Le Peep: Redefining Omaha's Mom & Pop CafesFeb 26, 2021 11:51AM ● By Tamsen Butler
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
A couple things need to be cleared up about Omaha’s breakfast/lunch/brunch restaurant Le Peep. First is the spelling. “It’s Le Peep, not La Peep or something else,” said co-owner Aneel Taj. “We get all kinds of spellings on ‘Peep’.”
The second is Le Peep’s status as a locally owned restaurant. “The thing that I personally struggle with a little bit is the idea that we’re not local because Le Peep is a small chain out of Colorado and there’s about 60 restaurants now, I suppose,” explained co-owner Hope Taj. “But the thing is we’re not a franchise—we’re a licensing agreement, so we have complete control over our entire operation.”
Hope glanced around the Pepperwood location (the first of four Omaha Le Peep locations owned by the couple) and gestured toward the rest of the dining room. She said they did most of the work to the building themselves, including adding a floor. “Our friends painted the walls. We borrowed every penny to open this restaurant and we cashed out all our retirement to do this.
“We support local because we want to support local,” she said. “Corporate Le Peep decided to start using Rotella’s because of us.” Kevin Wessel, the CEO of Le Peep, visited the Omaha location and sampled some of their menu items. “He loved the product we served,” Hope said. The item he tried featured Rotella’s product, and he liked it so much he came for a return visit after a short time “to meet the Rotellas and tour their bakery with us, and the rest is history,” Hope said. Aneel and she were delighted to bring more business to another locally owned company, especially one with such a rich history in the Omaha area.
“We also want people to realize we raised our kids here…And while we do pay a small licensing fee, we buy all of our own groceries. Twenty percent of our menu is special to us. I write all the recipes and I train all the cooks.” While Hope said she is not a chef, but rather a “home cook,” she added that she’s always on the lookout for new trends. “So while our core menu [all made from scratch] is pretty basic, on the special board we can do things that are a little more fun.”
The couple opened their first Le Peep 19 years ago. “We forced our way into the restaurant business,” Hope said with a laugh. “We made it happen,” Aneel agreed.
“It was something that Aneel was passionate about—owning a business,” Hope explained. “Aneel’s job moved us every three years. Every so often he’d pop up with, ‘What should we do?’ and I’d say, ‘You’re crazy; you have a great job with benefits and health insurance.’
At the time, Hope was raising the children while working in retail. “When Aneel’s job was downsized I thought it was the end of the world. But he said, ‘No this is an opportunity.’”
They had fallen in love with the concept of Le Peep in the early ’90s while on a visit with friends in Kansas City.
“We applied for Le Peep over and over and they kept turning us down since we didn’t have any experience with running a restaurant,” Aneel said.
“Finally, after about a year of applying to Le Peep, calling, calling, calling, Le Peep [representatives] said, ‘You are insane. We need to meet you guys,’” Hope said.
“They were like, ‘You have every single reason not to succeed. We’re just letting you know. But you’re so persistent.’ And that was all him,” she added, gesturing to Aneel. “So then, of course, the banks turned us down after that, over and over and over, because we had no experience. It was basically a long shot.”
Eventually, Aneel took a job with a financial planning company to get them through. The last-ditch effort for financing came through 10 days later. “It had been rejection after rejection—he had given up. An underwriter took us on and here we are,” Hope said.
Hope’s grandmother owned a burger joint and her mother owned a sandwich shop. Hope said she already knew the statistics, that eight out of 10 restaurants fail in the first five years. “I worked for a week every summer in my grandma’s burger joint, cutting onion rings and pattying hamburgers,” she recalled. “I learned how to count change and how to clean. My mom’s advice was to never open a restaurant,” Hope said, chuckling. “She said, ‘Don’t ever do it. You’ll never work so hard for so little.’”
Going against her mother’s advice paid off for Hope as Le Peep gained a second Omaha location, then a third, then a fourth. “The restaurant business is a tough business, but we’ve been successful I guess, because we have a lot of good people who work with us,” Aneel said. “That’s how it’s possible.”
Hope said that before the pandemic hit, they were on a trajectory to have a record year in sales. “2020 was going to be the year,” said Aneel with a laugh. Now their sales are around one-third of their pre-pandemic sales. “This pandemic is like nothing else,” he added. “I mean, you can have downturns like we did in ’08 but when you’re either closed or working at 50%, it’s harder to meet the bills. You know, rents have gone up and wages have gone up.”
“We have to have people in here to stay in business,” Hope said. “We don’t do dinner—that’s not our niche. So people aren’t coming here to pick up dinner for their kids. We do quite a bit during the day, especially at the Legacy store, because we have a drive-thru out there.” For now, they’re just trying to survive.
The couple, married for 40 years, know a lot about pushing through and getting the job done because that’s what they always do. “We’ve worked really hard,” Hope said. “I mean, the restaurant business is hard. Two high school sweethearts that were on a completely different path to have not one, not two, but four busy restaurants…and just the blood, sweat, and tears. We’re good people. We hire good people. We retain good people and treat our people well and expect a lot from them.
Their son, Jordan, who worked in the restaurant as a child but now lives out of state, said his mom tends to get attached to staff members. “I think it’s cool that they hire so many young people,” he said. “My mom does a great job of developing people. She cries when someone goes off to college and she’s like, ‘I love them so much! And now they’re gone.’”
Whether or not the future holds a fifth Le Peep restaurant for the Taj family depends on a variety of factors. “At this moment, we’re just thinking about survival,” Aneel said. “But we often talk about trying to get into Lincoln at some point.”
“Never say never” Hope added, smiling at Aneel as he smiled back at her.
Visit lepeepomaha.com for more information.
This article was printed in the March/April 2021 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.