“Neighborhood staple,” “classic barbecue,” “old school eats” and other labels are thrown around like a football in the fall. Whenever the conversation comes up, Skeets Ribs & Chicken is referred to as “down home,” “delicious” and a “must have.” Nobody’s playing, either. Rain or shine, ratty or clean, old school or current, everyone in Omaha is familiar with this legendary restaurant. Here’s a short history of Skeet’s in North Omaha.
The building at 2201 North 24th Street was built by Elmer E. Propp and opened as a Tasty Freeze Ice Cream Shop in the early 1950s. It was built as a two-story facility with a service counter and an upstairs seating area. Within a few years after the location was opened, it was targeted by the Douglas County Health Department for not having the right permits. Soon after Propp got in trouble with the law, and the business was closed.
Skeet’s Chicken and Ribs opened there in the mid-1950s. Throughout the years, they’ve always served tri-tips, pork and chicken. They have always only taken cash, and they sometimes run out of meat as the day goes on. With sides like smoked beans, potato salad, and macaroni salad, Skeet’s isn’t a complicated place to eat. Food is served from a window, and the atmosphere feels rugged at best. But the longtime tradition of serving ribs on bread and soaking them with a thick apple cider vinegar sauce is heartwarming and delicious. The strong hickory smoke flavor in Skeets’ ribs keeps people coming back, too.
Although the upstairs was run as “The Hickory Room” in the 1960s, it was boarded up in the 1970s and hasn’t been open since. Today, there’s no seating in the restaurant and everything is take-out only. That doesn’t stop people from loving it though!
Who Was “Skeet”?
Harold C. Whiteside was the founder of Skeets. Born on August 22, 1912, he reportedly gained the nickname “Skeet” while he was in the military in World War II. He served in the fledgling Army Air Force as a corporal.
After the war in 1945, Whiteside became associated with the Railroad Men’s Benevolent and Social Club, which bought the future Carnation Ballroom at North 24th and Miami Streets for its operations. While it only operated for a few years, it left an impression that influenced future operations. In the company of North O leaders like George W. Althouse, Percy Hall and Nat Towles, surely Whiteside gained inspiration to open and sustain an iconic institution of his own. Along with Paul B. Allen of Allen’s Showcase, Whiteside was repeatedly implicated in the club’s illegal Sunday alcohol sales. However, its clear from the newspaper’s consistent mention of his name that Whiteside and his peers were targeted by the police.
Whiteside opened his restaurant in 1952 after becoming successful in his native North O. Buying a former ice cream parlor on the northeast corner of North 24th and Burdette Streets, the building has remained largely the same on the exterior since it opened. Throughout the years, Whiteside also held important roles in North Omaha as a member of the NAACP, the Iroquois Lodge No. 92 (Elks Club) and Calvin Memorial Presbyterian Church.
Whiteside’s troubles with the law didn’t end though.
Best in the U.S.A.
In 1972, North Omaha’s iconic jazz musician, the late Preston Love, named Skeet’s the “Best in the U.S.A.” in the Omaha World-Herald. Using his travels across the country as a musician for the basis of his analysis, Love ranked historical and then-modern BBQs in Omaha according to their flavor. While he pronounced the historic Slaughter’s BBQ Hut at North 24th and Blondo as the best-ever in Omaha, Love recognized it hadn’t been open since the 1920s. However, he rated Slaughter’s sister’s stand highly, along with Jeff’s at North 24th and Nicholas; the Tic Toc Diner by North 24th and Grace; Jack Craven’s; Davis Snack Shop; and the two Father Divine disciples who both made BBQ and were called “Peace.” However, they were all closed before 1972, and Skeet’s ruled the scene, along with Metoyer‘s, which had been open since 1958.
Aside from Love’s own fame, there were other stars who reportedly enjoyed Skeet’s, highest among them being Red Fox. He specifically sought the restaurant out repeatedly in the 1970s and 80s. Other customers included Doc Severinsen, who supposedly went to Skeet’s to get BBQ for his boss, Johnny Carson, several times when Carson came to town.
In the 1960s and 70s, Whiteside frequently advertised his business as the “Best BBQ in Nebraska,” and few argued.
Skeet’s wasn’t immune to the damage that swept North 24th Street in the 1960s. In a 1969 newspaper interview, Whiteside was quoted saying, “I can’t say at this point whether we will reopen on the Near North Side.” Skeet’s had been struck by burglars and vandals several times in the previous years. Whiteside also reported that businessmen on the Near North Side “won’t say it, but they aren’t planning to do business around here too long.” While he comment predicted the future, luckily he held out, and more than 40 years after the North Omaha riots ended, the business remains intact.
The bumps didn’t stop though. In 1972, Whiteside was quoted as saying he was retiring from the business, but kept leading it for years afterwards. In 1975, he led a group of African American supporters for a Republican candidate for US Senate. Two years later, he lost $5,400 in cash when he left a bag of money on top of his car. Driving to the bank, it was never seen again.
Then, in 1977, Harold C. Whiteside was brought to the Omaha Police Department, accused of murder. On a hot night in July, a group of men tried breaking into Skeet’s. At around 3:30am, the Omaha Police Department found a body laying in a pool of blood. Whiteside reported that he’d shot one of the intruders trying to break into his business using a .38 caliber pistol he kept for safety. He was never charged with a crime though.
Whiteside died suddenly on July 23, 1978, at age 66.
New Owner, Same Sauce
David Deal (b. 1952) has run Skeets for years, and continues today. He started working at the restaurant before 1971, when the newspaper accounted for his employment there. He took over after Whiteside died in 1978. After he took over Skeet’s, Deal sponsored several youth sports activities, including boxing.
In 1983, the big newspaper quoted Deal as sticking up for North 24th Street. “It’s been pretty sick here for a long time… sick, yes. But it never died… This area has elasticity. It’s been stretched pretty thin, but it hasn’t broken. We never hit bottom.” He continued on, saying “I know how hard it is to stay in business… You can’t throw a pick into the ground and hit a vein of gold. You have to roll up your sleeves and work hard.”
Deal continues running Skeet’s today. In 2017, there was a campaign to “freshen up” the exterior of Skeet’s in time for a national conference that was held in Omaha. The restaurant continues its regular hours, menu and operations today!
You Might Also Be Interested In…
- The Recent History of 24th and Lake
- A History of the 24th and Lake Historic District in North Omaha
- A History of 24th Street in North Omaha
- “Skeet’s Barbecue: Good Food, No Frills” by Liz Stevens for Omaha Magazine on December 5, 2017.
- “The winner in our quest for Omaha’s best BBQ is…” by Sarah Baker Hansen for Omaha World-Herald on January 5, 2015.
- “Back in the Day, Native Omaha Days is Reunion, Homecoming, Heritage Celebration and Party All in One” by Leo Adam Biga for The Reader in 2011.