SOUTH OMAHA Local Business
How did racial or ethinic identity shape business in South Omaha, and what did those businesses mean to their communities?
Continuity and Change
Research compiled by: Susana P., Naomi S.
South Omaha has a vast history of cultures and lifestyles. With each immigrant group there was those who wanted to start a business. These businesses have helped shape South Omaha into what it is today. The different immigrant groups brought their own identities and transferred them into the businesses we see today. South Omaha has many identities: Polish, Irish and Mexican to name a few. To this day, you still see Southern and Eastern European influence in the businesses in Little Italy and Bohemia. If you open your eyes you could travel the world looking through Local Businesses without even stepping on an airplane.
It’s a warm summer day in South Omaha. Your family parks the ’47 Chevrolet on Twenty-Fourth Street, which is already packed with bustling people. Everyone is crowding around the weeks-old Chief Theater on Twenty-Fourth and K Street and you gape at the giant neon Indian head that can be seen from blocks away. Your family buys tickets to Possessed with Joan Crawford and Van Heflin, perhaps. You walk in and a wave of cold, crisp, clean air washes over your from the air conditioners. Your mother asks if you want ice cream and you nod enthusiastically. You then skip over to the state of art ice cream bar and you decide on a banana split. Your family walks into the theater and sits down; you sink into the plush seats and recline back. You look up at the colorful black light murals of Indian scenes of the Wild West. The theater darkens and everyone quiets down. That is a typical day at the Chief Theater. This quarter of a million dollar theater opened on April 5th, 1947 and was equipped with one large auditorium with black light murals, an ice cream bar, a crying room for babies, air conditioning, water fountains, state of the art sound systems, even hearing aids for the hearing impaired, and much, much, more. The first attraction to come to the theater was “The Jolson Story” and a parade was scheduled for an April Saturday, but got rained out. The giant neon Indian head out front identifies the Chief. This picture depicts its popularity until its last day on December 10th, 1972. It proceeded to be knocked down and turned into the Wells Fargo we see today. Next time you pass by, try to imagine the Chief Theater in all its glory.
Frank Kawa established Johnny’s restaurant in 1922. It started as a sandwich shop and then expanded into a steak, prime rib, and seafood restaurant. After Frank’s death his sons, Tom and Jack Kawa, took over the restaurant.
Johnny’s got its meat from the stockyards, which gave then lots of attention in newspapers. However after the stockyards closure, Johnny’s had to stop serving breakfast due to less traffic in the area.
Today, Johnny’s is owned by Frank’s grand daughters, and still serves tasty steaks in their same location.
Dolores Wright established Howard’s Mexican restaurant in 1958. Howard’s got its name from Howard Leobardo Castaneda, Dolores' father. Howard’s is one of the oldest Mexican restaurants in south Omaha.
Dolores’ family is very involved in the restaurant and their culture. They also have traditions they keep in Howard’s. They first started the business in a house located at 5407 S. 24th St. They have moved to several different buildings over the years, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the food. Howard’s has used the same recipes over their many years of business.
Howard’s also has very faithful customers that bring the whole family to eat. Dolores has even sent food to Florida, Boston, and Phoenix to faithful customers who have moved.
Today Howard’s is still an important part of the community and has expressed their culture and family through food.
If you have lived in Omaha in the twentieth century, you have probably heard of Philip's Department Store. Romanian Immigrant Philip Greenberg started it as a small fruit stand on South 10th Street. It rapidly grew and collected the nickname “The fastest growing store in Omaha.” The first store in South Omaha was opened in June 1916 on 24th Street. Business was booming and Philip's was building a good reputation in the community. Then, on one fateful Christmas Eve in 1938 Philips burned down. The community contributed until enough money was raised to open it once again in June of 1939, going from 1,200 square feet to 70,000 square feet. Philip's represented charity and stability. Philip Greenberg was known as an idol in the community. Then, in 1946, Philip retired from the store and left the business to his two sons Sam and Henry. Later on, Sam served on many community boards, won the King of Aksarben, and was known as “Mr. South Omaha.” He was generous and helped the community turn into what it is now. Sam “never knew a stranger” in South Omaha. Philip's soon grew into stores that contained a pharmacy, bakery, grocery store, appliance store, and a clothing store. Soon there were stores in Omaha, Fremont, and Council Bluffs. Half-size stores in Lincoln and Rockbrook Village in Omaha also opened in later years. Philip's work force grew from 175 in 1970 to 350 in 1978. Some of Philips mottoes included: “ Quality at the right price” and “Service to our customers from the smallest detail to the greatest.” Sam Greenberg died on November 25th 1988, after suffering several injuries in a car accident. Around that time, Philips went downhill. The Council Bluffs store closed on January 31st 1987. Around the same time, the other Philips stores started closing as well. Philips will always be remembered as a big part of South Omaha’s development.
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