Meat at Round the Bend Steakhouse or is it Meet at Round The Bend Steakhouse?
For me, the hardest part of writing isn’t the content. I don’t get writer’s block. It’s not difficult for me to be creative, nor is it daunting to do hours of research or interview people. For me, the hardest part is developing an underlying voice to a story. After meeting with TJ Olson from Round The Bend Steakhouse, he took that struggle away from me in an instant. I knew there was only one voice I could apply to this story; authenticity.
TJ, a self-proclaimed Jesus-loving 330-pound college dropout, is the softest (and simultaneously largest), most genuine restaurant owner I’ve ever encountered. His baritone voice has such carry and magnitude that it seemed redundant to have him wear a microphone. His kind eyes and inviting smile eliminate any false propensity for fear that his colossal stature might portray. Then again, it’s hard to be intimidated by a giant when they strut around their establishment in a tutu (see their FaceBook page for proof) and wear hoodies underneath suit coats. I got to know him over a period of two days and I still don’t know what TJ stands for: I’m going to go with “Total Jester.”
Located in Ashland and acquired in 1995, Round The Bend (RTB from here forward) has been passed from father to son and has had dozens of the Olson bloodline employed within; the epitome of a family-owned business. They are known for their affordable steaks, family-friendly atmosphere, beautiful wedding venue, and their gonads… That’s right folks; Tom Brady and Nolan Ryan aren’t the only ones famous for hurling balls. RTB hosts the annual Testicle Festival on Father’s Day weekend; an event that has grown to feed 4,000 people with 2,000 pounds of calf fries, or in TJ’s words, “a literal ton of nuts.”
When I arrived at RTB, with the Omaha Food Magazine, it was a dreary afternoon, inducing a bit of a depressed mood. Seeing a bare parking lot on a 20-acre plot of land was sobering. It really opens your eyes to the impact of the socio-economic situation occurring right now. The lay of the land is beautiful nonetheless. Cornfields and alfalfa fields cascade in every direction. The building architecture – corrugated metal on one side, wood panels on another – makes you wonder whether you’re entering a barn, or a saloon. The patio faces the highway that leads up to the building so customers can watch cars approach from north and south. And they do come from both directions; RTB sits precisely between Omaha and Lincoln. It’s a great place for people to “meat in the middle,” a slogan they’ve coined.
“It’s not uncommon for us to meet our Omaha and Lincoln friends at Round The Bend Steakhouse.” ~ Lindy Schmidt, owner of The Market Grocery Store in Louisville
Due to the economic climate & recent unforeseen circumstances, what would be a normally bustling business lacked the ambiance of a packed steakhouse. One hundred seats remained empty & an eerie silence hushed the dining room. It is chilling to realize this is happening. TJ & his staff are bright-siders who use humor & faith to remain positive, while remaining COVID-19 negative.
Within minutes, we were talking about privates. TJ agreed with a reference someone made and said “Exactly.” I immediately piggybacked with “You mean, Ex-sack-ly,” and it only got punnier from there. He led me to the massive wedding venue they have that is deemed the Ball Room (two separate words for comedic effect). There I spotted the RTB signature koozie with the words “Nut Up & Go” emblazoned on it. Despite the onslaught of puns we shared, we did discuss current events and how they have impacted business.
Upon the onset and daily changes set forth by the government, RTB started putting out press conferences on their social media platforms to address the nation; which has now been deemed their RTBNation. These video snippets are full of jokes (Chef Curtis Norton acts as the “Secretary of Steak” and sprays Lysol wherever he goes), are as raw as uncooked sirloin, and occasionally emotional. It was equal parts heart-wrenching and touching to see a business owner break down on camera at the flood of support the community has given him.
Joe Sutter from Quarry Oaks golf course across the street has called to offer to send customers over and he is putting a sign up on the 16th hole recommending RTB. Brian Whitehead from BW’s Pub donated equipment to help get their online ordering, curbside pick-up, and delivery service started in just a few days.
TJ did his best to summarize the last couple weeks: “Brian gave us – technically a competitor to him – his own equipment to help drive business and keep us afloat. I’ve received hundreds of text messages and phone calls of support. I’ve got people that want to do delivery for RTB and won’t let me pay them. I get emotional. I’m a 330-pound crier. I can’t put the outpouring of help into words.”
The most shocking part to me was the resolve of the staff. He has close to a dozen college-aged “kids” who come in daily and hang out. They set up shop (six feet apart of course) with game consoles, laptops, and homework. Then, they wait. If it gets busy, they clock in for an hour and belt out orders, then go back to socializing. I wouldn’t have believed it if I didn’t witness them playing Minecraft on a PS4 while I was there. When I was a manager, I had servers coming up to me whining to be cut before they were four hours into a shift. I would have donated my testicles to the next festival for employees like these. They aren’t asking to leave; they’re fighting to stay. They want to feel normal during this abnormal time. If this epidemic can teach society anything, it’s that employment truly is a privilege (trust me, I’m jobless). TJ fought back tears when he described his appreciation for them. He considers them extended family. The biggest change has been their roles. With the inability to do business indoors, there is no longer traditional service. Dishwashers might become delivery drivers, servers might become carhops, and hosts might become line cooks.
If it’s not the aid that is keeping the business open, it’s the cuisine. A culinary medley was presented to me and my three cohorts from Omaha Food Magazine and, unlike the steaks, it was well done. For an appetizer, TJ served his now-famous fried testicles to us. You can’t hold a festival devoted to nuggets and not do a solid job. For those of you who are uninitiated, imagine a thin, golden brown line between gizzards and livers.
We also had Bud Wings, a dish added for a since-deceased regular who wanted not just a flat chicken wing, but the entire wing, joints and all. If you play with your food like I do, you can flap them around in your hands before pretending you’re eating a velociraptor.
Onto the meat! We had top sirloin, ribeye, New York strip, and burgers; mid-rare across the board. If I had a choice, I’d cover each one individually, but sadly I have a word limit and brevity has never been my forte. Versus stewing over which to elaborate on, just know that Chef Norton and the kitchen staff are clearly well-seasoned when it comes to the grill. Every bite tasted different yet the same, oxymoronically. The juiciness and flavor remained constant, but I picked up hints of different textures as I worked my way through the marbling and perimeter of each piece. Even the subtle crispness imprinted by the criss-cross grill marks was denoted in particular tidbits. It was udderly delicious. Did you notice another food pun? If not, it’s about thyme.
I asked TJ what else people can do besides ordering food and his answer was shockingly eye-opening. He appreciates that people are buying gift cards, but his reply really made me comprehend the severity of the situation.
He openly admitted: “I wonder how I would feel if the worst happened. I don’t want to be that company that sells someone $1,000 in gift cards, then what if the unfortunate happens? My conscience started to creep in. I don’t want to bleed the turnip. Thankfully it hasn’t come to that yet, and currently, it looks like we have a few weeks to go before we return to some level of normalcy. Our goal is to just stay afloat. Every dollar we bring in is buying us another minute. The longer people continue to come out or get delivery, the better we come out on the other side.”
That response is why I had to choose authenticity as the voice for this story. Maybe TJ stands for “Totally Jenuine.” He knows that nothing is guaranteed, yet he doesn’t sugarcoat with BS. He pulls no punches, not that someone so gentle would ever raise a fist. He gave his life to God at age 14 and believes the lord has his back no matter what circumstances arise, and he will continue to remain stalwart through the thick of it. I have to admit I wish I had the steadfastness and blind faith he has during this ambivalent time.
Uncertainty is a form of dread, scientifically proven as the worst kind of fear. Think of the last time you had a dentist appointment. Think of the last time you had to break up with someone. The trepidation leading up to these instances is worse than the things themselves. My research shows there are 1,000,000+ restaurants in the nation. A million! For reference, there are only two million people in this state. Right now, we don’t know when the doors of our favorite spot will open. We don’t know IF they will. Will you get to return to the place you had your first date? Will the place you visited after you lost a loved one still be open? Will you get to enjoy that spot on vacation where you had that memorable pizza? Will you get to go to your favorite hipster dessert spot and enjoy vegan, non-GMO, organic, cage-free, open-range ice cream cones again? I don’t get dessert often so I’m not sure if that reference works, but you get the idea.
I hope that I get to enjoy that juice-bomb of a steak again. If this experience taught me anything, it’s that I need to broaden my horizons. I am such a proximity hound. I don’t travel more than ten minutes for food. After today, that changes. Gas hasn’t been cheaper in years. People are going stir crazy and need a reason to get out for longer periods of time. Take a road trip with your family or loved ones. Or if you’re a single loser like me, jam a podcast in your car and zone out for a half-hour drive. RTB is 31 miles from The Woodmen Tower and 32 miles from the state capital. It’s the perfect midline journey to do some bonding and create an experience while respecting the current safety guidelines in place. Staying inside your car is still a form of staying inside. Some of the places outside your zip code may be suffering worse than the spot down the street. We don’t know what the future holds, but we know what we can do now to help.
Upon departure, TJ and I found another sentiment we share besides ball jokes: we are both huggers. This pandemic made us keep our distance though, so we bowed to each other and did an air-five. It was unfortunate we couldn’t share an embrace before I left, but I promised to return for the testicle festival and I’m certain he will hold me to it. Then, we can both go nuts…
The longer people continue to drive out to RTB for takeout or get delivery, the better chance they have of coming out on the other side.
Written by Grant Triplett
About The Author:
Grant is a local foodie who is passionate about making people smile while simultaneously trying to creatively entertain, all while providing informative reviews of local restaurants. He has 17 years of restaurant experience and has a journalism degree. He’s been writing since he learned how to scribble and certainly has a knack for writing. Grant’s unique approach is a welcomed addition to the Omaha Food Magazine.