Warren Buffett's Omaha
Updated: Apr 25
13-16 Feb 2023
What is the purpose of life? Is it to do good, to find that one thing, or to make gobs and gobs of money? Well, who am I to say? If it’s the latter, who better to emulate than Warren Buffett? Some may want to study his investing style, while others may want to study what makes him tick. Investopedia has an entire webpage on the subject.
I decided to take a less philosophical and more rudimentary approach, I wanted to walk in the shoes of the Oracle and by that, I mean travel to Omaha and actually walk in the man's footsteps.
It's much like only investing in a portfolio of dividend-paying stocks; there's absolutely no evidence it works, but hey, you never know.
En route the "Gateway of the West" I realized coffee was in order and decided to stop by Dunkin. I, of course, realized Buffett is partial to McDonalds for breakfast but figured he would approve of a medium coffee and a Boston creme donut - all paid for by a gift card gifted to me by a generous subscriber.
Dunkin is more than a fast food restaurant. It is a brand. A brand that symbolizes inexpensive coffee, small donuts, and . . . confusion. My Mother loved visiting Dunkin and lived for getting the senior discount. And every time we visited, there was . . . confusion: the "barista" not knowing what Sweet'n Low was, the donut arriving without a coffee, the medium coffee arriving without the $1 donut, etc.
This time the location didn't serve customers in person, so I had to place my order via the app while waiting just inside the door. After loading it, and placing my order, the app informed me that a Boston cream donut was "unavailable" at this location, even though I could see a rack of Boston creams setting just behind the counter. All I could think was "Dunkin, you've done it again!!"
A stroll around downtown Omaha was in order to get a lay of the land. There was a giant hole-in-earth kitty corner to my hotel that will be the resting place of the tallest building in Nebreska, which will house the HQ of the second most famous company in Nebraska, the Mutual of Omaha.
The nearby Gene Leahy Mall is a fine pedestrian mall with some modern art, a large video screen displaying something or another, two giant slides, and a large water feature that includes a remote-control boat cove.
Two blocks north is The John Gottschalk Freedom Center. In 1996, the Omaha World-Herald newspaper decided to construct this enormous building to house its new cutting-edge printing presses, prominently displayed to the public via 80-foot tall glass windows. I have to wonder, during the decision-making process did someone mention this could be a bad idea as "maybe this thing called the internet might become an issue?" I'm sure whoever he was, he was subsequently right-sized while the project "champion" later became CEO.
I took a special interest in the building as it highlights that Buffett is only human. As while I once purchased 100 shares of Enron in 2001, at least I didn't purchase the Omaha World-Herald for $200 million in 2012 and sell it for $140 million eight years later.
Buffett once said, "I could eat a ham sandwich every day for fifty days in a row for breakfast.” I'll be honest, I was never a fan of the ham sandwich. But it made me think about eating the most famous sandwich ever to come out of the Big "O" . . . the Reuben. While it may have been created in either Omaha or NYC, Wikipedia lists the Omaha creation story first, and who am I to disagree with the repository of all human knowledge?
I decided to have the eponymous sandwich at the exact spot it was invented by Reuben Kulakofsky at the Blackstone Hotel in Omaha sometime between 1920 and 1935. The Orleans Room at the now Cottonwood Hotel, claims to use the exact recipe (corned beef, sauerkraut, Thousand Island dressing, Gruyère, rye bread) which led to a fine sandwich that, though lacking in zip was the neatest Reuben I ever ate. Normally the last few morsels of a Reuben are licked from your fingertips. Not this one though, as it appears to have been made by Martha Stewart, and therefore was as tidy as it was lacking in soul.
An after-dinner drink was both prudent and convenient, as there was one located in the same building as our hotel. Secreted behind the wall in a liquor store called the Looking Glass, the Wicked Rabbitt is the most authentic speakeasy I have ever spoke in. The decor is right out of the 30s, so much so I expected to be seated at the bar in between Jake Gittes and Nora Charles.
The place is staffed by the typical hipster bartender, you know the one with a vest and a pork pie hat. When he asked me what I wanted to drink, I said I'll wait for my wife, she's in the bathroom." When she came out, I decided to order my drink, while Mrs. ARR perused the extensive menu. He then said with a hint of condescension "I'll wait until your wife is ready."
Despite his attitude . . . . An AAR Must Eat.
Buffett starts off most days with breakfast at the McDonalds at 40th & Dodge. A bacon, egg & cheese biscuit if the market is up and a Sausage McMuffin with Egg if the market is down, both washed down by a Cherry Coke at the office. Since the market was down the day I visited, a McMuffin was ordered (to be split with Mr. AAR) - washed down though by a cup of coffee. The order took over 15 minutes to be delivered, so I was given two - which in the end, was not necessarily a good thing.
Mrs. AAR thought she saw Buffett's 2014 Cadillac XTS exit the drive-through, which may be doubtful but will become apocryphal for storytelling purposes
Berkshire Hathaway's headquarters at Kiewet Plaza was visited in an attempt to give Buffett a signed pre-release copy of my latest book, My Money Journey, and have my hair cut by his barber who works in the building. I kept an unsuccessful eye out for him in the lobby, while a rather curt receptionist informed me that the barber shop closed two years prior. Another dream denied.
Just down the street is Buffett's house at 5505 Farnam Street. Everyone makes such a big deal about how the richest man in the world lives in a house purchased for only $31,500 in 1958.
What they don't mention is that this humble abode is 6,570 square feet and has a racquetball court. While it's quite modest when compared to Bill Gates' Wikipedia-worthy 66,000 square foot crib with oculus, 2,500 square-foot gym, and 18.75 bathrooms, it appears quite comfortable.
Earlier while researching, I noted that Boys Town was an enclave of Omaha. I love the concept of an enclave, which is a distinct area enclosed or isolated within a larger one. I've visited a few in my travels: the Vatican, Monaco, and even Marble Hill in NYC, but still thought "So?"
But that was before I realized that besides it being home to some 500 or so at-risk children, it was home to the World's Largest Ball of Stamps. I am a former record holder of the World's Largest Ball of Sisal Twine¹, and stamp in hand thought "another ball for the record books!" Unfortunately, Boys Town didn't want to share the glory and expressly prohibited the addition of my stamp.
The Boys Town Hall of History is located in the old dining hall built in 1939. It houses a Smithsonianesque display of Boys Town memorabilia and artifacts that includes Spencer Tracy's 1939 Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Boys Town founder, Fr. Flanagan. It's a nice set-up, and after you've seen The Ball, it's worth the additional 30 minutes.
Buffet has a connection to Boys Town, not as a benefactor but as a stool pigeon. A tip from him to the Omaha Sun earned the paper a Pulitzer and Executive Director Monsignor Nicholas H. Wegner a pink slip. It was all about raising millions for orphans while spending thousands on them.
Omaha's Union Station, like almost every Union Station in America, has been converted into a tourist attraction. In this case, the Durham Museum was dedicated to preserving and displaying the history of the United States' western region (that and the Durham name). Built in 1931 and then renovated in 1997, it is a fine example of Art Deco architecture that is unfortunately marred by the retro statues of 1940s station goers that are sown throughout the building. It is supposed to make the visitor feel like they are visiting back in the day, but instead makes the visitor think "what's up with that?"
My interest was solely concerned with the inclusion of Buffett's grandfather's actual grocery store - Buffett & Son. It played a seminal role in his investing development, as after working there as a boy, he remarked "I didn't learn anything - except that I didn't like hard work."² Unfortunately it has been bowdlerized in size and substance, as to make it look like a store on Mainstreet, U.S.A in Disney World.
Also, the admission guy would not allow me to use my Veteran's discount for my wife. It's the first time that's ever happened and it felt, well . . . a little unmidwestern.
What intrigued me about The Green Room, was its allusion to money, and that it was a bar located across the street from my hotel. I was hopeful that in addition to getting a stiff drink, I could get a nosh prior to dinner. Unfortunately, this place only serves Skittles and M&Ms (thankfully peanut).
Fortunately, they served a drink Mrs. AAR has been thirsting for, the Hemingway daiquiri. It's a combination of rum, lime juice, maraschino liqueur, and grapefruit juice. I've always found it interesting that such a masculine man has such a strong connection to such a rather feminine drink. Unfortunately, it turns out Mrs. AAR doesn't dig grapefruit in her daiquiri. Though my incredibly masculine Old Fashioned was quite good.
For Valentine's Day, I dined at the #1 Restaurant in Omaha, Orsi's Italian Bakery & Pizzeria. Nothing but the best for the Missus, a half sheet with anchovy and mushroom. It's not a classic NY-style pizza, but what is called on The Island a "Sicilian."
It was a fine slice, but the #1 restaurant in Omaha?! It could make one wonder about the usefulness of Tripadvisor.
Coffee at a place called Astute, as there wasn't a Dunkin nearby. That and I couldn't bring myself to go to the Dairy Queen (72nd & Q) where Buffett dined with Mark Cuban a few years ago. It didn't hurt that the place looks like a flying saucer.
I enjoy walking across bridges, so a trip across the Bob Kerry Pedestrian Bridge to Iowa was in order. The fact that Kerry was a former sailor made it required. It's a 3000-foot-long cable-stayed masterpiece that offers fine views of downtown and the Missouri River. It's the longest river in the United States, a lot of people don’t know that.
Then Senator Kerry secured the federal funding for it, which enabled the eponymous bridge but didn't enable him to win his old seat back in 2012. He lost to a career politician by over 15%. I guess winning the Congressional Medal of Honor just doesn't go as far as it used to.
It was a cold day and the walk across "the Bob" was a cockle cooler. So it was determined the Kitchen Table was in order for some hot tomato soup that tasted like spaghetti sauce. Nuff said.
The Joslyn Art Museum is the principal fine arts museum in the state of Nebraska. Unfortunately, it is undergoing renovation until 2024. I had considered delaying my visit to Omaha until it reopens but was afraid Buffett might be dead by then. So to get some culture . . . a visit to the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts was in order.
There are two types of modern art museums in this world: those like the Joslyn that display a Pollack, a Ruscha, a Warhol, and the required Calder. And those that display something that was created just last week. The Beemis was the latter and as President George W. Bush would have said . . . "that was some weird shit."
Buffett loves candy, so much that he bought a candy company and takes out-of-town guests to the Hollywood Candy and Fairmont Mercantile located in the Old Market. It's a rabbit warren of a store that offers every candy imaginable, old vinyl, old beer cans, an old soda shop, and an extensive collection of old signage. It also has an inventory of playable pinball machines, one of which may have even once belonged to Buffett when he ran a pinball machine business in Omaha back in 1946.
It was pushing dusk so we headed across the Missouri River to the 360 Steakhouse at Harrah's Council Bluffs. The bar offers spectacular Beer O'Clock views of the Omaha skyline and a rather caloric Spinachless and Artichokeless Dip.
The casino also graciously offered me $10 of free slot play for just being me. Which through a judicious and time-consuming series of 10¢ bets, I turned into $4.93.
Breaking bread with someone offers a true introduction to their soul. While I didn't think I would actually dine with Buffett, I was quite excited about dining at his favorite restaurant. And while I didn't expect Gorat's Steak House to be like dining at Sparks Steak House in NYC (the no-shooting section please), I thought it would be a step up from TGI Fridays.
We sat at the slightly worn bar which had just a little more authenticity than the rest of the joint, which consists of a room with a bunch of tables and chairs with a claustrophobic alcove that resembles a telephone booth containing a two-top with three chairs, instead of the private dining location of the richest man in the world.
We went with a medium-rare "22 oz T-Bone Mr. Buffett’s favorite succulent bone-in steak," the Dinner Caesar Salad, and Asparagus - the Missus and I planned to do the ol' switcheroo, exchanging salad and steak every few bites. The steak was rare, the salad was solid, and the asparagi stingy. The service could be summed up by my conversation with the bartender, when I asked if they had a pilsner, she replied "I don't drink beer, so I don't know."
After thinking about the soulless Rueben, the undercooked T-Bone, and the tardy McMuffin, I started to understand why Orsi's Italian Bakery & Pizzeria might just actually be the #1 Restaurant in Omaha.
Back to the Wicked Rabbit for you can't go home again after dinner drink. The place was slammed and the bartender looked like a one-legged man in a cocktail-shaking competition. It made me realize this place may be best for a pre-dinner drink, as you know what they say in Chicago . . .
Departed Omaha in the middle of an apocalyptic snowstorm, a fitting way to say goodbye.
On the way back out of town, an overnight in Nebraska City was called for at the location where the Morton's salt guy founded Arbor Day back in 1872. Lied Lodge was subsequently built in 1993 as a sylvan cathedral, to inspire people to plant, nurture, and celebrate trees (and to house snowbound travelers who possibly should not have departed Omaha in the middle of an apocalyptic snowstorm).
Where would Buffett stay? I think he would avoid the most expensive hotel in Omaha, so The Farnam, Autograph Collection at $250/night+ tax, was most definitely out.
I decided to go with the Hotel Deco. It was one of those hotels that has a great downtown location, with acceptable rates. And with an 8.0 rating, I knew that it would be acceptable to everyone involved.
I used booking.com to book a fully cancelable room for $111/night + tax, then over the next two weeks canceled and rebooked twice until victory was achieved at $87/night + tax. The room (#914) was a real gem, a very large suite with a desk for blogging this very blog, great views, TCM, and just when you think it can't get any better . . . a defined yoga space.
The hotel offered valet parking at $25/night, which seemed a little steep, though there was an adjacent lot at $10/day. The hotel mentioned that street parking (9am-9pm) is metered, though "if you forget to pay the penalty is only $10 if paid within 48 hours." I decided to go with the plentiful street parking and forgot to pay each and every day. Never saw a parking enforcement agent or a parking ticket.
Not sure if I learned anything on this pecuniary quest, though I did confirm that the McDonalds breakfast experience leaves a lot to be desired (in both substance and service).
Buffett has devoted his entire life to making money. A lifetime spent analyzing annual reports, trade magazines, and Moody's reports, basically living and breathing money. And I also realized I just may not have it in me to match these efforts. So I think I'm going to stick with index funds . . . and Dunkin.
Endnotes: I wanted to provide some very specific details that while vaguely interesting did not contribute to the overall narrative. Perhaps just wait until the end to read.
¹ Dec 20, 2019, was the day I added my twine and set the record for the Largest Ball of Sisal Twine in the World. I remember it well as I felt much like Lou Gehrig must have on Aug 17, 1933, the day he broke the longest consecutive games-played streak, then held by Everett Scott. I knew the record I just set was a powerful reminder of a man's ability to face repeated obstacles such as broken bones, lumbago (whatever that is), and being knocked unconscious, but still persevere and set a new world record. I also knew that this record may be broken someday (or the next day), but that just setting it, in and of itself was an honorable accomplishment. An accomplishment that brought distinction to me and more importantly my family.
² Alice Schroeder, The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life (New York: Bantam Books / September 2008), pg 75