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UNO Grad Studies
By Lori Rice
Photos by Eric Francis
Among its graduate body, UNO is known for populating the ranks of many professions. Every other Omaha police officer, it seems, is a UNO grad, and there are more Maverick teachers in the classroom than hail from any other institute of higher learning. UNO is known for its accountants, IT pros, business execs, media pros and more.
But chefs? Bakers? Restaurateurs? UNO is no culinary institute, after all. Yet finding 15 graduate “foodies” proved easy as … pie. No matter what they might have majored in, many UNO graduates can’t resist the call of food, turning, often in mid-life, to a culinary career. And they’re not just in the kitchen. Here are 14 stories of Foodies with UNO degrees.
Keep on Truckin'
Name: David Burr, Patrick Favara
Degree: Burr, 2011 — BSBA, Business Administration; Favara, 2010 — BA, Journalism
Occupation: Co-owners, Localmotive and Lorri's Lunchbox
It’s not every chef who has to worry about his restaurant’s brakes failing or generator going kaput. Or when it’s time for his diner to get an oil change. But these are things to consider when you’re a foodie on wheels. Recent UNO graduates David Burr and Patrick Favara have been offering such since March with Localmotive, a mobile food truck serving upscale fare, most to Omaha’s downtown nightlife denizens. The two left secure jobs in their rearview mirrors — Burr as a line cook for midtown Omaha’s Dario's Brasserie, Favara as a marketer with Husker Media Corp. — and nothing but long hours ahead. The duo combines for 180 hours a week. Until recently, Burr was logging up to 130 hours a week himself and he hasn’t had a day off since December. “It's a lot of hard work,” Favara says. “It's not for everyone.” Adds Burr: “I used to hear entrepreneurs say all the time, ‘You just have to do it, just go for it.’ I didn't really get that until this.” One thing Burr did get, though, was food. He’d held jobs in the food industry since he was 16. But not until he became a meat cutter for Wohlner's grocery in 2005 did Burr discover food was more than just a paycheck. It was a passion. “I love the creative aspect, I love working with my hands, I love the actual rush of being a line cook,” Burr says. “You just kind of get in a zone and get focused.” His market-savvy buddy, Favara, saw an opportunity to put Burr's culinary skills to use as a way to fill the late-night food void in Omaha. They’re joined by a third partner, David Scott. Treating their mobile kitchen as more of a restaurant than an events truck — Localmotive is best known for its signature item, the Rounder, a sourdough stuffed dumpling — the trio’s idea was to cater to the late night crowds and industry people of downtown Omaha. Seven nights a week from 10 p.m. until 2:30 or 3 a.m. the truck can be found at 12th and Jackson Streets. A majority of their clientele consists of cooks, bartenders and servers whose shifts are just ending as Localmotive gets started. In addition to its overnight operations, the truck spends several days a week at 14th and Jackson for lunch and works private events and some corporate outings. They’ll serve at least 1,000 people each week, 200 on a Friday or Saturday night. The trio also has purchased Lorri's Lunchbox, which provides cold caterings, box lunches and vending machine foods. They've brought growth to the company every month since, recently securing a 90-day trial run with a large account. “It's an entirely different beast,” says Favara, noting it's on the other end of the food industry spectrum. “Sometimes it's a little tough to step back and see how far we've come,” Burr says. “But it's very rewarding to see people so responsive to what we are doing.” It’s a business … on the move.
Like a Good Neighbor
Name: Alicia Andry
Degree: 2012 – MS, Urban Studies
Occupation: Coordinator, UNO Graduate Studies
Alicia Andry would make Mr. Rogers proud. The man who was all about good neighbors certainly would have embraced Andry’s efforts these days — building community gardens in the middle of “food deserts.” The term refers to urban areas, typically amid pockets of poverty, where fresh and healthy food is lacking. Andry says that includes Omaha, where many families are without transportation and the nearest grocery store is 20 to 30 minutes away by bus. “They can walk to a convenient store a couple blocks away and get all the Twinkies and Ho Hos and chips they want,” Andry says, “but it's more difficult to get to a grocery store and get healthy food.” Andry, a coordinator in the UNO Graduate Studies office, graduated in May with a master’s degree in urban studies. Her capstone project was “Identifying Sustainable Urban Food Production Strategies for the Omaha Metro Area,” an examination of the environmental and health concerns in the industrial food system. Her research explored potential solutions, such as farmers markets, community gardens and vertical farming. “A lot of what I found is that not only do you need to provide fresh foods,” Andry says, “but you also need to teach people how to prepare them and make them understand why it's important to try and eat more healthy.” Once aiming to work for a city planning department, Andry now contemplates starting her own nonprofit. “A group or organization that would grow food and distribute it to the food deserts in Omaha.” Just like a good neighbor.
The Family that Bakes Together …
Names: Lou Rotella Jr.; Jim Rotella; Dean Jacobsen
Degrees: Lou, 1972 — BS, Business Management; Jim, 1975 — BS, Education; Jacobsen, 1974 — BS, Business
Occupations: Management, Rotella's Bakery
If your last name is Rotella, chances are folks in Omaha will ask you about bread. And no wonder — Rotella’s Bakery has become one of the city’s best known brands since Alessandro Rotella founded the company in 1921. Today, a third generation of Rotellas — including a trio of UNO graduates — is keeping the company … “rolling.” President Lou Rotella Jr., a 1972 grad, recalls helping his namesake father as early as age 7, climbing onto a wooden milk carton so he could reach over the counter and help shape the handmade rolls and twists. Lou’s cousin and 1975 UNO grad Jim Rotella, sales director, remembers first jobs when he would “clean floors, make bread crumbs … and lift flour sacks.” Funny thing, though — despite the family heritage, neither Jim nor Lou thought they would end up in the family biz. Lou expected to pursue a career in real estate or management after graduating with his degree; Jim planned to coach after earning his bachelor's degree in education. But both were drawn back into the Rotella family tradition, where they continue the company's longstanding commitment to quality and service. Other family members remain on staff, including Lou's brother-in-law and 1974 UNO alum Dean Jacobsen, company controller. "We all work together," Lou says. "What I really like about this place is seeing it grow from where it was to where it is today and the potential that is still there.”
Waiting in Line
Name: Justin Leu
Degree: 2011 – BS, Speech Communication
Occupation: Waiter, Five Guys Burger 'n' Fries
The wait continues for Justin Leu — and so he waits. Leu graduated from UNO in December 2011 with a BS in speech communication. By now he figured he’d have a job related to his major and utilizing his customer service and problem-solving skills. But, like many recent college graduates, Leu has yet to land a job in his career field and so has turned to temporary employment in the food service industry. Initially that meant working weekday mornings at Orange Leaf. More recently he’s been doing a bit of everything at Five Guys Burger 'n' Fries. “In the morning we prep all the meat and make sure everything is up to quality standard,” Leu says. “We keep everything running, making sure everything is done on time.” He enjoys the laid back environment and interacting with coworkers. But he's hopeful he'll soon find a 9-to-5 in his field with salary and benefits. “It's pretty stressful at times,” Leu says. Looking back, Leu regrets not building up more career-related experience while in college and getting involved in extracurricular activities. It's advice he offers to current students. “If you do all that it's a lot easier to get noticed and get that first interview,” Leu says. “The biggest challenge right now for anyone coming out of college is finding an employer who is willing to take a chance on someone who doesn't have experience. They don't want to spend the time and money to train someone into a position; they want someone who is ready to go and take on the position.” And so he waits.
A Real Sweetie
Name: Tina Tweedy
Degree: 1998 — BS, Elementary Education
Occupation: Pastry chef, M's Pub & Vivace
Tina Tweedy recalls summers as a youth not poolside but in front of the TV, watching cooking shows then pretending to teach her own imaginary audience how to cook what she just learned. Today, it’s all for real. A self-taught pastry chef, master chocolatier, culinary instructor and fine-dining connoisseur, Tweedy is a full-time pastry chef for popular Omaha restaurants M's Pub and Vivace. She draws inspiration, she says, not just from the TV chefs she once emulated, but also from her mother, whom she’d cook with as a child. “When she made things for people they were very happy, and I enjoyed spending the time with her,” says Tweedy, who has four children. After working numerous years for several upscale restaurants throughout Omaha, Tweedy for 10 years designed custom wedding cakes from home. At the same time she put her UNO education degree to use while teaching in the culinary department at Metro Community College. “I loved it,” Tweedy says of teaching. Later, she and her husband, Bryan, opened Sweets of Eden Patisserie and Cafe in downtown Omaha. For two years she whipped up European pastries and desserts before turning her efforts toward selling artisan chocolates wholesale. Now she works full time at M's Pub and Vivace, blending her creative and artistic skills into delectable desserts. Sometimes, Tweedy says, she can't believe she is getting paid to do something she loves so much. “It's really just a culmination of everything that I am.”
Name: Charlie Thompson
Degree: 1989 — BS, Marketing Management
Occupation: Owner, Sgt. Peffer's Italian Cafe (Millard)
Growing up with six siblings, Charlie Thompson gained more experience than most cooking for his family. When he was a teenager that meant grilling out and cooking pizza. He’s still at it today — pizza is his profession. “I actually kind of figured I'd go work at an insurance company or Union Pacific or something,” Thompson says of his original career plans. “I really didn't think I'd be in the restaurant business this long.” Thompson began working part time at the age of 15 for Tim Peffer, first at Pefferoni's Pizza and later Sgt. Peffer's Cafe Italian. He continued working there through his days attending UNO. His family lived walking distance from the university, and such proximity resulted in five of the Thompsons — Mike, Suzanne (Leonovicz), Paula (Lukowski), Steve and Charlie — earning UNO degrees. Eventually, Charlie Thompson went from Peffer’s employee to owner — in 2006 he expanded its franchise footprint by opening his own Sgt. Peffer's, in Millard. This fall, Thompson and both restaurant locations were featured on the Destination Guide’s “Best of Omaha” TV show. The online travel site had declared Sgt. Peffer’s five-cheese white sauce pizza Omaha’s best. Thompson has a hand in that — literally. He often can be found opening the store at dawn and preparing the bread, sauces and soups needed to meet the daily rush. “We have a lot of regular customers that come in all the time and you get to know them, and you just really appreciate the fact that they enjoy the restaurant,” Thompson says. And the pizza.
Name: Martha Nepper
Degree: 1997 – MS, Health Education
Occupation: Registered Dietitian, Hy-Vee
A mother to three teens and one tween, Martha Nepper is no stranger to the sound of children opening and closing cupboard doors repeatedly as they scour for snacks. Nepper's children, though, don’t always find the typical fare. Her fridge is more likely to yield an array of unusual items, such as Oca (a potato-like tuber) or lemon drop melons. What else would you expect from a registered dietitian? The UNO graduate has worked as such for two decades in the Omaha area. She joined the Hy-Vee team on 51st and Center Streets six years ago and today focuses her efforts on fighting diabetes, reducing the obesity rate and educating consumers on ways to make healthier food choices. “In the long run, eating healthier will … reduce our rate of diseases,” she says. Yes, it can be challenging to avoid the convenience of fast food. “We are all so busy so we tend to not eat at home as much as we used to,” Nepper says. Meal planning — and shopping — is critical to avoiding the unhealthy. Nepper provides helpful advice at her blog, www.fruityadvice.com, offering tips on nutrition and pointing out new products in the store. She also plans to research consumer shopping habits in grocery stores as a recently accepted doctoral student for Community Nutrition & Health Promotion at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “Stores will always have pop, candy, chips and donuts,” Nepper says. “But the challenge is how do we change people's behavior when shopping in the store?”
Pizza with Pudgy
Name: Phil “Pudgy” Cerra
Degree: 1976 — BA, General Studies
Occupation: Owner, Pudgy's Pizzeria
For Phil Cerra, owning and operating Pudgy's Pizzeria is more than just a business, it's a family. “Our customers know without a doubt — no ifs, ands, or buts — that this is their store,” Cerra says with an accent reflective of his Chicago roots. “We make sure that when they are here they feel special.” His frank, tell-it-like-it-is approach and sociable demeanor bring a unique style and personality to this neighborhood pizzeria. Cerra broke into the food service industry at 15, pushing a cart with his cousins onto Chicago street corners and selling “Hots” — Red Hot Chicago hot dogs. In 1977, a year after earning his degree from UNO, Cerra brought the unique variety of hot dog to downtown Omaha, where Pudgy's Hot Dogs gained a steady following for 10 years. As downtown development occurred and slowed the traffic flow to his business, Pudgy's closed. Years later, Cerra, his daughter and other family members spent months perfecting what is now his version of the deep dish Chicago-style pizza. In 2003, Cerra opened Pudgy's Pizzeria, keeping the namesake that had brought him success years earlier. The name resonated with many past customers who are now “older and bring in their grown children and grandchildren,” Cerra says. Pudgy's has been a hit, even gaining national attention on websites such as the Travel Channel's Man vs. Food Nation and Food Network's Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. “Like I tell people all the time,” Cerra says, “a man should not be allowed to have this much fun working.”
Name: Linda May
Degree: 1997 — BGS, General Administration
Occupation: Owner, New Horizon Resort & Lodge, Waubun, Minn.
Linda May entered college in the late 1960s as an art major with plans to pursue a career as an interior designer. Instead, she found herself called to the culinary world when she took a job cooking soups for M's Pub in 1973. “I found that I could use my love of art because food is both an art and a science,” May says. “It seemed to fit very well.” She’s been a foodie ever since, including a 15-year stint with Omaha’s Swanson Corp. as vice president of the food service division. She also became a certified executive chef and eventually finished her degree, earning a BGS from UNO in 1997 with an emphasis on business and food and nutrition. In 2003, May and her husband, Roger, “decided we both needed a change and wanted to own our own business.” They purchased New Horizon Resort and Lodge in Waubun, Minn., a family fishing resort located along White Earth Lake (see http://newhorizonresort.com). Some guests, she says, have been returning to the resort for 50 years. “I enjoy meeting all the people,” May says, and “just waking up every morning and looking out on this beautiful lake and hearing the loon's call … it's just gorgeous.” So is the log lodge, which once featured a bar-and-grill atmosphere but which May has transformed into an upscale, casual dining restaurant with continental flair. In 2011 she also published a cookbook, “I Want That Recipe,” compiling 345 recipes from her life's collection. A life as a foodie.
Name: Mark Steele
Degree: 1990 — BS, International Studies
Occupation: Founder and CEO, Planet Water
Mark Steele has seen it everywhere he goes: suffering, illness and even death in rural villages throughout Asia due to lack of what the industrialized world often takes for granted — access to clean water. In Tibet he saw children with sores all over their body from drinking water that contained little red worms. In Laos he witnessed young girls make a two-hour round trip each day to bring water back to their community. They are experiences that have had a profound impact on Steele's life work. His international career began while he was a student at UNO studying abroad on scholarship in Japan. He went on to spend 18 years in Asia building commercial enterprises as president of ITT Corp. China then Asia-Pacific CEO of TomTom. While with ITT he was named to lead the emergency relief efforts after a 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka. Steele found himself deploying water purification systems to devastated communities. It was life-changing. “I knew I wanted to come back to that,” Steele says. He did. Steele since has left his corporate career, returned to Omaha and there founded and headquartered Planet Water, a nonprofit organization backed by some of the world's biggest brands. It has installed nearly 150 water-purifying Aqua Towers in rural villages throughout nine Asian countries. The results, Steele says, are transformational. “It's the most rewarding thing I've ever done in my life.”
An Education in Popcorn
Name: Vic Larson
Degree: 1969 — MS, Secondary Education
Occupation: Founder and owner, Vic's Corn Popper
Vic Larson’s daughter was on a privately chartered Caribbean cruise in the mid-1990s when she saw it on one of the island villages — a Vic’s Popcorn display. Not bad for what Larson says began as “a little hole-in-the-wall” business. Larson and his wife, Ruth, began Vic’s Popcorn in 1980 at Omaha's 50th & Leavenworth Streets. There were no grandiose plans, no long-term business goals. “My wife just wanted a part-time job and I always wanted to start a business, and I like popcorn,” Larson says. “So that's what we did.” Larson’s vocation actually is in the classroom — he spent more than 30 years as a teacher and administrator for Omaha Public Schools. His parents and grandmother, all teachers, also taught for OPS. Larson earned a master’s degree from UNO in 1969 and later a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “Education, in my opinion, is a great profession where the people involved in it care about other people,” Larson says. Drawing upon his experiences from teaching, Larson says, he utilized many of the same philosophies in running his business. “Being straightforward and honest, that to me is the basis of being successful in anything you do,” he says. Successful he was. The Larson in 1984 sold the corporation, but today still own four Omaha stores, where Vic continues to put in about 20 hours a week. “It's been a wonderful experience so far,” Larson says. “And I'm not ready to give it up.” Vic's Popcorn, meanwhile, can be found in all 50 states — and on the occasional island.
The Zen Baker
Name: Fred Spompinato
Degree: 1977 — BA, Religion
Occupation: Owner/baker, Fervere Bakery, Kansas City, Mo.
“I'm one of those people that thinks everything led to this moment,” Fred Spompinato says. “This moment” is Fervere Bakery, a Kansas City, Mo., bakery focused on more than just getting something good to eat. Open only Thursday through Saturday, the small, one-room bakery centers on a hand-built brick hearth oven and the loaves of artisan bread browning within. Growing up, Spompinato's father instilled in him an early love for breads by insisting on Italian rolls from local bakeries every night at dinner. His commitment and dedication to his craft culminates from a lifetime of experiences thereafter. That includes his time as a UNO religion major — which led to a weeklong stay at a Zen monastery. There Spompinato witnessed the monks’ traditional style of breadmaking, forever changing the course of his life work. With no formal training up to that point, Spompinato began baking at home trying to recreate what he had experienced in the Zen kitchen. “I just feel like everything about Zen is incorporated in baking,” Spompinato says. “The activity itself is almost a Zen meditation.” After a six-month course at the American Baking Institute in Manhattan, Kan., and several years of baking professionally on a mass-production scale, Spompinato opened Fervere (pronounced fur-vair-ay) in an effort to return to the simplicity and spirituality breadmaking afforded him. He produces just around 500 loaves of bread each week — and they go fast. “We have a phenomenal kind of following,” Spompinato says. “From the very young to the very old.” And the very hungry.
Name: Tu Nguyen
Degree: 2001 — BS, Computer Science
Occupation: Owner, Saigon Surface
In 2003, Tu Nguyen had big dreams of working at Microsoft. Reality, though, was all about work and study. While taking classes in UNO’s College of Information Science and Technology, Nguyen also worked at his family’s Vietnamese eatery, Saigon Restaurant, in western Omaha. Eventually, dreams and reality fused. The restaurant was a melting pot of English-speaking wait staff and Vietnamese-speaking chefs and owners. Communication wasn’t always the smoothest between the two — and sometimes costly. “For a restaurant, if you have even one error a day you have lost $7 to $10 on that error,” Nguyen says. Then a UNO junior, Nguyen broke the language barrier using technology. He developed an app — Intelligence Product Order Delivery — that converts an order from one language into another using a hand-held . "The waiter or wait staff would take orders, go into the application and convert it to Vietnamese,” Nguyen says. “It allowed efficiency and cut down on errors.” Development of the app set Nguyen apart from his peers. He entered — and won — the first-ever Imagine Cup, an international competition sponsored by Microsoft that challenges creative and tech-savvy students to design technological innovations. That got him a 13-week internship with Microsoft in Seattle and $25,000. Nine years later, Nguyen is still putting technological innovation to use in the restaurant biz — now as an owner. From 2003 to this April Nguyen was chief technology officer at DOCenter, a document and digital asset manage company in Omaha. Today, though, he’s the owner of his family’s newest restaurant, Saigon Surface, in the Old Market. There each table is equipped with an Apple iPad. The devices offer an interactive menu, and patrons also can use it to select their favorite music to be played throughout the room. Saigon Surface uses the technology to monitor customer likes/dislikes, and their menu reflects accordingly.
— Sarah K. Casey, University Relations
Name: Susan Ogborn
Degree: 1977 – MS, Counseling
Occupation: President and CEO, Food Bank for the Heartland
As a young child, Susan Ogborn watched her father donate free medical care to those in need and decided early on she, too, wanted to serve others. “All my folks ever cared about was, whatever you do, make sure it makes the world a better place,” Ogborn says. For the last three years she's tried to meet that ideal as president and CEO of Food Bank for the Heartland. As such she strives to bring attention to an issue many people don't realize exists in what is the breadbasket of the nation. “What we know is that people who are hungry don't wear t-shirts that say 'I'm hungry'" Ogborn says. "It tends to be a hidden problem.” Ogborn directs a paid staff of 35 and some 5,500 volunteers in any given year. Food Bank for the Heartland is based in Omaha but extends its efforts in 93 counties throughout Nebraska and Western Iowa. Founded in 1981, it's headquartered in a 76,320-square-foot warehouse from which it delivers 9 million pounds of food each year to more than 325 food pantries, emergency shelters, after-school programs, senior housing sites and rehabilitation centers. Ogborn enjoys watching her hard work come full circle. “The biggest reward has been seeing people I have worked with … go on to become community leaders, too.”