Long Live the Reuben
Jul 16, 2017 05:15PM
By Kim Reiner
Like a typical Midwestern child, Christian Mackevicius grew up outdoors. He was a daredevil with the skateboard, a leader in sports like football, and a patient angler and golfer.
However, his childhood was different in one aspect. Some of his earliest memories come from his time helping in a bakery.
Christian, 21, is one of many in the Mackevicius family who has worked in the Lithuanian Bakery in South Omaha or the deli located in central Omaha, the Lithuanian Bakery & Kafe.
His grandparents, Stefanija and Vytautas, started the original Lithuanian Bakery in 1962.
After they immigrated and settled in South Omaha, neighbors and friends began asking to buy loaves of bread from Stefanija. She was soon selling 20 loaves a week. Lauri Mackevicius, Christian’s mother, says: “Someone turned her into the health department. ‘That’s against the law,’ they said. You needed to have a permit. That’s when the bakery actually started.”
The family refers to the original South Omaha location as the “factory,” where bread and pastries are made. The cafe is the place to go for sandwiches and lunch (at 74th and Pacific streets).
“My earliest memories were just coming to work sometimes,” Christian says. He would tag along with his mother, Lauri, to her first downtown bakery; however, that location didn’t last long, only a few years. “I remember going there as soon as she was starting it; I was only 3 or 4,” he recalls.
As he got a little taller, a little stronger, he was tasked with taking out trash or helping out whenever he was in the bakery. By about age 15, he was officially an employee at his mother’s more recent venture, Lithuanian Bakery & Kafe. Christian’s father, Alfonsas Mackevicius, took over the factory with his two brothers.
The wiry young man can be found at the cafe these days, with a friendly smile behind the counter. His slender build belies years growing up with the family’s famous Napoleon tortes being served at every special occasion. “I started eating a lot of torte when I was little. I loved it! As soon as it started being a part of every occasion,” Christian pauses and then smiles, “I don’t eat that much of it, actually.”
Christian started working in the kitchen, learning to make the perfect sandwich and how to properly prepare his mother’s egg salad recipe. It was satisfying to hear the customers’ approval. “I just liked seeing people smile when they got the food,” he says.
The most popular sandwich he serves up is the Reuben, which many consider to be a Lithuanian sandwich. The Reuben is believed to be an Omaha original, created by local Lithuanian-born grocer Reuben Kulakofsky, who introduced the sandwich to regular poker games and eventually the menu at the old Blackstone Hotel.
Christian proudly explains the key to his Reuben is the Lithuanian sourdough rye bread, made at the family’s factory. The Mackevicius family keeps the sourdough culture in wooden containers, a grandfathered practice no longer allowed in bakeries.
He still works in the kitchen, if he’s working in the mornings. There are salads and soups to prep, meat to cut up. When his dad delivers pastries from the factory at 8 a.m., Christian begins readying for the first customers.
His sweet spot at work, though, is in the front of house. He’s a natural when it comes to making the customer happy. He casually chats with regulars; many have been coming to the bakery for years.
Alfonsas Mackevicius has watched his son settle into his own pace at the cafe. He recognizes his son’s laid-back yet outgoing personality helps him connect with customers. “He’s really personable with customers,” Alfonsas says. “He pays attention to their needs.”
Christian juggles work with school. He’s a junior studying for a business degree at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. During the school week, he’ll head to the cafe once his classes are done for the day, arriving in time for the lunch rush. It’s a tough balance, but not due to his job.
“Since I’ve been working here so long, I don’t look at it like a job,” he says. “It’s like clockwork. It doesn’t put that much stress on me.”
After a long day of class and clearing tables, Christian usually can be found fishing at the lake near his parents’ house. It’s almost a daily ritual. “He grew up on water his whole life. It’s just a natural thing to do,” Alfonsas says. “I taught him the basics, and he took off learning stuff on his own.”
Christian may continue working at the family business after he graduates. But he hasn’t decided. Taking over his mom’s deli is an option for the future. He’s the third generation working at the Lithuanian Bakery, but only one of his cousins has taken that path as a career. Most others, including Christian’s brother and sister, punched some time on the clock at the bakery in their youth but have moved on.
“All of our kids have worked in the bakery at one time or another,” Alfonsas says of his and his siblings’ children. He says his daughter, who’s now a nurse, still helps out sometimes when his wife needs it.
Lauri says Omaha’s Lithuanian community was once anchored in South Omaha. Now, the original immigrants’ descendants have moved across the metro area. St. Anthony’s Church used to offer services in Lithuanian when Christian’s grandparents lived in the area. But the pastor, and much of his Lithuanian-speaking population, has passed away.
“There’s still a good sized Lithuanian community. We have a dance group, a women’s club, and a men’s club,” Lauri says. “But in terms of how it used to be, it’s a lot smaller.”
Christian is the youngest of his generational cohort and doesn’t seem concerned about a declining Lithuanian community in Omaha. His oldest cousin is now a parent. “There’s a whole other group coming up in the business,” he says.
Visit lithuanianbakery.biz for more information.This article appears in the July/August 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.