one.
“The whole process is not made easy. If it were easier, we’d see a lot more businesses around [in historic buildings],” she says.
Though frustrated, Coco and Simmons surely did not want to upset the Dundee neighborhood in which the building is located. “We just hit a wall, so we said let somebody else have their dream here,” she says of the location at 4949 Underwood Ave.
At another historic location downtown, Flatiron Cafe manager Joe Jamrozy agrees that historic buildings have their challenges. But he insists that the charm of a heritage-rich space outweighs the drawbacks.
“This building has an extremely fun history,” Jamrozy says. “Tom Dennison opened the Flatiron Hotel and used it as a safe house for mobsters from Chicago and Kansas City who got in trouble. He was never mayor of Omaha, but he had his hands in everything.”
Jamrozy admits that they have to deal with “old building problems” such as plumbing and the upkeep, but without hesitation he says that he would never trade the wedge-shaped edifice for a newer, state-of-the-art facility.
Among the issues facing historic buildings are the shadows of the past that never quite seem to disperse. “Anybody who has been here long enough will say we have ghosts. There is an energy here late at night in the basement; it doesn’t always seem like you’re alone,” he says.
With the building’s colorful mob history, Jamrozy says he sometimes wonders what the basement walls have seen over the years. His voice trails off: “If these walls could talk…”
Sarah Wallace, general manager of 801 Chophouse, says that she sees ample benefits to their historical location in The Paxton downtown. “The building itself draws people in,” she says. “It’s a cool place for Omaha to have. Older people come in and remember attending dances in the ballroom when they were younger.”
Because of The Paxton’s historical significance, a board oversees the building and approves or denies any requests for changes to it. Wallace sees this more as a benefit than a hurdle. “If there were not a board in place, the building might lose character quickly because nobody’s looking out for the building.”
She remembers the long process of trying to get additional signage on the exterior of The Paxton for 801 Chophouse—the board was deeply involved and offered ample guidance. “The board must approve everything,” she says, adding that she is grateful for the care they take in making decisions.
A fan of old buildings and art deco architecture, Wallace feels right at home at The Paxton. “We’re lucky to be in a building that people seek out for the nostalgia factor,” she says. “When storms roll through, we all joke that we’re safe in such a strong building.”
801 Chophouse staff and guests claim their ghost is a tall gentleman in a suit, rumored to be a man murdered in the lobby of the hotel by his mistress. Wallace says the ghost has never been mischievous or caused any problems as far as she knows, so she doesn’t pay the matter much mind.
Like Jamrozy of the Flatiron Cafe, she says that she wouldn’t trade 801 Chophouse’s location for a newer building. “The building itself is a benefit to us,” she says.
This article was printed in the November/December edition of Omaha Magazine.