Gabe Johnson, chef/owner
814 Main Street
Alma, NE 68920
HOURS: Mon-Sat. 11:30am-close; closed Sunday
Not your typical day at The Office
You never know where you will find the heart of a community. Often times it will exist in the most random and unassuming place. It is here that townspeople congregate, swap stories and talk about the past. It is rural social media at its best. If you are lucky, the hub of your small town will be at a watering hole or a restaurant because food and drink have the power to bring people together.
While on a rural adventure, we stumbled upon a local watering hole that epitomizes the phrase “a place where everybody knows your name.”
On the edge of downtown Alma, a storefront sits unassuming under a bare tree planted in the sidewalk. Tucked in between the shadows of the limbs is a new sign that highlights a bar and grill. The partially obstructed sign isn’t a hindrance because the congregation of cars and trucks parked outside tell you without doubt that this is the place to be in town. It’s called The Office and we made our way in to grab a bite.
Upon entering the establishment, it appears to be what you expect a small town bar and grill to resemble; a down home spot where the décor consists of beer signs and Husker football memorabilia. However, further inspections proved otherwise. A remodel had recently taken place and modern bamboo floors stretched all the way through the building. Fresh paint adorned the walls and ceiling. It was bright and the new lighting fixtures illuminated local sports memorabilia from surrounding communities. Most local bars and restaurants have a lingering scent of stale beer and cigarette smoke from years past but The Office was surprisingly different. It was inviting and we scanned the room full of farmers and professionals to see if there was a table available.
We were greeted by Rhonda, who quickly ushered us to our table and pointed out the menu and specials scribbled upon a board by the front door. As with all of her customers, she knew we were there to have a good meal so she got right to the point.
“Do you know what you would like?”, she said without missing a beat.
We told her we needed a minute so she took our drink orders and said she would return. The menu was simple and straightforward. The usual suspects were listed; a variety of burgers, a Reuben, a Philly, nachos and a hot ham and cheese. Always looking for something homemade, we were drawn to the specials detailed on the dry erase board: Spaghetti and Meatballs with Green Beans and Garlic Toast for $6.50 or Crunchy Onion Chicken Breast with Mashed Potatoes and Corn for $7.00. Not your usual bar and grill fare.
Rhonda reappeared promptly with our drinks as promised. We asked for her recommendations and she said, “It’s ALL good.” It was hard to doubt her with a room full of happy customers. We settled on the hamburger and the chicken special and our requests were jotted down on her notepad and quickly rushed back to the kitchen.
People just seem friendlier here
While our order was being prepared, we took in the charm of The Office. As we made our way to the back of the building, we were ushered through by smiles and “how-do-you-dos”. People just seem friendlier in this part of the world. The back housed a pool table, dart machine and a couple of video games; plenty of things to keep the locals entertained. A freezer door sported a large cardboard Herbie Husker and instantly you knew this place must be packed on those epic game days. We peeked into the kitchen, and it was as spotless as the rest of the place. Only one guy was hustling, responsible for all the food being served during this lunch.
Rhonda appeared from the kitchen with two plates and nodded to us that this was indeed our lunch. We followed closely behind as she made her way to our table. Our meals exceeded our expectations for bar food. Beautifully plated and piping hot, everything looked picture perfect situated upon red china plates. The hamburger was a handmade patty on a soft bun, and you could tell everything was prepared fresh. A cold pasta salad complimented the burger. The special was delicious and the baked chicken was extra crispy as suggested in the description. A side of homemade mashed potatoes with gravy and a Nebraska staple of corn made for a tasty complete meal.
While dividing our plates into sharable portions, the young man from the kitchen approached our table and introduced himself as the owner, Gabe Johnson. We complimented the chef/owner on our lunch and invited him to join us. It’s not a coincidence that The Office is different than other bar and grills because Gabe has two things working in his favor: a long background in the food and beverage industry and an appreciation for his hometown of Alma. Combined, those interests translate into a passion.
Where everybody knows your name
Gabe was studying to become an aircraft mechanic in Denver when he joined the ever-growing migration of young alumni back to rural Nebraska. He managed a grain elevator until the opportunity presented itself to purchase the hometown bar his parents once owned. He opened the doors on March 16, 2013, after a lengthy and expensive renovation.
“The building was in total disrepair,” he said.”We gutted it. We put in a new floor, updated the bar, remodeled the kitchen and bought new signage.”
The result is a sports bar that appeals to the clientele that Gabe knows so well. He has curated a football helmet collection from local teams and outfitted the bar top with old photos of Alma and surrounding communities. The Office is a place where local patrons will identify with their past and tourists drawn to Harlan County Reservoir will make memories of their own. No one will be a stranger in this place.
His attention to details, fresh ingredients and his mom’s homemade daily specials keep the customers satisfied and his work ethic and community spirit make certain his business thrives in a small town. Working in connection with other restaurant owners, Gabe sets out to compliment other establishments, not compete. The place across the street serves up more traditional food options so he keeps his menu small and geared toward well-made bar food. In return, the owner across the street sends people over to enjoy a cold beer or classic cocktail.
As if it was planned with precision, Rhonda brought a complimentary homemade brownie to our table just as we savored our last bites of lunch. While indulging in a little dessert, I scanned The Office one last time to observe the other patrons. What I discovered was that everyone was happy and content; nestled into their chairs as if they owned the place. Some were catching sports highlights, some were chatting quietly and a few were savoring their brownies as well.
The common thread was comfort and everyone felt like The Office was exactly where they needed to be.