Live at the Bieroc: the formula for a regional music community

[This story runs as part of the 2016 Good Living Tour storytelling project, thanks to Humanities Nebraska, Nebraska Department of Economic Development, Peter Kiewit Foundation, Center for Rural Affairs, Pinnacle Bank, Nebraska Loves Public Schools, Union Pacific Railroad, Viaero Mobile, Huber Chevrolet and Sandhills Energy.]

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It’s Thursday afternoon in McCook, Neb., and the family-owned restaurant, Sehnert’s Bakery and Bieroc Cafe, appears to be busy for its weekly grill-out lunch special.

Come to find out, most people in McCook have started their weekends early – the regionally recognized cafe and live music venue, often referred to simply as, “Sehnert’s” or “the Bieroc,” is their pre-weekend destination.

The 20th-annual Buffalo Commons Music and Storytelling Festival is about to commence in the town of 7,500. The festival’s opening party is being held at Sehnert’s Bakery & Bieroc Cafe and anticipation rises in preparation for the weekend that would draw an estimated 1,800 visitors to McCook.

The smell of baking glazed donuts trails from a tunnel oven. An upright bass leans against a wall of photographs which show past Bieroc performers. To the left, a floor stage sits empty, awaiting the evening’s show that would feature comedian Andy Offutt Irwin, Nebraska poet Twyla Hansen and local singer-songwriter Ginger ten Bensel.

Sehnert’s Bakery “on the bricks” in downtown McCook | photo by Lindsey Yoneda

Step inside Sehnert’s as an outside observer, and find the bakery’s current owner and fourth-generation baker, Matthew Sehnert, encouraging guests to be engaged participants. This is evidenced by the hours leading up to the packed Buffalo Commons festival opening, when Sehnert pauses on multiple occasions to introduce me to frequent Bieroc patrons.

He knows, by name and occupation, those who’ve traveled across the state to see shows there. The venue draws a regional audience for acts like The Talbot Brothers and Virginia-based roots group The Steel Wheels.

Sehnert’s bakery opened in downtown McCook in 1957, moving a block north to its current location, 312 Norris Ave, in 1981. The bakery is famous for its signature pastry sandwich, the “bieroc,” which originated in Eastern Europe.

The Sehnert bakery lineage dates back to 1521 in Erfurt, Germany. In the 1890s, Sehnert’s great grandfather moved from Europe and homesteaded in South Dakota, eventually operating regionally in North Dakota and Nebraska. Matthew’s father Walt Sehnert passed the bakery to his son in 1993.

Today, the last standing Sehnert’s seems to have its foot firmly planted in McCook.

In October 2001, Sehnert’s introduced a concept called “Live at the Bieroc,” a dinner show series that pairs live music with food and drink. Modeled after The Listening Room concerts in Hastings, Sehnert co-produced the Bieroc series with Nebraska Community Foundation board member Dale Dueland.

“Over the years, [Live at the Bieroc] has built a music community,” Dueland says. “Friendships develop pretty easily when your interests are music and food.”

Comedian Andy Offutt Irwin performs at the 20th-annual Buffalo Commons Music and Storytelling opening reception | photo by Lindsey Yoneda

Live at the Bieroc has been consistently running for the past 15 years, with 10-12 dinner shows throughout the year. A concert ticket — the price varies depending on the performer — provides guests with a meal unique to the evening, such as Sehnert’s signature homemade pastas, and drink tickets to use at the Bieroc bar.

With an 85-person capacity, Sehnert’s sells out nearly every show. Because of this, Bieroc attendees likely end up having to sit at a table with strangers. Sehnert says this European style seating has been well-received by their audience.  

“When you get like-minded people together, it fosters a lot of relationships,” he says. “We have to fill every seat, so it forces people to get to know each other.”

It seems the same story is told slightly differently by the many Bieroc goers who’ve come to Sehnert’s for the festival opening. The sentiment is repeated throughout the evening each time Sehnert utters the phrase, “There’s someone I want you to meet.”

At one point Sehnert even hands me his cellphone to talk with a Bieroc regular who couldn’t make it to the show.

Over the phone, Terry Fichtner of Cambridge  tells me he and his wife are huge music fans. While it’s not uncommon for the Fichtners to travel to see live music — recently, the Rocky Mountain Folk and Telluride Bluegrass Festivals in Colorado — they only have to travel about 25 miles to catch a show at the Bieroc.

“[The Bieroc] is a venue that provides us some inspiration we wouldn’t normally be able to get without driving 100 plus miles,” he says. “Matt and Dale had a vision and a dream, and the hundreds of lives they’ve touched through the Bieroc is unbelievable.”

It’s not long after getting off the phone with Fichtner that Sehnert introduces me to Omaha resident Steve Hulsebus, who like Fichtner, travels to the bakery often — he says four to six times a year — for Live at the Bieroc shows.  Even as an out-of-towner, Hulsebus witnesses the long-standing bakery’s impact.

“Sehnert’s is a part of the fabric of the community,” he says. “The community makes them exist, but they also make the community exist — they’re intertwined.”

The walls in Sehnert’s Bakery are lined with musicians who have performed in its concert space. | photo by Lindsey Yoneda

Sehnert’s audience has grown exponentially in the past 15 years, with its Live at the Bieroc email subscribers skyrocketing from 70 to 750 – nearly 10 percent of the town’s population.

While Sehnert and Dueland often receive one to two inquiries a week from nationally touring artists wanting to play a show, the Bieroc has also brought many local musicians out of McCook’s woodwork.

“Most of these townspeople want to play but don’t have a venue,” Sehnert says. “To me, that’s been one of the coolest thing that’s come out of our listening room series — giving them a space to play.”

In the early stages of Live at the Bieroc, a survey asked people how important it was to know the artist before purchasing a ticket. The results proved the long-standing venue’s ability to draw an audience who desires its unique music experience.

“Ninety-five percent of people said [things like] ‘No, we trust you,” or ‘We’re just here to have this experience and listen to live music,’” Sehnert says. “It’s this idea that you can enjoy music even if you’ve never heard one song.”

By creating conversations around food and music, Sehnert’s has become a point of connection in McCook, convincing people they don’t have to go very far to have a cultural experience — that sometimes it’s right there, in their own community.        

“We want to bring people along — we want to move them forward,” Sehnert says. “We want to stretch their culture and stir their imagination a little bit.”