When a customer in the Catskill Mountains of New York complained that her mail-order steaks weren’t on her doorstep, Omaha Steaks immediately sent replacements.
The original order, or what was left of it, was soon found in the woods — with bear claw and teeth marks on the shipping cooler.
When a man’s home lost power a few years ago in St. Petersburg, Florida, neighbors ran electrical cords to the house, a newspaper reported, “so his recent order of Omaha Steaks wouldn’t spoil.”
After President George W. Bush threw a ceremonial first pitch at the College World Series in 2001, Secret Service agents stuffed storage bins on Air Force One with boxes of Omaha Steaks products.
Weeks later from Poland, an agent thanked the company and said the president’s protectors didn’t like the local food, “so we’re living on your beef jerky.”
As the family-owned company celebrates its 100th anniversary, those kinds of stories remind us that across the country and beyond, Omaha Steaks truly is a household name.
In fact, Omaha Steaks splashes its hometown’s name far and wide in a way matched only by Mutual of Omaha and the “Oracle of Omaha,” investor Warren Buffett.
Now actor Matt Damon is getting into the act. In the sci-fi comedy “Downsizing,” directed by Oscar winner Alexander Payne of Omaha and out later this year, Damon plays a manager at the company and wears an Omaha Steaks shirt.
That’s just the latest example of Omaha Steaks in popular culture. Another was the George Clooney film “Up in the Air,” which showed an Omaha Steaks kiosk at Eppley Airfield.
The brand has been mentioned or featured on the Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres and Dr. Phil shows, as well as on such shows as “Hell’s Kitchen,” “Modern Family,” “The West Wing,” “The Simpsons,” “Seinfeld” and “Will & Grace.”
In 2011, Omaha Steaks executives Bruce and Todd Simon appeared with host Donald Trump on “Celebrity Apprentice,” judging a pair of teams — including actor Gary Busey and musician Meat Loaf.
Yes, you even can order meatloaf from Omaha Steaks, which offers more than 500 items in its catalog and print mailings or online.
The pop-culture mentions all help, said Todd Simon, senior vice president, and most times they come as surprises. On a few occasions the company has paid for “product placements” on shows.
Omaha Steaks is the nation’s biggest direct marketer of meat. And from its home in the beef state of Nebraska, Simon said, the company is happy that its first name is Omaha.
“It is so interwoven into our culture,” he said. “We feel awesome about our hometown. This is where our family settled after emigrating from Eastern Europe. It’s where we’ve been able to build an incredible business, and where we’ve made our home for five generations. I almost get emotional talking about it.”
Omaha Steaks has contributed to a long list of civic, charitable and artistic causes, and Todd serves as chair of the philanthropic Omaha Community Foundation.
His father, Fred Simon, who died two years ago at 78, was known not only as a business innovator but also as a dedicated patron of the arts, including symphony, opera and more. He believed that a vibrant arts culture was crucial to making Omaha a world-class city.
Todd spoke about the Big O in an interview recently at the Omaha Steaks corporate office on — where else? — O Street, in an office park southwest of 108th and L.
Out front, from Omaha’s 2007 public arts campaign, sits a playful “O!” sculpture, with rabbit ears as often depicted by the artist, Deborah Masuoka.
The company has had fun with its centennial. Employees received 100-year pins, and Sunday marked Omaha Steaks Day at the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium.
The Omaha Steaks Nebraska Barbecue Championship was held last month at Ralston Arena. Through Nov. 5, the Durham Museum features a display on the history of Omaha Steaks.
Todd Simon went to the museum two weeks ago to surprise visitors with gifts of Omaha Steaks products. He also has taken phone orders at the company’s call center and then told customers that in honor of the 100th anniversary, there was no charge.
The company has captured such surprise gifts on video and posted them on social media. That includes Todd’s visit to Ellis Island in New York City, where Simon family ancestors first arrived in 1898 — and where Todd passed out more products in honor of the Omaha Steaks birthday.
With 2,000 full-time employees (plus 4,000 more part-timers in the holiday season), as well as 3 million customers and 70 retail stores, Omaha Steaks racks up estimated annual sales of $450 million.
But it traces it beginnings to “a humble butcher’s shop” started by immigrant J.J. Simon and his son, B.A. Simon. In 1917, they founded the Table Supply Meat Co.
Mail order and home delivery started in 1952 under Lester Simon, the third-generation executive, and boomed under the leadership of his sons in the ’60s and ’70s.
The company had marketed “Omaha steaks,” and in 1966 changed its corporate name to Omaha Steaks.
Simpler is usually better. From the early 20th century, Omaha was home to an insurance company called the Mutual Benefit Health and Accident Association — but in 1950 it shortened its name to Mutual of Omaha.
Staying successful isn’t simple. Omaha Steaks says it enjoyed explosive growth in the 1980s and ’90s, and Internet sales propelled it “into the big time.”
With increased competition today, the company is launching new products such as frozen skillet dinners, and last year announced a partnership with Crock-Pot brand. Omaha Steaks uses meat only from grain-fed cattle in the Midwest, and new opportunities are arising with China reopening its doors to U.S. beef.
What the next 100 years will bring, Todd Simon said, remains to be seen — including whether a sixth generation of Simons will be involved in the business.
“But one thing we know about humans,” he said, “is that they have to eat.”
The family doesn’t foresee the company name ever changing, given that it is universal. Bruce Simon, Todd’s cousin and company president, said that after he attended a meeting in Europe, he and his wife saw flamenco dancing in Madrid.
A Japanese man nearby wanted to practice his English and asked the Simons where they were from. When they replied Omaha, he reacted with, “Ahhh, Omaha Steaks!”
The couple just smiled, not revealing that Bruce was an executive of the company.
People still like Omaha Steaks, even enough to string electrical cords to a house so a neighbor’s order doesn’t spoil.
Whatever the future holds, it’s unlikely that Omaha Steaks will be spoiled by success.