Plastered all around the old bakery where folks sipped cheap coffee and racked up countless hours of Rack-O were lots of quirky cat posters.
On one, a small kitten looked up admirably at a tiger. Words beneath said, “Dream Big.”
That image helped inspire the name — Neon Tiger — that will replace Donut Stop on the marquee at 1256 S. 13th St., said Jenessa NeSmith. She’s one of the new owners, and her connection to the property goes back to days she and her future wife played those board games, chuckled at those cat photos and imagined the future.
“We always thought this would be a great place to have upon retirement,” NeSmith said, joking that the time came much sooner. “They were big dreams, but they happened.”
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Though the new owners will usher in a brand new menu and motif, they said to expect the same welcoming and inclusive environment that drew wide-ranging and loyal fans to the neighborhood institution.
That patron mix — from teens to seniors, suburbanites to urban core dwellers — was evident in the waning days of the bakery, whose recipes retired Nov. 1 along with the longtime owner. Marlene Rodgers ran the place for 30 years, most of those with husband Hal, who died in 2014.
Cecilia Raulston was among those who stopped in to hug Rodgers. Now 33, Raulston came more regularly in her younger days after concerts at nearby Sokol Hall.
“This was the place to be when you’re not 21 and can’t go to the bars,” she said. “Safe and fun.”
But the appeal extended to an older set, too. Dale Knight, 90, dropped in for the first time three decades ago after taking his wife to a downtown appointment. He became a fixture.
Every morning for a few hours, “I just sit here and talk to the guys,” he said. His coffee crew that started with 16 had dwindled over the years to five.
Mary Cavalieri, who lives in the neighborhood, said that as far back as she can remember, she made late-night trips to pick up her mom’s favorite doughnut (two for a midnight snack and two for breakfast).
Said Cavalieri: “I walk in the door and Marlene knows ...”
Marlene interrupted: “Four sugar doughnuts.”
To be sure, loyal customers say the bakery that found its home in the heart of an old Czech neighborhood would be impossible to re-create.
It’s not that John Maaske didn’t think about it. His obsession started in the early 1990s as a student.
The doughnut runs picked up after he had children. Emma, 15, Julia, 13, and Charlie, 11, know the Saturday ritual well: the drive from their Regency-area home, the thrill of “roller coaster hill,” the shiny pennies that bakers Lois and Frank gave them after packing up their goodies.
“Few things bring me more joy than the Donut Stop,” Maaske said. “These are real people.”
Deciding that it could not be replicated, he nixed his notion to try to buy it. (A new and trendy coffee shop has recently settled across the street and a few doors down.)
Neon Tiger owners Lindsey and Tom Clements, along with Aleece Gustafson and NeSmith, plan to offer some doughnut-related menu items for nostalgic reasons. A fried Kolache treat (blending doughnut and Czech roots) will be called Tomcats (merging the cat theme and spirit of new owner Tom Clements).
But they stressed that their approach will be fresh and said Rodgers wanted it that way.
“We’re respectful of her wishes,” Lindsey Clements said. “And we’re excited about the possibilities of creating a new tradition for Omaha.”