Lisa's Radial CafeOct 31, 2019 05:39PM ● By Tamsen Butler
Lisa’s Radial Cafe in mid-north Omaha has been a breakfast staple for the myriad residents who inhabit the surrounding neighborhoods for nearly two decades.
Located on North 40th Street, just off Cuming Street, the beloved restaurant has been like a second home to many Omahans—from politicians and construction workers to local celebrities and college students. A big reason for that feeling of comfort was owner Lisa Schembri, who had a habit of “adopting” regular patrons and strangers alike.
Having previously worked at the Radial Cafe as a waitress, Schembri jumped at the chance to purchase the cafe when it went up for sale in 2000, adding her name to let the neighborhood know there had been a change.
For over 15 years, Schembri was known for making everyone feel like family.
“She had a way of finding people that needed somebody and giving them a place to be and something to do,” says Meghan McLarney, Schembri's daughter. “She typically had a new friend at any given time who would be coming to the house for dinner or given an odd job at the café because she knew they needed it.”
Schembri died in 2016, but her legacy lives on through her daughters. Jennifer Maguire has taken over the day-to-day management of the restaurant, and, until recently, you could find daughter Marie Schembri and McLarney juggling plates out on the floor. (Marie recently moved to California, and McLarney still helps out when her busy schedule allows.)
It’s only fitting that their Thanksgiving dinners typically included at least a few café regulars.
The tradition started with “Old Bill,” Maguire says. “Old Bill was a regular at the café—we called him ‘Old Bill’ because he was so old, he didn’t even know how old he was. He lived next door to the café so he was always there, and one time he told my mom he didn’t have anywhere to go for Thanksgiving. So mom picked him up and brought him to Thanksgiving.”
As the years passed, the celebration grew. The tradition became annual, with Schembri and her family hosting Thanksgiving either at their home or inside the restaurant.
“After the first year, we invited people to bring side dishes, but mom’s turkey was always amazing,” Maguire says. She adds that her mom made a cranberry sauce that was even better the next day.
It wasn’t all about the food. “Mom always wanted everyone to feel special and included,” she says. “She wanted people to feel like family when they come in here.”
McLarney adds, “My mom would often say that everyone deserves a second chance and that people who are misfits are usually the most interesting people. She really didn’t care why people were alone or didn’t have a place to be—she was more interested in sharing some laughs with them and living in that moment.”
A motley crew at the table filled Schembri’s heart, especially when college students joined the group. “Mom always had a soft spot for college students, especially the Creighton students who would come and study and hang out at the café,” McLarney says. “She would ask them about their plans for Thanksgiving and oftentimes they would answer that they couldn’t go home because it was too short of a break, or too expensive to travel back home and they had to wait until Christmas or summer. She just couldn’t take that and so she always wanted to invite them to our family Thanksgiving.”
According to McLarney, there were some regulars who had outlived their families and friends who came into the café for two meals a day. Naturally, they would be invited as well.
“She always stressed to us that it was important that people did not feel like we were there to wait on them and that they actually felt like part of the family,” McLarney says. “She liked to keep holidays really casual and she’d say, ‘We cook, clean, and wait tables all day long every day—on holidays we should not have to!’” However, McLarney adds that she was always torn between keeping it casual and wanting to break out her fanciest dishes.
No two Thanksgivings were alike in Schembri’s circle. Some years there were so many people in attendance that they had to host at the restaurant, while other years it was at the dining table at home with a few regulars from the café.
Schembri’s daughters say she considered Thanksgiving to be the beginning of the Christmas season and loved decorating for the holidays. “She loved having everybody over so that she could get out her Christmas decorations, and she would put our whole family and anyone in her path to work decorating the café on Thanksgiving,” McLarney says.
The final Thanksgiving dinner with Schembri was an intimate affair, as she was “too sick and it was too hard” to host a typical event, Maguire says. And while café regulars understand Schembri’s family needing a break from hosting the holiday dinner, they still ask about it.
“One customer named Milt brings Thanksgiving up a lot, and talks about how mom invited him,” Maguire says. “People feel like family when they come in here.”
Schembri’s daughters think the time has come to revive the celebration in honor of their mother’s memory. “We are thinking this year is finally feeling right to restart the tradition,” McLarney says. “Whenever I am at the café I feel so close to mom—it only makes sense to spend holidays there because it’s like she’s there with us.”
They’ll set out a sign-up sheet at the café a few weeks beforehand to start estimating the number of people who will attend. For some, this will be a welcome change from spending Thanksgiving alone. For others, it will be a tribute to a woman who spent so much time and energy making the “misfits” feel at home.
“The whole dinner is to honor her memory,” Maguire says. It will be more than a meal—it will be the continuation of a loving legacy.
Visit @lisasradialcafe on Facebook for more information.This article was printed in the November/December 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.