FFP Omaha: Brilliant burger, Pillen’s pigs, Stellanator

FFP Omaha newsletter

Hello, FFP readers, it’s Sarah Baker Hansen.

Chris and Jeremy gave me the reins of the newsletter this week, and I’m using the opportunity to publish my memoir … or rather a food review about a buzzy new restaurant called Memoir.

From Flagship Restaurant group — which just celebrated its 20th anniversary of opening buzz-worthy joints in Omaha — Memoir is meant to tell a story, the story of Flagship’s success. 

How do restaurants tell us what they are? It’s an interesting question I’ve been pondering since my visits. Sometimes, Memoir tells us just what it is. Other times, the story veers off track (every writer knows how that feels). All that said, I think it has one of the best new burgers being served anywhere in Omaha at this very moment.

Enjoy, and I’ll see you in two weeks.

Read my review here (or click on the photo above).

For the past year, Flatwater Free Press reporter Yanqi Xu and Investigate Midwest reporter Sky Chadde have worked on a rolling series called “Pigs and Power” that examines Gov. Jim Pillen’s path to becoming the state’s biggest hog producer.

The series shows how his operation, eventually a family company known as Pillen Family Farms, affected the small Nebraska communities it moved into. It details how he and other large livestock producers impact Nebraska’s economy, its landscape and its water. 

The fourth story in the series dropped this week. It focuses on the economic and environmental assurances Pillen made to residents of small communities where he wanted to build hog farms — and how those promises didn’t always pan out.

You can read the highlights of this deeply reported series here (or by clicking on the photo).

Jeremy Turley - Flatwater Free Press

Leaders from Metropolitan Utilities District (MUD) provided updates on safety measures, flood response efforts, and ongoing infrastructure projects, including water main replacements and gas infrastructure improvements. VP of HR Bonnie Savine gave a report on staffing updates and wage increases. The meeting concluded with unanimous approvals on key projects, with further discussions on capital expenditures planned for the next meeting. Visit our site to read our full summary. You can also read the full notes from the meeting.

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What I'm Into

I’m eagerly anticipating this year’s Heartland Pride parade and festival this Saturday in downtown Omaha. It’s one of my favorite events, celebrating love, acceptance and community. After the parade, I’ll head to the CHI Health Center for drag performances, stand-up comics and local vendors. If you’ve never been, I highly recommend joining the festivities – it’s an unforgettable, joy-filled experience.

When we started the Omaha newsletter, the Flatwater staff had many ideas to get people reading. Among the good ones (great writers, slick design, a variety of content) was one of a … simpler ilk.

“What if I ate the Stellanator?” I (Chris Bowling) blurted to my editor one day. He looked at me with a mixture of amusement and pity.

For those unaware, the Stellanator is a food challenge at Stella’s Bar & Grill in Bellevue. In 45 minutes you must scale a meat mountain of six burgers, six fried eggs, six slices of cheese, 12 strips of bacon, some veggies to keep it healthy and peanut butter all stacked between two buns. It clocks in at about 5 pounds, 14 inches tall and approximately 5,792 calories. It also comes with fries.

Of the 744 who’ve tried it, 47 have succeeded. That’s a lower average than the acceptance rate at Harvard Law.

But what, fair reader, does this have to do with local news? I’m not sure, but I’ll make it work.

For the next three weeks I’m going to ask different experts for advice, warnings and wisdom that may be useful to me and Flatwater managing editor Ryan Hoffman when we throw down the gauntlet on July 25. My hope is it’s interesting, funny and adds a few more readers to Flatwater’s Omaha newsletter. Tell your friends to sign up!

But first, to start my Dantean journey, I hopped in my CR-V and headed south.

I met Stephanie Francois in the lull between weekday lunch and dinner rushes. She was sitting at the end of the bar, wedged between a wall of Stella’s accolades and a tasteful portrait of the Stellanator against a white backdrop. Francois is a descendent of the restaurant’s namesake and, with the help of her parents Gene and Pam, bought the place in 2007 that had long been a second home to her.

The Stellanator’s origin story goes like this. In 2010 someone told a TV personality known for feats of consumption to eat at Stella’s while he was in town. Stephanie quickly concocted a super-sized version of her favorite burger. The guy never came, but others did.

Over the years some tried-and-true techniques have emerged, which the Francois’ were gracious enough to share. Eating exorbitant amounts of lettuce days prior will expand your stomach. Exercising right before helps.

The best strategy for consumption? Buns first. The colder the globs of peanut butter on each piece of bread get, the harder they are to down, Stephanie said.

Pam said some common mistakes include mashing everything into a casserole-like substance. That offers no advantage and, as one would have to imagine, does little favors visually. A good attitude helps. The cocky ones flounder. The quiet ones surprise you, they said. 

Gene offered simple advice: Eat fast. After 30 minutes the success rate plummets.

I also asked what Stella would think of all this. The woman who started this business in 1936 and ran it for decades was a serious matriarch so it’s hard to say what she has in common with the burger bearing her name, the Francois family said. At the same time it’s become an integral part of the restaurant’s story.

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Ex-Omaha police captain Rich Gonzalez was released early from federal prison after serving most of an 18-month sentence, The World-Herald reported. Gonzalez pleaded guilty to wire fraud conspiracy after a grand jury indicted him on 13 felony charges for his role in a scheme to steal money from two police nonprofits. (You may need a subscription to read this story.)