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Omaha Steaks, Begun by Latvian Jewish Immigrants, Turns 100

In 1917, J.J. and B.A. Simon escaped anti-Semitism overseas and founded what would soon become Omaha Steaks. It remains a massively successful family business.

Jonathan Zalman
August 31, 2017
B.A. Simon with his father J.J. and mother Ethel, 1877. (Omaha Steaks/Facebook)
B.A. Simon with his father J.J. and mother Ethel, 1877. (Omaha Steaks/Facebook)

One hundred years into its existence, the Omaha Steaks business empire is, well, an empire. In addition to opening retail stores across the country, the company specializes in a massive array of mail order products, its bread and butter, that extends well beyond just steak—there are ready-made meals and seafood and wines and desserts and rubs and pretty much anything you could want for a neighborhood BBQ or a night in of quality face-stuffing. But it took decades before Omaha Steaks would become the big-time purveyor that today ships 14 million pounds of beef every year, employs nearly 2,000 people, and brings in nearly half of a billion dollars of revenue. In fact, the Omaha Steaks story begins in Latvia, not Nebraska.

In 1890, J.J. and Ethel Simon, along with their son, B.A., fled religious persecution in Riga and headed to Ellis Island, eventually landing by train in Omaha, “the Gateway to the West.” The Simons were part of a third wave of Jewish immigration at the time—the first Jews settled in Omaha in the mid-19th century—along with thousands of Romanians and Russians, to name a few. For years J.J. and B.A. worked as butchers, a family trade, and in 1917 they founded Table Supply Meat Company in downtown Omaha. Their business would eventually grow to become Omaha Steaks (the name was changed in 1966).

Over the years, the business has stayed in the family—Lester Simon, B.A.’s son, joined the business in 1929 and helped to grow its distribution, eventually becoming president in 1946. Omaha Steaks products were served on cross-country Union Pacific trains beginning in 1942 and 10 years later, ads for Nebraska-cultivated beef appeared in magazines and fliers, a first. In 1963, Omaha Steaks sent their own catalogs to customers. Soon, you could order them via telephone, both in-bound and out-bound. Today, the company is helmed by Lester’s son, Alan, and his son, Bruce, as well as Todd Simon, whose father, Fred, a fourth-generation family owner, passed away in 2015.

The Simons are members of Temple Israel, a Reform shul in West Omaha that is part of the Tri-Faith Initiative, a unique vision that is bringing three faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—together.

Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.