Joe Tess Fish take care
of Joe Tess owner
“business is good”

by Robert McMorris
Omaha World Herald
Founder’s Prediction
November 27, 1976

Mae Tesnohlidek started it all. In those days (1937) her husband, Joe, operated a fish market and short order cafe.

“One day,” she recalls, “I said to Joe, ‘You know, you ought to sell carp sandwiches.’ I volunteered to do the frying. He said, ‘You’re crazy.’ But I finally talked him into it.

“He had a cast - iron kettle made, and we put it over two gas burners. I could only fry six pieces of fish at a time. We displayed the fish in a cookie jar, but they didn’t stay there long. People would snap ‘em up as fast as I could cook ‘em. After about a month, Joe had to put in good sized fryers.”

And Joe Tess Fish Place was on its way to becoming something of an institution.

The present owner, William L. Falt, says in the minds of some tourists, Joe Tess is as synonymous with Omaha as Boys Town or the stockyards.

“I have a sister in California, “ he said, “and every now and then, when people find out she’s from Omaha, will say, “Omaha? Do you know Joe Tess?”

The business has grown steadily. There have been two additions to the original building, located on Twenty-fourth Street at the southern edge of the city.

Today as many as 250 patrons may be served at one sitting. “Friday is still our biggest night.” Falt said. “They’re usually lined up out to the sidewalk, waiting for tables.”

Equally successful is Catfish Lake Restaurant, south of Bellevue, which Falt opened three years ago. The menu, featuring carp, buffalo fish and catfish, is identical to the bill of fare at Tess’s.

Carp is still the most popular choice. Carp and buffalo fish are both classed as rough fish, and thus disdained by some. “But there’s no prejudice like that around here,” said Falt.

“Carp is a very tasty fish. Most people like it if they try it. We have tourists coming in all the time who’ve never tasted carp before. They’re amazed it tastes so good.”

Price Is Right
Low price undoubtedly contributes to the high demand for carp Falt said. A carp sandwich – a portion the size of a man’s hand, served on rye bread – sells or 65 cents. Most patrons consider that a bargain, Falt said, even though inflation has had inevitable effect on the price. Mrs. Tesnohlidek says she charged 15 cents for her original fish sandwiches.

In the beginning, the fish were seined out of the Missouri River personally by her late husband. Later he bought the catches of commercial fishermen.

The Missouri continued to be the main source of supply until the late 1940s, Falt said. “Then the river became polluted” he said. “The fish had a gassy, oily taste. They tasted a lot like creosote.”

Today he trucks in catfish from Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana, where they are reared in ponds. He hauls carp and buffalo fish from Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Falt’s three over-the-road diesels are in constant use. Fitted with water tanks oxygenated by air blowers, they are capable of transporting up to 22,000 pounds of live fish.

Currently the company, Falt Fisheries Inc., handles 2,500.000 pounds of fish annually. Some 40 per cent of the volume is dressed by Falt employees and sold uncooked or served at the two restaurants. The remainder is distributed to live fish purveyors in Nebraska, Missouri and Kansas – and, occasionally, Denver.

All the Difference
The flavor of fresh fish, compared with frozen products, “is all the difference in the world,” Falt said. He takes pains to keep the fish alive as long as possible.

The fish are held in large, concrete tanks in the basement of Tess’s until butchering time. Backup supplies of live fish are kept at two locations – Catfish lake, which has room for up to 100,000 pounds of fish, and a spring-fed reservoir near Joe Tess which has a fish capacity of 40,000 pounds.

“Ordinarily,” Falt said, “our fish are never dead more than 24 hours before they’re fried. Sometimes they’re still moving, by reflex action, when they’re popped into the grease.”

The fish are killed by electrocution. Death comes instantly in a “shock box” which was built by a local electrician according to Falt’s specifications.

“It’s a lot more humane, and less dangerous, then the old days,” said Falt. Formerly the fish were hit over the head with a wooden club.

Getting Started
Falt, 43, said fish have been important to him all his life. Born and reared in South Omaha, he said he “used to go fishing all the time with my dad and uncles. I always loved it. I love to eat fish too.”

At 13 he went to work at Joe Tess. “I did about everything, sooner or later,” he said. “It wasn’t long before I decided that I wanted to make fish my life’s work. Joe encouraged me. He said, “You stick with fish, and they’ll take care of you.”

Falt’s wife is the daughter of Bashus, of Plattsmouth. “He was a commercial fisherman and Joe and I used to drive down there to buy fish from him,” Falt said. “That’s how I met my wife.”

For five years, Falt and his brother, Joe, operated their own fish market at Twentieth and L Streets. Meanwhile, Joe Tesnohlidek died. In 1963, Bill Falt bought Joe Tess Place from his widow. However, Mrs. Tesnohlidek, now 80, has continued to live in an apartment above the restaurant.

In Their Blood
There’s “not much fishing, to speak of, “in the Missouri nowadays, said Falt. “A few old timers still are at it,” he added. “It’s in their blood. They don’t make much money. I’d say that between Sioux City and Rulo there are no more than 50 of them left, including farmers who fish occasionally.”

The fish population has been greatly depleted, he said, because of the series of dams on the river, and also because of projects to straighten the channel. “There are no flooded areas now and fewer willows and reeds,” he said. “It’s screwed up the normal propagation of fish. But I suppose the good outweighs the bad.”

However, pollution is no longer a serious problem, he said, adding: “The river is 90 percent cleared up now. I don’t suppose you could find an oily fish in it today.”

Still, he prefers to rely on other sources of supply for his business, “rather than take a chance.” he said.

One of his retail customers is his uncle, Rudy Stefan, a longtime business associate of Joe Tesnohlidek who now operates a bar four blocks away. He, too, sells fish sandwiches (at the same price, 65 cents).

“Uncle Rudy and I used to fish together a lot, “Falt said. “We still talk about going out again, but it’s mostly talk.”

The business demands his attention about 12 hours a day, most days. “Occasionally I can take a Sunday off,” he said. At such times he retreats in his cabin on Chris Lake. “I always fish when I’m there,” he said. “And once in a while I take a week’s vacation in Minnesota.” (A fishing vacation, naturally).

At home, fish is on the menu at least once a week. “And I order seafood at least half the time when we go out for dinner at another restaurant,” he said. “Somehow, I’ve just never gotten tired of fish -- in any way.”

Robert McMorris
Omaha World Herald
Founder’s Prediction
November 27, 1976