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Omaha Magazine

The Legacy Starts Here: Heirloom Fine Foods Continues to be a Major Help for Health-Conscious Hungry Hearts

Dec 28, 2020 09:47AM ● By Sara Locke
Shelley Elson-Roza and Tony Roza

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The story of Heirloom Fine Foods is more than a culinary adventure. No matter how you slice, dice, or sauté it, this is a love story. The briefest telling would go: Once upon a time, a boy and a girl fell in love. They continued to fall in love again and again, with this city and others. With cooking and feeding others. With travel and planting roots. They fell in love with challenging one another to make life a little sweeter for everyone they encountered, and they encountered as much of the community as they could by starting a business of their own.

Launched originally as MJER Help, the recently rebranded Heirloom Fine Foods may be a relative newcomer to the Omaha catering scene, but its purpose has deep roots in Shelley Elson-Roza and Tony Roza. Having met at Burke High School, the pair didn’t truly find one another until years later, when they were both living and working in Chicago. Since that serendipitous reintroduction, the two have been on a mission to create a meaningful life together, no matter what twists and turns they encounter along the way. 

More Than Meal Prep

For some, Heirloom serves as a high-vibe caterer with unique, never-fail recipes. For others, the team is a meal-prep life saver that takes the drag out of healthful, home-prepared meals. No matter who is calling on the team or why, they’re walking away with more than a full belly. 

Roza, COO of Heirloom Fine Foods, credits his wife and business partner for more than her health-conscious approach to food, saying “Shelley has this intuitive knowledge of how food affects people. She’s really someone to look up to. This whole industry is about caring, going above and beyond…She puts so much thought into every detail, even knowing that our clients probably aren’t noticing them consciously.” 

He said customers don’t always realize why their commercial space feels like being in someone’s home. “It just feels that way to them, but it’s because Shelley pays as much attention to the small things as she does to the big, obvious things.”

From vintage tables and chairs, custom restored by Modlines, to the chandelier from Pax Lighting in Kearney, everything from the lampshades to the curtains are one-of-a-kind finds, some custom-made and others vintage restoration. 

“We wanted to give our facility a soul,” owner and executive chef Elson-Roza explained. “Our name, Heirloom, it’s kind of a double entendre. We source heirloom variety foods, some of which were on the brink of extinction just a few years ago. They aren’t the uniform look, texture, and taste like you get from a hothouse. Everything brings its own flavor, as nature intended. Our space is also full of heirlooms. Our silverware and dishes were all passed down to us after we were married. We wanted our place to make you feel like you were part of our family, whether you’re a guest or a vendor. We want everyone to feel like they’re walking into a big familial hug.”

The spatial hug she’s referring to is Heirloom’s commercial kitchen and tasting room, which opened in early August. The facility at 325 N. 72nd St., Suite 200 is where the team prepares to-go boxed meals, creates their catering menu, and hosts events from cooking classes to holiday parties. When the weather allows, a garden seating area offers beautiful outdoor dining and a glimpse at Elson-Roza’s homegrown edible flowers and heirloom vegetation. 

“Our menu changes based on the yield and what our farmers and artisans can provide for us seasonally,” Elson-Roza said. “We really loved our fall menu. A lot of squash and sage. We were inspired by Peruvian food because that’s where we went for our honeymoon. French food always makes us think ‘cozy’, and Moroccan and Middle Eastern flavors are always really close to our heart.”

While Roza does his fair share in the kitchen, he isn’t hesitant to admit that his favorite Heirloom offering isn’t his creation. 

“Shelley makes this potato latke. It looks just like you’d expect, and I get so excited when someone orders it for the first time. I love watching their face,” he said. “She has this way of taking foods you love that are really comforting, and then doing something really unexpected with them that doesn’t take away the familiar feeling you wanted from it. No matter what your favorite food is, Shelley has a way of making it special and unforgettable.”

While the pair have dedicated themselves to making delicious foods good for the heart, they have succeeded in making their offerings even better for the soul.

“Our business is catering, but our mission has always been about finding new ways to feed people healthy, from-scratch foods,” Elson-Roza said. “Problem-solving is kind of our thing, trying to find ways to make local sourcing whole and organic foods more accessible. Finding ways to make food security a reality for every community.”

The Year of the Pivot

While there was no way to anticipate what 2020 had in store, the couple found new ways to work with it every day. Heirloom was on the brink of several big offerings before COVID-19 adjusted their plans for them.

“We had just signed on as vendors with Joslyn Castle literally the day before quarantine was called,” Elson-Roza said. “Everything was happening for us, and then just as suddenly, it all stopped. We were hosting 500-person parties, and then we couldn’t.” But they continued serving in any way they could. 

“In March, we launched a meal delivery service, which we continued until June,” she said. “We did box events, or we would drop food off for small gatherings with instructions to finish preparing it. We were surprised how many ways there were to keep moving forward, and so proud of our team for being able to roll with whatever new health directives were given.”

Elson-Roza never stopped looking for ways to improve their offerings.

“Every day that we wake up with a purpose and the ability to work, to live our passion and bring joy through our food and our service is a day we are lucky to have,” she said. “We found that when we kept ourselves humble and positive, the opportunities to affect positive change kept making themselves available to us.” In July, Heirloom was given the opportunity to provide lunches for Brownell Talbot. “We’ve been bringing the kids lunch ever since, which helps keep us focused on all of the good we are still able to provide.

“We’ve leaned really hard on our values during this tough time, to remind us why we do this,” she added. “It gives us so much strength to keep seeking the positive and the opportunities to create it.” 

Visit heirloomff.com to learn more about Heirloom Fine Foods.

This article was printed in the January/February 2021 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.