Behind-the-scenes look at how businesses gear up for Berkshire weekend

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Posted: Sunday, April 27, 2014 12:00 am

Click here for a Berkshire Hathaway Week schedule.

The annual Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting is just days away, but preparations have been underway for a while now — in some cases beginning the day after last year's meeting ended.

Here's a sampling of what's been going on behind the scenes:

Nebraska Furniture Mart

Preparations at the mega furniture and electronics store of course include additional warehouse and merchandise deliveries. But how about the hundreds of 3½-foot-deep holes that will be drilled into the Mart's parking lot beginning Thursday night? They're also part of the prep.

Since 2007, the folks at All Seasons Event Rental in Kansas City, Kan., have been erecting a high-wind-resistant, circus-size tent that provides cover for the Berkshire picnic, traditionally held Saturday night in the Mart's parking lot.

Making sure the 12,000-square-foot tent (actually one large tent and five smaller ones) stays put requires the drilling of hundreds of 1-inch-diameter holes to a depth of 42 inches at 10 foot intervals in a parking lot. They'll hold the stainless steel stakes for the white vinyl tent, said Gary Feuerborn, the company's vice president, then be patched.

During Berkshire week, the Mart typically does a month's worth of business in seven days, said Robert Batt, the retailer's executive vice president.

Plans and preparations for Berkshire Hathaway week begin “the day after the previous year's event is over,” Batt said. “We still use the same playbook. This is our 31st year with Berkshire.

“Last year we broke the records. The customers were happy and Mr. Buffett was happy.”

In 2013, Buffett reported in March, the Mart did $40.2 million of business in the week surrounding the meeting, breaking its previous record by 12 percent. It also set a single-day record of $8.2 million on Saturday, selling nearly $1million of mattresses alone.

This year, the Mart's staff will be armed with something new: wireless mobile devices to speed the checkout process. The sales staff has been practicing using the new technology for several months.

“You don't ever roll out a new software release or mobile device anytime during Thanksgiving week or Berkshire week,” Batt said.

Not only does Berkshire Hathaway week provide jobs and income for the Mart, Batt said, but also for Omaha residents, from restaurant and hotel staff to cabdrivers and anyone else who does business with a shareholder.

Cutchall Management Co.

Setting up under the big top at Nebraska Furniture Mart will be Omaha-based Cutchall Management Co., which is catering the event.

More than a dozen employees will help plate and serve the food on-site for the 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. picnic, said Greg Cutchall, the firm's chief executive and founder.

This year's Berkshire Big League Picnic will offer shareholders their choice of a Famous Dave's pulled pork sandwich, Domino's pepperoni pizza, Sonic's hot dog or Paradise Bakery & Cafe's veggie sandwich for $5 per person, said Cutchall, who owns a string of those and other restaurants.

The picnic, which is expected to draw 1,500 to 2,000 people, including a visit from the Geico Gecko, will require 500 pounds of pork, 300 large pizzas, 1,000 Paradise cookies and 1,000 hot dogs, Cutchall said.

And to season those dogs — 10 gallons of Heinz ketchup. (Berkshire Hathaway and 3G Capital Inc. purchased H.J. Heinz Co last year for $23billion.)

Gorat's Steak House

Gene Dunn is applying lessons learned from last year's Berkshire weekend, his first as owner of Gorat's Steak House at 4917 Center St.

“I knew (Berkshire weekend) was a big deal, but I had no concept of how big it was until last year,” said Dunn, who purchased the fabled Buffett favorite from Louis N. “Pal” Gorat in September 2012.

Dunn said the restaurant overprepared its wine selection in 2013 but, thanks to its partnership with Omaha Steaks, had plenty of steak on hand — at least 1,500 pounds' worth to get it through the weekend. On a typical weekend, diners consume about 500 pounds' worth of beef.

“Now with a year under our belt, we think we know what people will want,” Dunn said.

That doesn't make preparations any less stressful, however.

The restaurant will again pitch a tent outside from which it will serve cocktails. That requires a special permit, giving Gorat's about a day to stock the outdoor bar.

The restaurant has been accepting reservations since last year's event for this year's Berkshire weekend — with the exception of Sunday. Sunday is when Warren Buffett comes in, typically for a T-bone steak and hash browns. “April 1 is when we start taking reservations for Sunday, and the phones rang nonstop, all day long,” Dunn said.

Since the Gorat family agreed to open the restaurant on Sundays during Berkshire weekend in 1996, the extra day of business in conjunction with the three days leading up to it has typically equated to about a month's worth of revenue. Under Dunn's direction, that bump has held steady so far.

“Nothing compares to Berkshire weekend, both for Gorat's and for the City of Omaha,” Dunn said.

Borsheims Fine Jewelry & Gifts

New art installations went in last week as part of Borsheims' preparation for Berkshire week starting Monday.

The pieces are the work of American-born artist Michael Aram, whose work has been inspired by a 1980s trip to India to learn metalworking traditions.

At the flagship store at Regency Court shopping center, preparations included not only orders placed in January, but also several weeks of employee training sessions. When Berkshire week arrives it's all hands on deck for the store's staff.

In addition, the facilities got an extra cleaning “so they're nice and shiny,” said Adrienne Fay, Borsheims' director of marketing and advertising.

Borsheims-focused Berkshire Hathaway events include a Friday night cocktail reception and a Sunday brunch and shopping day. Borsheims will also staff a booth at the meeting, greeting shareholders and offering a range of items from memorabilia — items such as cufflinks or water bottles featuring the BRK stock symbol or Buffett's image — to diamond jewelry.

This year, the Borsheims booth will offer diamond pendant necklaces; the half-carat stone includes Warren Buffett's signature laser-inscribed on the gem. The limited supply of the necklaces will be available only at the booth. The regular price is $2,500, but shareholders will pay $1,750.

Borsheims also ordered two dozen loose diamonds laser-inscribed with Warren Buffett's signature. The diamonds, which range in size from three-quarters of a carat to 5 carats, are priced from $5,000 to $200,000.

801 Chophouse at the Paxton

For the handful of Omaha restaurants serving up “prime” cuts of beef, maintaining inventory is difficult, since the USDA certifies as prime just 1 percent to 3 percent of all beef that comes to market.

For especially rare cuts like the bone-in ribeye and bone-in New York strip steak, 801 Chophouse at the Paxton General Manager Jake Yestingsmeier had to start placing advance orders on harder-to-find cuts around April 1.

“It's like buying futures on prime cuts,” he said.

The restaurant will stack about 300 pounds of prime beef from floor to ceiling in its walk-in cooler, making cold-storage space for other products hard to find. Diners typically put away about 100 pounds of beef in a normal weekend.

The impending influx of Berkshire shareholders has led to even more special considerations for the restaurant at 1403 Farnam St. For example, instead of the usual Web-based reservation service, Yestingsmeier and an assistant manager are personally handling all Berkshire weekend bookings.

And in addition to staffing with all of the restaurant's servers for the weekend, 801 Restaurant Group — which operates four other Chophouse locations — is sending the executive chef and general manager from its Des Moines restaurant along with the sommelier and assistant general manager from its Leawood, Kan., location, to help with the Omaha restaurant's busiest weekend of the year.

To allay concerns about Omaha taking advantage of shareholders by ratcheting up prices, Yestingsmeier said the Omaha 801 Chophouse has published its menu prices online and plans to offer a handful of wine specials.

“It's important for us to let our customers know it's a privilege to have them in Omaha for the weekend and that we're not here to take 30,000 people for a ride,” Yestingsmeier said.

Piccolo Pete's restaurant

It's been only six or so years since Piccolo's, another Omaha restaurant mecca for the Buffett faithful, added root beer floats to its menu. The addition came at the request of the Oracle's wife.

Judging from the way the after-dinner delicacy sells during Berkshire weekend, it's as if the dessert has been on the menu all 80 years Piccolo's has been at 2202 S. 20th St.

The restaurant typically drains a keg of the stuff every two weeks, according to Frank Skryja, head chef and kitchen manager at Piccolo's. That's roughly a gallon a day.

For the four-day festival that is Berkshire weekend, the restaurant is stocking up on four kegs' worth of root beer, or enough to dispense more than 15 gallons of root beer every day investors are in town.

“They all have to have root beer floats,” said Donna Sheehan, a co-owner of Piccolo's.

Buffett urged shareholders in this year's letter, “Order a giant root beer float for dessert. Only sissies get the small one.”

Piccolo's is also stockpiling Omaha Steaks — a normal weekend calls for about 450 pounds of beef, but shareholders will gobble up close to 1,500 pounds' worth May 1-4 — as well as ingredients for chicken parmesan and Piccolo's Special Ale, an amber ale that pairs nicely with grilled meats.

Skryja said the brew sells especially well during the Berkshire weekend simply because of its name. “If it says Piccolo's on it, it sells,” he said.

And if the Oracle were buying it, it would sell even better. “All year long, people want to have what (Buffett) has,” Sheehan said. “If he orders chicken parmesan, the whole table orders chicken parmesan.”

Piccolo's management has been working with vendors for about two months to ensure the restaurant gets everything it needs for its biggest weekend of the year. Skryja says the brisk business is akin to “having New Year's Eve four days in a row.”

* * * * *

BERKSHIRE HATHAWAY WEEK SCHEDULE

A schedule of events this week in the Omaha area in connection with the Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting.

MONDAY

• Borsheims' special shareholder pricing begins and continues through May 10. Credentialed shareholders also can receive up to 20 percent off at the new Borsheims Boutique at Nebraska Crossing Outlets in Gretna.

TUESDAY

• Nebraska Furniture Mart special shareholder pricing begins and continues through May 5.

FRIDAY

• 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.: Berkshire Hathaway/Brooks 5K packet pickup at the Hilton Omaha.

• 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.: Shareholder-only cocktail reception at Borsheims at 120 Regency Parkway.

SATURDAY

• 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.: Berkshire Hathaway/Brooks 5K packet pickup at the Hilton Omaha.

• 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.: Annual shareholders meeting. (Doors open at 7 a.m., movie at 8:30 a.m., followed by the Q&A at 9:30 a.m. Booths representing more than 40 companies open in the Exhibition Hall throughout.)

• Noon to 4:30 p.m.: NetJets display of aircraft at Signature Flight Support next to Eppley Airfield. Stop by the NetJets booth for shuttle information.

• 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.: Berkshire's Big League Picnic for shareholders at Nebraska Furniture Mart, 700 S. 72nd St. Live entertainment from DJ's Dugout's Blazin' Pianos with food from Famous Dave's, Domino's, Sonic or Paradise Bakery & Cafe.

MAY 4

• 8 a.m. to 11 a.m.: Berkshire Hathaway “Invest in Yourself” 5K presented by Brooks. The course starts on 10th Street across from the CenturyLink Center Omaha and ends on Riverfront Drive. Register at www.investinyourself5k.com.

• 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.: Borsheims shopping day for shareholders. Brunch begins at 9 a.m.

• 1 p.m. to 10 p.m.: Private shareholder event at Gorat's Steakhouse, 4917 Center St. Reservations required.

• 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.: Private shareholder event at Piccolo's, 2202 S. 20th St. Reservations required.

The Omaha World-Herald Co. is owned by Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

Correction: Piccolo's is located at 2202 S. 20th St. An earlier version of this story had an incorrect location.

Copyright ©2014 Omaha World-Herald. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, displayed or redistributed for any purpose without permission from the Omaha World-Herald. To purchase rights to republish this article, please contact The World-Herald Store.


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