Paul and Jessica Urban never planned on opening a sandwich shop along the bustling streets of downtown Omaha.
After the couple graduated from Metropolitan Community College’s culinary program, they set their sights on creating a fine-dining experience in Omaha. However, when the opportunity to buy an operating restaurant became available, the couple jumped at the chance.
“This place was originally New York Chicken and Gyro,” Jessica says. “It was available, and they had an established menu. It evolved from us putting our fine dining ideas into sandwiches.”
Paul and Jessica officially opened Block 16 in 2010, when they began putting their own unique spin on traditional sandwiches.
The couple both came from families who enjoyed cooking. Jessica says she remembers going to family gatherings with plenty of food and good company.
Now as restaurant owners, they pay homage to their families in many of the specials they create.
“Paul’s family is Belgian, so we created the Belgian Smash2 burger,” Jessica says. “And the Pop’s Fries are named after his dad.”
The Belgian Smash2 burger includes double smashed wagyu patties layered with brown butter melt, raisin jam, Swiss cheese, mayo, onions and bacon sandwiched between a potato bun. The signature Pop’s Fries are topped with griddled cheese curds, macerated raisin, brown sugar, brown butter pork, bacon, gooseberry gastrique, mayo and crushed Luken wafer. Jessica says the sweet and sour dishes they create are from her mom’s recipe.
“It means everything to have a connection between our family and our cooking,” Paul says. “The biggest draw of cooking is creating memories. So, to be able to do it all the time is pretty special.”
Paul says the kitchen offers a creative outlet to try new combinations. The couple has created over 1,000 different specials, with only a few repeats.
“The fun thing about the specials is that it’s something new every day,” Paul says. “We’re constantly thinking, and you can’t really shut it off. We think about textures and flavors, and what would go well with this, and now we have an outlet.”
Jessica says many of the fan-favorite specials such as the poutine burrito, end up on the permanent menu.
“We love them all,” Paul says. “I can’t remember one we loved that didn’t make it on the menu.”
When they aren’t creating new fan favorites in the kitchen, the couple also enjoys traveling to explore new food. Jessica says some of their favorites are New York, Canada, Europe and Australia.
“I can’t think of anywhere we’ve been that we didn’t love,” Paul says. “Food and travel go hand in hand. Even if you go somewhere as common as McDonald’s, it’s still different from where you came from.”
Jessica says many of their travels revolve primarily around picking the best restaurants to visit and the rest happens naturally.
“We typically have a few places we need to go to and the rest of the time we just wander around,” Jessica says. “And when we do that, we’ve found a lot of cool places.”
Paul says traveling allows them to bring new ingredients back to their menu.
“Most places are becoming more accessible to different foods and cultures,” Paul says. “More people are getting excited about those ingredients being on the menu.”
While the couple enjoys traveling to try new cuisine, many of their ingredients are sourced from farms in Omaha.
“We use a lot of local farms,” Paul says. “You know where your food comes from, you build relationships with the farmers, and you see and taste a difference in the products.”
The couple recently moved to an acreage and has plans to build a geothermal greenhouse to begin producing some of their own ingredients.
“We’ll be able to grow produce year-round,” Jessica says. “We’re already thinking so far in advance what we might want to put on the menu.”
As their operation continues to grow, the couple says they have been blessed to have a great work-life balance. With young children at home, they can enjoy spending time as a family and still focus on their restaurant.
“We love what we do,” Paul says. “Everyone pulls from their own travels or their own family, so we aren’t really changing anything. But we’re certainly loving the ride.” ◆