Dec 18, 2015 01:12PM
By Leo Adam Biga
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.