Three men sit at a high-top table just after noon on the far side of the dining room in Tiger Tom’s Sports Pub. Dan Vacek, Jody Kloewer and Alex McCoy are relaxed, enjoying a break in their day. They’ve been working for hours at this point and they have hours of work ahead.
These three men are members of the Roncalli Catholic (Omaha) Booster Club. Vacek, a Roncalli alum, is the Booster Club President and has been for awhile.
“I mean, I’ve been the Booster Club President for eight years,” he says with a laugh.
The mission of the Roncalli Catholic Booster Club is “to visibly support the young women and men’s athletic programs of Roncalli Catholic High School through our words and actions.” Part of that is running the football and basketball concession stands.
Vacek doesn’t have a current student at Roncalli Catholic High School. His daughter, Samantha, graduated from Roncalli in 2016 and his son, Drew, is at the Madonna School, a special-needs school in Omaha.
In some ways though, you could almost credit Samantha for what has happened at Roncalli over the last decade.
“It was nine years ago my daughter was a freshman (at Roncalli),” Vacek said. “Even when she was younger, I would bring the kids to games but I wasn’t really involved. When she became a freshman, I wanted her to get involved so dad got involved.
“When I first volunteered, I signed up to grill at the first two home games and each home game they were serving a different burger, and they had different things. I thought, ‘This is awful, why would anybody want to come here and eat?'”
Vacek, a self-proclaimed foodie, saw an opportunity to try something new. The menu was slim. It was also inconsistent. Vacek started small enough, smoking his own brisket and pork. It was a step forward, but it took other minds to really kick it into gear.
Enter people like McCoy and Kloewer. With fresh eyes, more and more was added to the Roncalli Catholic concession stand. Nothing on their menu is traditional though, even for your concession stand usuals.
“A quarter-pound Nathan’s all-beef hot dog,” Vacek said. “We have a quarter-pound Johnsonville brat.”
And the burger?
“The burger is a half-pound,” Vacek continued. “The soft pretzels that you’d traditionally get almost anywhere, they’re called super pretzels, we use Bavarian. They’re much larger, softer, better.”
They’re also always brainstorming new ideas. Love Jim & Jennie’s Greek Village in Omaha? Find a vertical meat broiler and add gyros to the menu. Macaroni and cheese? Make it a pound, and offer a meat option.
Everything on the menu has been considered.
“Even the tzatziki sauce for the gyro, we buy it but we can’t just leave that way,” McCoy said. “We add cucumber, some lemon juice, dill, garlic, mix it all up and then repackage it into little containers for everybody to take with them. Nothing goes out of there, like the mac and cheese that we buy and put it in, Dan doesn’t just serve it that way. He puts like three, four cheeses in there to make it this gooey . . .where you string it out like a pizza slice with your fork up.”
With a menu like that, you’re bound to find your regulars. Roncalli has plenty. In a normal year, Roncalli’s parking lot is packed to the brim with fans. The friends and families of the Roncalli players sometimes arrive as early as 3:30 p.m., hanging in the parking lot for hours before kickoff. Ask someone to describe it to you and they’ll simply tell you it’s a big party.
You’ll even find a person here or there that comes just for the food. Vacek knows them all at this point. That includes one gentleman who works downtown and likes to stop by a couple of times per year.
“He’ll stop and get dinner to take home,” Vacek recalls.
There is also the line that never ends. On a good day, as Vacek will tell you, you’ll see a line of people that goes “damn near out to the fence.” On nights like that, Roncalli will go through 200 cheeseburgers and 100 pounds of Yukon Gold French fries alone. And by the end of the year?
“We would typically gross with our concessions over $25,000,” Vacek said.
That money then helps Roncalli pay for things like athletic uniforms, equipment and improvement to facilities.
But all three men will tell you that 2020 has been difficult. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way things can be done. The booster club used to set out a big condiment table for patrons. They moved to pre-packaging 3-ounce containers of condiments instead.
“When the rules came out at the beginning of the year, we wanted to be safe with everything,” Roncalli Catholic Activities and Athletics Director Jim Meister said. “They created little safety measures of doing things a little bit different than years past with how we’re giving our food out and what type of food we’re giving out, but they just kept on thinking outside the box and doing more and more things and even something so small as the way we give pickles out. We have pre-packaged pickles, et cetera.
“We’re making sure we’re safe but we still want to be active for their fans and for our kids and for them just to be here at the games because it is such a unique situation for our kids and for our teens right now. Wanting to have some type of normalcy.”
Another change in 2020 was the number of fans allowed at games. Schools across the Omaha metro were limited in the number of fans in attendance for high school football games, which limited the money to be made on concessions. In a big night, a single game could gross between $5,000 and $6,000 for Roncalli. In 2020, the booster club’s best gross was around $1,500.
When the school is depending on you, that can be hard.
“It’s first and foremost that those student-athletes had the opportunity to participate,” Vacek said. “After all that, it stunk. It just absolutely stunk.”
Don’t take that as a sign anyone is giving up. Vacek, McCoy and Kloewer are already thinking about basketball season. What’s next? What can they do?
“I want to and we will certainly try to do what we can, and be there to accommodate however many fans are able to go,” Vacek said.
That might mean constant adjustments. Things could look different week to week. The Roncalli Catholic Booster Club will adapt and get creative as they go. They want to offer exactly what they always have—to the best of their ability in a pandemic, of course—and continue a really solid concession stand experience for their students and fans.
Don’t call Vacek, Kloewer and McCoy the MVPs though. “No, no, there’s about 20 MVPs,” they’ll tell you. They could always use more help, of course, and encourage anyone interested to volunteer. As they’ve shown, you don’t even need a student at Roncalli Catholic to get involved.
On a warm October afternoon, though? Vacek, Kloewer and McCoy allowed the worries of a high school football season in a pandemic fade away just for an hour or two. They sat at their table at Tiger Tom’s, a game day tradition, and relaxed.
They won’t be there long. There’s a concession stand that needs attention.
Erin is the Deputy Editor and Digital Marketing Strategist for Hail Varsity. She has covered Nebraska athletics since 2012, which has included stops at Bleacher Report, Cox Media Group’s Land of 10, and even Hail Varsity (previously from 2012-2017). She has also been featured on the Big Ten Network, NET’s Big Red Wrap-Up, and a varsity of radio shows nationwide. When not covering the Huskers, Erin is probably at Chipotle.