Pot Liquor Love: Chicken is King at Time Out Foods
If you have a hankering for fried chicken in Omaha, two words are all you need to know – Time Out. The North Omaha joint is famous for its signature item. So much so that nearly everybody calls the place Time Out Chicken despite the fact it’s official name is Time Out Foods. I grew up in North O but a few miles from this place and even though my work eventually took me in and out of that community on a regular basis I somehow went 55 of my first 57 years without having once tried it. That’s all changed the last couple years and so I felt prepared to write this piece for Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/) about the place and its popular dish. Of course, to ensure my taste buds were sufficiently up to date on the fried chicken i went again to sample it and I interviewed Time Out owner Steve Mercer for his insights on how and why this fast food eatery and its secret recipe has captured the local market.
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Pot Liquor Love:
Chicken is King at Time Out Foods
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appeared in the Nov.-Dec. 2015 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)
The name of a long-lived North Omaha black-owned and operated business reads Time Out Foods. “But Time Out Chicken is what everybody tags us as,” says owner Steve Mercer, He’s even bought that Google domain. “That’s the name the people gave us.”
With a sign proclaiming “Omaha’s Best Fried Chicken,” it’s no surprise what’s the signature dish at this 3518 North 30th Street landmark.
Credit for this grassroots branding, he says, goes to its fans.
“We didn’t just create this ourselves. It’s the people that buy it all the time that make it signature. They’re responsible for it.”
He says business keeps growing.
“Everything seems to be flowing and going. It’s been taking off.”
So much so he’s considering expanding and adding new locations.
“I feel like this is just the beginning of something else to happen. This is a good ride.”
The timing’s good with North O revitalization underway after years of stagnation.
“There’s so much more (positive) going on in North Omaha than there ever has been before. It benefits the area when they start putting more stuff in. There’s more people coming around spending money. There’s more traffic.”
Though chicken is clearly what keeps folks coming back, it was not the house staple when his parents bought the place in 1972. The Swanson Corporation famous for TV dinners opened Time Out in 1969 to develop a black-owned fast food franchise. Local sports legends Bob Boozer and Bob Gibson lent celebrity status. Only it struggled amid North O decline. Mercer’s parents saw opportunity and secured a loan to buy it. It was a slow go for a decade when, at 22, Mercer, who worked there since age 12, bought the business in 1982. He devised the chicken recipe that’s made it a hit.
Adding a drive-thru further boosted sales.
He won’t share the savory spicy recipe for his lip-smacking, mouth-watering chicken, but does reveal the battered bird is deep fried in peanut oil. Whatever the secret ingredients, he notes “all the customers say it makes them have a craving for it.” Regulars dining there one September morning variously raved about the moist, tender meat and crispy, never-greasy crust. They all admitted to a hankering that keeps them coming back for more.
Living in Atlanta, Georgia hasn’t dulled Omaha native Cheryl Berry-Neal’s craving. “Time Out is a must stop when we come to town,” she says. Ex-pats in for Native Omaha Days flood the joint for its familiar comfort food. Lines form year-round with the after-church crowd getting their down-home fix on in their Sunday finest. It daily draws a racial-social class mix reflective of those urban, inner-city environs.
Chicken’s the star but cheeseburgers and other hot sandwiches are plenty popular, too. The classic crinkle-style fries have their devotees. So do the pies supplied by an outside vendor.
Three generations of family work there, including Steve’s mother Jean.
“That’s what makes it work. We’ve been doing this for 40 (plus) years and we enjoy doing it,” says Mercer, a hands-on owner. “I’m here because I love being here. It’s my second home.”
More and more, he views Time Out as a community anchor.
“That’s what it is. I can’t let the community or anybody else down. We have to do whatever it takes to keep it going because anything else would just not be right. Failure’s not an option.”