The Battle Over Robert E. Lee Biscuits and Gravy at Omaha’s 11-Worth Cafe

Omaha’s 11-Worth Cafe served standard American breakfast fare of omelets, hash browns, bacon and eggs and, without much notice until June, a dish called the Robert E. Lee: two sausage patties smooshed between biscuits and smothered in gravy.

That was before the summer. Before George Floyd was killed and Jacob Blake was shot, and thousands of people marched against police brutality down city streets across America. Before protesters were fatally shot in Kenosha, Wis., Austin, Texas, and right there in Omaha. Before people demanding change in one of the largest cities in the Midwest set their sights on the biscuits and gravy on the menu at the 11-Worth cafe.

To some in Omaha, the name of a biscuits and gravy dish was something they never noticed, or a fitting homage to the past. Getting rid of it, they thought, was succumbing to the same “cancel culture” President Trump frequently rails against. In the past few months, they say their city, with its cul-de-sac friendliness, and claim to creating butter-brickle ice cream, seems unrecognizable to them.

“That is not something Omaha is used to experiencing or seeing and feeling,” said Hal Daub, a former Republican mayor and ex-congressman who is still active in politics. “In Omaha, we are a little more levelheaded than lots of places.”

To others, especially Black residents, the biscuit name was another reminder that the city’s history includes the 1919 lynching of a Black man that drew thousands of spectators and a Ku Klux Klan attack on Malcolm X’s North Omaha family home. History that was never something they could ignore.

“There’s so much hate behind it, so much hurt,” said Precious McKesson, a community activist in Omaha and the chairwoman of the state Democratic Party’s Black caucus. “We have to stop normalizing hate and giving people a platform to normalize hate.”

Across the country statues are falling and flags are coming down. But America’s history of racism is also woven into the streets people drive on, the schools they send their kids to and, in Omaha, the biscuits and gravy they like to order at a downtown breakfast spot that, after talks with protesters broke down, has now closed its doors.

ImageThe 11-Worth Cafe sat empty in July after closing the month before.
Credit…Walker Pickering for The New York Times

The 11-Worth Cafe takes its name from its location on Leavenworth Street, a thoroughfare that honors a war general who battled Native Americans in the 1800s. It was popular with a range of clientele — men and women in motorcycle jackets, hospital workers getting off the night shift, musicians nursing hangovers, seniors lingering over a crossword puzzle, local politicians looking to glad-hand regular folks. The décor was heavy on ceramic chicken knickknacks. Diners waiting for a table got free coffee. Kids got balloons.

“Everything you ordered there, eggs scrambled or poached, it came out exactly as you ordered it. You never had to send anything back,” said Allen Thomsen, a local customer. “Plain old, good Midwestern food.”

Apart from the Robert E. Lee, the “Working Man’s breakfast” was the only other named meal on the menu. Customers couldn’t recall how the general wound up amid the breakfast fare — it was just always there — though some Civil War buffs say Lee enjoyed a mid-1800s version of the biscuits and gravy dish. Diners who ordered the meal could choose between country sausage gravy and creamy country gravy. The starting price was $7.49, and customers could get extra gravy in frozen, reheatable pouches to go.

Mr. Thomsen, who is white, barely recalled seeing the name of Robert E. Lee alongside the dish. In any case, he said, it never bothered him.

“He just happened to be on that side of the battlefield,” Mr. Thomsen said. “There were certainly Union people that did bad things.”

The demonstrators weren’t harmed by the Lee biscuits, he argued, but now with the cafe’s closure, servers are out of work, diners lost an affordable place to eat — all during a pandemic that already has hurt the economy.

He said the protest activity at the 11-Worth and the kinds of violent demonstrations elsewhere in Omaha that President Trump has criticized have left residents scared.

“I’m a Trump supporter,” Mr. Thomsen said. “And I know there are lots of strong feelings about how he is handling this Chinese virus business and all, but I frankly believe there are more people in this country concerned about their personal safety.”

An unsettled Omaha could make a difference in presidential politics. Nebraska is one of two states in the nation that awards Electoral College votes by congressional district. (Maine is the other.)

About a million people live in Omaha’s metropolitan area, and the city has become younger and more racially diverse in recent years, with a large increase especially in the Latino population. It also has become less conservative than the rest of the state.

Nebraska went for Mr. Trump in 2016 but Douglas County, where Omaha is, was one of two counties to support Hillary Clinton in the popular vote. In 2008, Barack Obama won a single vote from the district that includes Omaha.

In a particularly close election, Omaha — or, technically Nebraska’s Second District electoral vote — could pick the winner.

Credit…Chris Machian/Omaha World-Herald, via Associated Press

The Facebook post came as Omaha was erupting in protests over Mr. Floyd’s death. It was from the account of Tony Caniglia, the son of the cafe’s owner who shares his name and cooks at the 11-Worth.

“Get rid of the rubber bullets and it’s time to go lethal,” read the post. “I promise you that when that first body hits the ground, reality will set in for 95 percent of the rioters and you can use the other 5 percent as target practice.”

The post, which has since been deleted, drew wider attention after Jacob Gardner, a white bar owner, fatally shot James Scurlock, a 22-year-old Black protester, in the middle of protests downtown.

Blurry video footage shows Mr. Gardner backing up and pointing a gun after two people tackled him in the street not far from the two bars he owns. Mr. Gardner shot into the air twice. Mr. Scurlock jumped on his back and Mr. Gardner shot him in the clavicle, killing him.

Mr. Gardner, 38, was released without charges filed against him, with prosecutors saying he had acted in self-defense. Demonstrations broke out and a special prosecutor was appointed with a grand jury convening this week.

The killing of Mr. Scurlock added urgency for protesters who had already scheduled a rally on the grounds of the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation in North Omaha.

Before the rally, another post on Mr. Caniglia’s Facebook account popped up, saying, “riot hot spot for tonight Malcolm X memorial,” which many demonstrators feared, coupled with the prior post, was a call to arms against them.

Credit…Walker Pickering for The New York Times

The Facebook posts from Mr. Caniglia, who is white, drew outrage, with protesters quickly connecting him to the 11-Worth Cafe and then to the biscuits and gravy. They decided to gather in front of the diner on a Saturday morning to demonstrate.

Mr. Caniglia did not respond to requests for comment, nor did his father, Tony Caniglia Jr., who appealed to customers online that the Facebook comments were not made by him, according to The Omaha World-Herald.

About 75 protesters gathered outside the cafe that Saturday, yelling “Black Lives Matter!” and “Shut it down!” Police officers showed up, escorting diners from the restaurant past jeering demonstrators, who returned the next day.

With the crowd shouting outside the restaurant Sunday, the Caniglia men met inside the diner with David Mitchell, one of the protest organizers and an aspiring local politician. They agreed to protesters’ demands, Mr. Mitchell said, to change the menu name and said they would make a donation to the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation. (The foundation did not solicit donations.)

But when Mr. Mitchell went back outside the restaurant and communicated the deal to other protesters, some demanded that the Caniglias donate more to the fund before they would leave, he said. Mr. Mitchell worried that amounted to extortion and talks broke down.

Protests continued the rest of the day and the cafe closed early.

“Boycott 11-Worth Cafe” circulated on social media. Online reviews of the restaurant once raved about the Robert E. Lee’s signature gravy. Now they turned ugly.

“Beware of racist owners,” said one.

Credit…Walker Pickering for The New York Times

The 11-Worth operated for more than 40 years until a few days after the protests in June, when a note appeared on the door to the darkened diner: “Closed.”

In 1979, the year the diner first opened, the city was less than a decade removed from riots that followed the killing of Vivian Strong. She was practicing dance moves with her friends as the police arrived to investigate a suspected robbery; a white officer fatally shot Ms. Strong, who was Black, in the back of the head. She was 14.

Now, during the unrest of 2020, the Caniglias were closing up. In a letter posted online, the Caniglias said family members had been threatened on social media and at their homes.

“The verbal abuse, taunting and having to be escorted to and from their cars by police and security officers for their safety for two straight days was more than we could watch them endure,” it read.

The family has said it has no plans to reopen the diner. Christine Duncan, the owner’s daughter who managed the restaurant for 22 years, when reached over Facebook Messenger responded angrily about the Black Lives Matter movement and said: “Screw them protesters! That’s all I have to say!”

Some Omahans criticized the dispute as another example of so-called cancel culture going too far.

“The attitude of if you don’t agree with me I’m going to do all I can to take you down is unproductive and it’s un-American,” said Brinker Harding, a City Council member who was an alternate delegate for this summer’s Republican convention.

For others, the debate was the end of a longer, more quiet protest.

JaKeen Fox, a community activist in Omaha, said he had refused on principle to go to the 11-Worth Cafe for years, ever since he heard Robert E. Lee’s name was on the menu.

“To reduce the demonstration to a conversation around a menu item is a flaw,” he said. “But even if it was just about a menu item that’s important, too, because it shows how you welcome Black and brown people in society.”

The situation prompted Omaha’s mayor, Jean Stothert, who earlier in the month had been spat on by protesters when she went to meet with them outside City Hall, to order an investigation into the demonstrations at the cafe.

She said she didn’t want the longtime restaurant to go out of business. The mayor, who is white and when elected in 2013 was the first Republican mayor in 16 years and the first female mayor ever, met privately with the Caniglias along with the police chief and the city prosecutor.

The mayor’s attention to the diner drew criticism from Black activists who were dissatisfied with her response to the Scurlock case. She had refused to meet with several who staged a sit-in at her office.

“We’ve been talking about this for years, even with the Vivian Strong riots,” said Ms. McKesson, the local activist. “And then you have the mayor come out and launch an investigation into the protesters at the 11-Worth and you’re like, ‘Are you serious?’”

Credit…Walker Pickering for The New York Times

Representatives for Ms. Stothert did not respond to repeated requests for comment. The police investigation found no wrongdoing on the part of protesters at the cafe.

Mr. Daub, the former mayor who organized a July “Back the Blue” rally to support the police, lamented scenes like the one that led to the shutdown of the 11-Worth Cafe.

“That’s the kind of disruption I think results in a backlash to the real efforts we need to make to improve race relations here in Omaha or anywhere else,” he said.

A Confederate general on a diner menu, even the tragic killing of one protester — these were “not inconsequential but comparatively minor to the upheaval these kinds of triggering events seem to be causing,” Mr. Daub said.

“Historic perspective is missing from the contemporary reaction today to events” he added.

Mayor Stothert recently named the city’s first-ever diversity, equity and inclusion manager. She also pushed through a new city budget for 2021. It calls for an increase in police spending.

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