By James Walmsley
What would you do with an empty room?
Entrepreneur Elle Lien traces the origin of her locally sourced bistro, Omaha’s Daily Grub, to answering that very question almost two years ago.
“I knew I wanted to do a restaurant, but I also knew that I wanted to start a conversation about eating locally. I wanted people to start thinking about what they were eating and where it came from.”
For the 32 year old founder, owner, and self-educating culinarian of Omaha’s Best New Restaurant 2010 according to The Reader, the conversation didn’t end there. Featuring an exclusively vegan menu, alternating weekly with seasonal produce in an array of culturally diverse dishes, Daily Grub is Lien’s proposed alternative to modern eating habits.
“I mean it’s obviously something I’m really passionate about, but I don’t feel like the most persuasive way to make a point is with a sign on a street corner, or a bullhorn. I think that creating an environment where people are comfortable enough to try new things is a really good way of making a [statement].”
Her message hasn’t gone unnoticed.
Being somewhat of an anachronism within the confines of a small industrial sector, the former bar turned bistro plays on its ideals by advertising the old-fashioned way: word of mouth.
Indeed, it is Lien’s attention to Daily Grub’s “good food” reputation that has attracted customers from all parts of Omaha, many by way of foot or bike.
“One of the things we do is give half off any single item to anyone who gets here without using gasoline.”
Inside, a long slate backdrop chalked with the day’s menu leads the eye to Lien’s openview kitchen, where the owner can be found bartering with regulars—handmade grub for homegrown produce—and putting to use those gifts left to her on the bistro’s doorstep.
Well, some more than others.
“There was a weekend that we had meat thrown at our door. But I think more and more people realize we aren’t pushing any sort of aggressive agenda. We’re just making real food, and if you want to come eat it, that’s great. If you don’t, that’s cool too.”
Of course, operating in Nebraska, a state that prides itself on animal production has posed a bit of a challenge for Lien, but then again, so had the demanding year that led up to Daily Grub’s launch, which began with a contest submission.
It was Lien’s response to the “Empty Room” prompt, posed by a local real estate developer looking to occupy a vacant storefront for six months, that awarded the budding entrepreneur one month of rent free retail space.
“To lead up to the month in the space, I started doing brunches out of my house, to test recipes and get people excited about the idea. It just started out with friends and family coming to brunch. Then at one point there were like 100 people in my house on a Saturday, eating waffles.”
Since then, Lien’s Daily Grub has cornered the organic vegan market, offering a safe haven for the activist, the weary label-reader, the gluten sensitive, and/or those who find a certain joy in simplicity and health. Although Lien doesn’t always like to admit it, she’s well aware of her restaurant’s place in the continuum of social change—the many ways in which American cuisine and the restaurant business are changing.
“We’ve made a door in Omaha that I don’t think even existed before… people are talking about opening other small restaurants. That’s what I really hope [Daily Grub] does. I really hope it sparks more young people in Omaha to take whatever it is they are passionate about and just do it regardless of whatever obstacles they see.”
For now, the initial challenges of opening a new restaurant have ceased, at least enough for Lien to have closed Daily Grub’s doors for a while this past November in order to take a short sabbatical and study cajun cuisine in New Orleans. Therein lies the essence of Lien’s philosophy, one which places quality of product before everything else, a recipe she’s not afraid to disclose:
“Make good food! Seriously. Make simple, honest, good food. People will beat a path to your door. And be nice! To everyone!”
Visit Daily Grub’s website and menu by clicking here.
Update: Daily Grub is looking for new home!
The city is beginning their plumbing system overhaul in spring 2011, meaning both 20th Street and Pierce will be shut down, leaving no access to the restaurant. Daily Grub needs to find a new home and can use donations toward the move. Any ideas, advice and support you can offer is appreciated. Send Elle Lien an email with your thoughts and suggestions at ellemlien [at] yahoo.com.