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Omaha Magazine

Restaurant Tales: Omaha Podcasters Take a Look Behind the Menu

May 27, 2021 03:59PM ● By Sara Locke

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

There are more than 13.5 million restaurant workers in the United States right now, according to the National Restaurant Association. Despite that lofty number, many spend much of their industry experience feeling unseen. 

Zach Ferguson, Brady Hess, and Emily Wichmann, the trio behind the Restaurant Tales and Behind the Menu podcasts, are helping change that. The hospitality veterans have created a platform connecting industry workers—sharing the good, the bad, and the absolutely hilarious. 

The three met when working at Brix in Midtown Crossing, and remained close in spite of its closure, which caused a change in their working relationship.

“We’ve known each other for long enough that if we could hate each other, we would by now,” Wichmann said. “I had seen them both [Ferguson and Hess] be patient, compassionate—and they were always really funny. We just inherently got along, and soon we hit that level of camaraderie and were hanging out on purpose after work. Eight years later, we’re still finding ways to hang out.”

The idea to launch a podcast began to germinate one evening over drinks. Talk turned to the joys and frustrations they had experienced in their hospitality careers and how universal it had been in each of the restaurants they’d worked in.  

The conversation came around to the fact that there wasn’t a podcast about the bar and restaurant industry that was really for or about service workers,” Hess said. “The industry podcasts that exist really focus on the business of restaurants, the technical or financial aspects. We started talking about what it would look like if we had one of our own. We would shine a light on the behind-the-scenes of it, and the funny, chaotic family dynamic restaurants tend to have. We wanted something industry people could listen to and relate to, the joy and the struggles.”

“Initially, we were planning for the show to be a series of listener stories, but switched to planned guests and interviews,” he explained.

Ferguson was optimistic, yet realistic, about what their audience would look like, saying “We decided to temper our expectations about how many listeners we would even have. Most podcasts get less than 100 consistent downloads, and we thought we’d be lucky if 10 of our friends listened regularly.”

The first Restaurant Tales episode launched in February 2019 with guest chef A.J. Swanda, and within 24 hours hit 120 downloads. To Ferguson’s surprise, the listenership didn’t wane, and it wasn’t just friends of the trio tuning in.

“It still blows my mind that anyone is interested in our take, but it’s really resonated and rippled pretty far. Only about one-third of our audience is in Nebraska. We get thousands of downloads in New York, California, and Texas. The feedback we’re getting is that everyone is going through really similar experiences, the good and the bad.”

Their funny, poignant, and honest episodes were a hit among servers, bartenders, and chefs across the country, and they were making a meaningful impact in an industry with a high rate of burnout.

“Some of our favorite episodes have been our looks at the mental health aspect of restaurant work,” Ferguson said. “Getting resources to people, offering support, and just shedding light on the challenges.” To that end, they interviewed Katy Osuna of the James Beard Award-winning podcast Copper and Heat in January 2021. “[It] really focused on some of the more serious aspects. We tried to drive people toward her resources.”

Their compassion and humor weren’t only catching the ear of industry workers, but of KIOS broadcasting, and soon the trio launched Behind the Menu on Saturday afternoons.

“We obviously had to do something different for NPR, but we didn’t lose any of the integrity of what we were doing by doing it a little tamer,” Ferguson said. 

Behind the Menu was intended to debut in the spring of 2020, but COVID-19 temporarily shut down production while everyone found their footing. 

“Todd Hatton, [program director] at KIOS, worked hard to help us work around the shutdown,” Ferguson recalled. “We pushed it back a little bit, but by March [2020] we were starting the conversations that turned into our first episodes.” In May, they released a four-part series on Behind the Menu, and by June they were able to start working with people more closely. “We started telling their pandemic survival stories, sharing how COVID was affecting people.”

Hess takes pleasure in finding something to celebrate in even the challenging subjects their guests are sharing. “It’s so fun to talk to people right now because we’ve gotten to have these conversations with people who have been doing things the same for years,” he said. “They worked hard to find their system, and suddenly they are redesigning their menu, their work spaces, everything. It’s been exciting to see how creative people have been, adjusting their biggest dream completely on the fly, with no blueprint for how to operate under these circumstances.”

For Wichmann, the journey has been a blast, but it’s the light at the end of the tunnel that has her pushing through. “The joy and energy people have now that they’re able to get out again is really promising. And it’s not just the diners, chefs and servers have missed...most of their customers. We feel really lucky to have this platform where we could give these workers a voice when they were at risk of losing everything, and to be able to use that platform to celebrate as things start coming back to life.” 

Visit restauranttalespodcast.com or tune in to Behind the Menu Saturdays at 2 p.m. at kios.org/programs/behind-menu

This article originally appeared in the June 2021 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.