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Omaha Magazine

John Tierre Miller Wants To Help Revitalize Omaha

Mar 01, 2022 11:49AM ● By Tara Spencer
john tierre at johnny ts bar and blues

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

A man whose roots are in Omaha has returned, using his entrepreneurial spirit to continue his family’s legacy. 

John Tierre (Johnny T.) Miller lived in North Omaha until the age of 11, when he moved to Houston, Texas, with his mom. It was a move that helped further his budding tennis career at the time. Spending those formative years in Omaha, however, especially having his grandparents in his life, left a deep impression. “My grandfather was an entrepreneur philanthropist. [He] did a lot in the community,” Miller said. “He wasn't necessarily working to find a job, he was working to provide jobs.”

His grandfather, John Goodwin, passed away in 2018, but his entrepreneurial spirit was passed on.

Miller is a soft-spoken man who doesn’t offer information freely, unless he’s talking about business. He attended Jackson State University in Mississippi on a tennis scholarship, graduating in 2000 with a bachelor’s degree in business. 

“After graduating, I started a small business,” he said. “It was actually a T-shirt printing company, and I just kind of evolved from fashion into entertainment—going to concerts, parties—as a promoter, segued into a barber shop, a beauty shop, into my first restaurant.” 

That restaurant was Norma Ruth’s, named after his grandmother, and it was counter service comfort food. “[It was] five-star quality food, chef-driven, but it was takeout,” Miller said. “The response was so great that we knew it was time to go full service. People want a glass of wine with those lamb chops.”

He sold the small plaza where Norma Ruth’s was located, along with his other businesses, and purchased a building in the Farish Street Historic District of downtown Jackson. In its heyday during the middle of the 20th century, Farish Street was the largest economically independent Black community in Mississippi.

“Farish Street was where all the African Americans came when it was segregated,” Miller said. “So that was where your doctors, your lawyers, the movie theater, all your restaurants, the florist—any business you could think of, that was the mecca. People came from all over the South to go to that area…Integration is what killed it.”

Seven years ago, Miller decided he wanted to help spur the revitalization of the district. That’s why he decided to open the first Johnny T’s on Farish Street. 

“Some thought it was a bad investment, because of the area,” he said. “Why would you choose there, of all the places?…And it’s been amazing. It’s turned into a tourist attraction—celebrities, entertainers, anyone that's visiting the city. That’s where the hotels, visitors and tourism bureau, that’s where they send them. Morgan Freeman shot a movie there, like, three weeks ago [meaning early November 2021].” 

Miller’s drive to revitalize historically Black neighborhoods is what prompted him to open a Johnny T’s in Omaha. “What we want to do here is set the bar. We felt like North Omaha deserves something on this level,” he said. 

While the Omaha location doesn’t have a kitchen, Miller has a plan. There will be a Johnny T’s food truck, and he has enlisted the help of legendary Omaha chef Glenn Wheeler. 

The two met through Instagram during the COVID shutdown. “He saw me on a live with Chef Jeff Henderson,” Wheeler wrote in an email. “And he private messaged me, telling me he was opening a club in Omaha…John approached me with the idea of the food truck that he had in Jackson being brought to Omaha to provide food service to the bar.”

In addition to the food truck, Miller and Wheeler also plan to partner on opening a soul food restaurant in North Omaha that they are calling the Heartland Project. “The name of the business, of course, is going to be Norma Ruth’s,” Miller said. 

In the meantime, Wheeler is catering free Sunday brunches that are served from noon until 2 p.m., and Miller is bringing in free chicken from Time Out Foods for patrons on Friday nights. His grandfather was good friends with the former owner of Time Out, Steve Mercer, who passed away in 2019. 

Miller believes it is important to “recycle the dollars” within the community. “We want to build a great rapport with other businesses in the area and also our local council…and anybody around that has the ability to change the culture and the environment in North Omaha. We want to be a part of it.”

With his varied experience in running different types of businesses and his background in promotion, public policy, and even tennis, Miller could bring a unique perspective to building up the community. 

“I used to tell people [it was] like the Mr. Miyagi effect in Karate Kid, where he was learning all these skills and traits, only in the end to have to use them all,” Miller said. 

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This article originally appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

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