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Omaha Magazine

Setting a Place at the Table for Second Chances

Feb 21, 2024 02:35PM ● By Veronica Wortman Ploetz
Dining at Ooh-De-Lally in Dundee dining feature omag march april 2024

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

A warm dining glow has returned to the iconic picture windows above Underwood Avenue in Omaha’s historic Dundee neighborhood. The space formerly occupied by the beloved Marks Bistro is open again with a new name and purpose. Ooh-De-Lally creates a community of second chances with familiar faces and great food. The term “second chance” here refers to improving outcomes of the formerly incarcerated when reentering society after completing their sentences. Government agencies, the public,  and non-profits alike are supporting such initiatives more since the bipartisan passing of the Second Chance Act in 2008.

Tim Steinbach, Ooh-De-Lally’s executive director, is enthusiastic about sharing the partnerships producing this reality. The Sherwood Foundation, which promotes equity through social justice initiatives enhancing the quality of life in Nebraska, bought the Marks building. The organization then connected Steinbach with Ron Samuelson, who notably ran landmark Omaha restaurants such as M's Pub for 30 years and Vivace for 20 and now co-owns Herbe Sainte, to provide the establishment with advice on running a restaurant and providing a memorable dining experience. 

The 180 Re-entry Assistance Program (180 RAP) at Metropolitan Community College (MCC) serves currently incarcerated individuals leaving jail, prison, and treatment centers. One of the largest re-entry programs in the nation, it provides services and support to help these populations make successful transitions to achieve their education and employment goals. The college’s Institute for the Culinary Arts is developing the academic and experience curriculum required to earn a degree. Branding agency SecretPenguin created the name, brand, swag, and website. 

Disney’s 1973 animated film “Robin Hood,” which featured Robin (a fox) and Little John (a bear) singing, “Ooh-De-Lally, Ooh-De-Lally, golly, what a day!,” inspired the restaurant’s name. Robin and his band of Sherwood Forest Merry Men, after all, were legendary for stealing from the rich to give to the poor. 

“Some people immediately get the reference. This is our band of brothers, ‘Ooh-De-Lally' is our call to action, our rally cry to get things done,” Steinbach explained. For him, Dundee is the perfect neighborhood to open a concept restaurant like this. “Traditionally, Dundee is such a friendly neighborhood. Everyone I talk to is tremendously helpful and supportive of our efforts. It's almost a kismet thing.” 

A 30-year restaurant veteran, Steinbach most recently served as executive chef for a senior housing facility. “Being a chef, there can be a lot of ego, but when I worked with the senior population, I remembered what my grandfather instilled in me—that we are all here to help each other out and that is why I was immediately attracted to the Ooh-De-Lally initiative,” he shared. 

Steinbach works closely with Diane Good-Collins, 180 RAP’s director. She visits prisons to identify inmates who are soon to be released and demonstrate a willingness and ability to change. Formerly incarcerated people frequently face numerous challenges when reentering society. In addition to supporting their job search efforts, 180 RAP’s liaisons work to secure wrap-around and support services like securing cell phones, housing, and counseling. They also ensure that participants attend parole and probation meetings, pay their rents on time, and have support systems.

Ooh-De-Lally offers up to nine total participants the opportunity to gain experience. It can accommodate three participants in each segment, with three segments running concurrently. After three months of training, several options exist for graduates. Participants can continue to work at Ooh-De-Lally; they can transfer their earned program credits and continue their culinary education at MCC; or, they can seek employment with another restaurant with the experience earned and learned on the job. 

“Whichever they choose, they will have good skills and solid references that can hopefully help them succeed at work and in life,” Steinbach said. “Every dime we make is reinvested in the program to help our participants, so I encourage everyone to come, eat, and bring all your friends.”

Diners who take Steinbach up on his offer will find that the dining experience they enjoyed at Marks remains largely unchanged. Even four of Marks beloved menu items are receiving a second chance. Much of that is thanks to Doug Case, an accomplished executive chef and industry leader with an impressive resume of restaurant experience. He was the executive chef at Children's Hospital & Medical Center when Samuelson, a long-time friend,  approached him about working with the new Dundee hotspot. “Ooh-De-Lally has a special mission,” Case said. “I enjoy mentoring and helping people through tough times. And the people coming out of incarceration have a tough time getting jobs. We want to be a good partner to help people move on in a different direction.” 

Case couldn’t be happier about the opportunity. The restaurant’s space had always presented some challenges. A building four stories tall might have been daunting to some, but Case feels the building’s old energy in his bones. He loves configuring, designing, cleaning, and organizing. Diners will notice some remodeling, but overall the dining room and patio feel familiar. The ground level space will be used as a wine bar featuring a different menu of easy-to-execute items like flat breads and crispy fare to be shared. A future phase will also usher in local provisions, wine, soups, and sandwiches of the grab-and-go variety. A rooftop garden will also return for al fresco dining. 

Perhaps the most challenging task is the enormous responsibility of bringing back old menu favorites like Brussels sprouts, mac n’ cheese, smoked chicken lasagna, and whiskey bread pudding. “We want to faithfully recreate these dishes the way people remember them. I have confidence that we are going to execute it well,” Case said. 

Described as "New American Comfort Food," Ooh-De-Lally will feature a small menu of approachable entrées made with as many locally sourced ingredients as possible. Case hints at a creative new burger and a vegan dish that even non-vegans would crave. “The team is excited to bring back something important to the neighborhood. We are not Marks, but we know what they brought to the community,” Case said. “With the 180 RAP piece in place, that is how we give back to the community, creating a learning environment that is not a pressure cooker but based on mastering competency modules. The culture piece will stand up this program. We believe that we can succeed in a positive environment.”

Ooh-De-Lally sous chef Joseph William Blair is collaborating with Case on a successful opening, which at time of this writing had been planned for the end of February. The two spend time perfecting recipes and learning from each other. Blair was formerly incarcerated and is a pandemic-era honors graduate from MCC’s Culinary Arts and Management program. He is also a 180 RAP alumnus. “When I saw a story on the news about 180 RAP and how they help formerly incarcerated people, it spoke to me. I am glad that I had the resources in the program. They have hundreds of people they could have chosen, but they chose me and that’s why I am still a big part of the program today,” Blair said. 

Through 180 RAP, Blair had support the day he was released. He received two full-ride scholarships at MCC, was able to live with his parents and friends, and secured employment managing different restaurants. At times, Blair was working well over 80 hours a week and also attending school. “With getting a felony, you fall flat on your face. You have to work 10 times harder to prove a restored worth to society. Now I have more motivation. Even if you fall flat because of one or two mistakes, you can recover,” Blair said.

Without dedicated programs and job opportunities, many formerly incarcerated people end up back in the system. Blair stays in regular contact with 180 RAP liaisons to review status, emotions, jobs, goals, and referrals. “The first two years are the scariest, being completely sober and having to adjust your whole mindset. Society pushes you aside. But prison was not for me. I have huge goals,” he said. Blair's first goal is to get Ooh-De-Lally established and learn the non-profit business. “This is new to all of us. It makes me excited and nervous, but the team is the right team. I know we can do it.” 

For more information about Ooh-De-Lally, visit oohdelally.org. To learn about Metropolitan Community College’s 180 Re-entry Assistance Program (180 RAP), go to mccneb.edu/Student-Resources/Re-Entry.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2024 issue of Omaha Magazine. To subscribe, click here. 

Sweet Corn Blue Crab Croquettes.

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

 

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